I am unabashedly secular and liberal. I am also, unabashedly, a Hindu. As a historian who has spent decades trying to understand the kind of social consciousness that emerged from the impact of colonial rule, one of my primary concerns has been the complex relationship between Hindu and Indian. As a citizen, I am alarmed by the unfolding of this relationship.
An ominous manifestation of this unfolding is the way the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in independent India is being recalled to justify the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. I believe the reconstruction of the Somnath temple was unexceptionable. But rather than justifying the demand for a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid once stood, it should render obligatory the rebuilding of the masjid, where it was, and as it was in its heyday.
Those who feel their own pain must also feel others’ pain.
Manmohan Vaidya, the joint general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has referred to K.M. Munshi’s Pilgrimage to Freedom, showing that, despite being a master wordsmith, Munshi was at a loss for words to describe ‘the burning shame’ he felt when in 1922 he walked ‘on the broken floor of the once-hallowed Sabhamandap’ of the ‘desecrated, burnt and battered’ Somnath shrine.
There is something poignant and representative about Munshi’s sentiments. To be insensitive to his shame is to be insensitive to a deep hurt that, articulated or dormant, marked an average Hindu’s psyche. To dismiss it as necessarily communal and, therefore, antithetical to Indian nationalism is to arbitrarily privilege one’s preferred idea of nationalism without understanding the baffling complexity of nationalism as an actual historical phenomenon.
Munshi’s ‘burning shame’ is unlikely to carry conviction with many among the secularly inclined. It is necessary, therefore, to substantiate the representative character of Munshi’s shame, and indicate that it was shared even by those whom secular academic wisdom categorises as more or less secular and liberal.
Consider, for example, this searing lament: ‘Mahjid lakhi bisunath dhig, pare hiye jo ghav.’ What this extraordinary line by Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-85), the pioneer of modern Hindi literature, laments is the wounds etched in the heart by the sight of the mosque near the Vishvanath temple.
Those suspicious even of Harishchandra may consider the testimony of Romesh Chandra Dutt (1848-1909), author of the two-volume iconic Economic History of India who continues to be venerated as a pioneer of what is described as secular economic nationalism in contrast with cultural nationalism.
Besides translating into English the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and selections from the Rig Veda, and writing A History of Civilisation in Ancient India, Dutt wrote a historical romance, Madhavi Kankan, and three historical novels. His valorisation of Rana Pratap, Todar Mall and Shivaji alone is indicative of the unmistakably Hindu sensibility that informed these novels.
This aspect of Dutt’s sensibility appears at its stirring best in his social novel, Samaj, translated into English as The Lake of Palms. The novel contains two elaborate sequences that seek to instil a certain kind of patriotism by bemoaning the destruction of magnificent Hindu temples and the crushing loss of Hindu pride under Muslim rule.
One of these sequences relates to the familiar decline of Banaras. The other takes the reader through the forgotten ruins of thousands of grand temples of what is recognisably Bhubaneswar before its post-independence resurrection. The jirnoddhar of the Somnath temple was but a symbol of deliverance from that sense of historic hurt. However, for all its pervasiveness and power, the hurt pertained only to the Hindus. That explains why Mahatma Gandhi did not oppose the jirnoddhar, but insisted that the state be kept out of it, and not a paisa from the public exchequer be spent on it.
Gandhi’s was the most sensible, and the sole just, position on this delicate issue. He approved neither of Jawaharlal Nehru’s opposition to the jirnoddhar, nor of its projection, à la Munshi, as an issue that affected ‘the hearts of the whole nation’.
Those, like Manmohan Vaidya, who care to recall Gandhi’s support to the jirnoddhar, ought to understand the real meaning of his insistence on making it a non-state affair.
Important though money was, it was but part of a fundamental principle that underlay Gandhi’s insistence. What he meant was that high functionaries of the state who chose to initiate or support the jirnoddhar must do so in their private capacity as concerned Hindus.
This may seem sophistry, but it was not. Gandhi – who never tired of pronouncing himself a Hindu – had the clarity, unlike the proponents of the jirnoddhar movement, to see how even otherwise clear-headed Hindus unselfconsciously tended to equate Hindu and Indian. He realised the danger inherent in doing so. But he also realised, unlike Nehru, the danger of wishing away the legitimacy and force of the Hindu sentiment.
Gandhi’s was the one course that, avoiding the excesses of the two rival positions, was pragmatic and also principled. Believing that it was important that people at large, too, should appreciate the intricacy of the issue, he made public his advice to keep the state scrupulously dissociated from the jirnoddhar.
Gandhi was not heeded then. The majority of secularists, led by Nehru, persisted in opposing the jirnoddhar. Its proponents, while pretending to accept Gandhi’s counsel by eschewing the public exchequer, persisted nonetheless in believing themselves, as Hindus, to be the nation.
Nor has Gandhi been heeded since. Many secularists, maybe not as many as before, still have difficulty recognising the rightness of the reconstruction of the Somnath temple. Even after the tragedy of December 6, 1992, despite hoping – against hope – that the country will one day have the decency to rebuild the Babri Masjid, they cannot see the glaring inconsistency in their opposition to the rebuilding of the Somnath temple.
As for those claiming in the Somnath jirnoddhar a justification for constructing the Ram temple in Ayodhya, they choose to be wilfully blind to the fact that there was nothing divisive about the jirnoddhar. Unlike the proposed Ram Mandir, it was neither carried out on a disputed site nor did it entail any destruction. Further, in brazenly identifying the nation with the Hindus, they have transformed into explicit ideology what was earlier an unselfconscious – unconscious –synonymisation of Hindu and Indian.
A Romesh Dutt or a Bharatendu Harishchandra would have immediately recoiled – as indeed they did – if confronted with the historically untenable and divisive implications of their implicit equation of Hindu with Indian. Today, ironically, the term ‘Hindu nationalists’, which should immediately appear to be a dangerous oxymoron, has found currency and acceptance even in respectable academic discourse.
The thinking and the caring ones, at least, ought to pause and reflect. Not least the Hindus among them, who must stir and save the rich Hindu legacy and heritage from the combined onslaught of seemingly rival brands of Hindutva, the rampant and the soft.
Sudhir Chandra is the author of The Oppressive Present: Literature and Social Consciousness in Colonial India and Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility (both published by Routledge).