Nehru opposed state patronage for religion, not religion

Gunja Kapoor
Gunja KapoorJan 21, 2018 | 15:27

Nehru opposed state patronage for religion, not religion

It is mentioned on multiple occasions that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was against the renovation of Somnath temple. And each time, emotions run amok, crowds cheer, politicians argue, and the rational disagree. Nehru was not against resurrection of Somnath temple - he was against the involvement of state in renovation of Somnath temple. There is a marked difference in the message these two arguments convey. While the former portrays Nehru as a spiteful anti-temple PM, the latter reflects his belief that the state should abstain from associating itself with any form of social binary.



The Oxford dictionary defines secular as "not connected with religious or spiritual matters". By that definition, a secular nation is not connected with religious or spiritual matters. It is a concoction of political interpretations that have led to secular being communicated as one that embraces all religions. Secular is not the same as syncretic; Nehru was secular, Bapu was syncretic. In fact, India was always a syncretic state, right from its Akhand Bharat days, which is a blend of multiple beliefs and religions. Hinduism is itself composed of multiple strands such as Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism etc.

In 1947, India upheld its pluralism as opposed to Pakistan, which was formed as an Islamic state. Considering India is not a theocratic state, it is justified for the state to not endorse any religion in any possible form.

At the same time, the state does not reserve any right to interfere in the religious practices of any citizen. The spirit of India's secularism lies in this disengagement of state with religion, and this is exactly what Nehru vouched for.

He advised those serving the state directly to treat religion as a personal attribute and refrain from flaunting their religious identities/beliefs/opinions in public conduct. After Independence, India was left wanting in all quarters. The mandate of the then PM was to conserve state resources for matters related to infrastructure, national security, education and science. Moreover, well aware of the importance religion enjoys in the lives of Indian citizens, any other approach would have resulted in misplaced priorities.


Religion invokes emotions and the synthesis of politics and religion would result in more emotional and less practical governance. Nehru was aware, "dharma" would defeat "karma", and thus he advocated sanitisation of the state from any variable that was flagrant or evoked human sentiments.

"If religion deals not with dogmas and ceremonials, but with the higher things of life, there should be no conflict with science or inter se between religions."

Pakistan attempted to govern by osmosis of dharma and karma. The state stirred high levels of nationalist sentiment at the behest of religion, and it is for all of us to see, how the theocratic state continues to struggle with its social indicators.


It is documented that when Nehru was imprisoned during the non-cooperation movement, he invested significant time reading religious texts. Ramchandra Guha mentions in a piece what Nehru wrote to Bapu on the subject. "Ramayan is more a spiritual autobiography than a poetic history of Rama," he mentioned. However, when Indian citizens fell prey to divisive policies of the British and began to use religion as a device to destruct their counterparts, he was not sure if religion deserved the attention of the state.


As far as the construction of Somnath temple is concerned, there are two comments to its merit.

One, it is noteworthy that the refurbishment of the temple was approved by the Cabinet, headed by Pt Nehru. He was opposed to the use of state funds and personnel for the construction of a structure that was associated with a specific religion.

Two, it is true that Pt Nehru expressed his displeasure over Dr Rajendra Prasad's decision to inaugurate the temple on account of two reasons, as mentioned in his letter; first, as mentioned before, Nehru did not approve of state personnel engaging in public activities related to any religion. Second, he writes that the state had other pressing needs and this large-scale construction could have been done in due course of time.

Not once, does Nehru oppose the idea of temple construction. I reiterate, it was the government of India's decision to construct the temple. One should stop drawing specious conclusions interspersed with political interpretations.

Nehru called for redressal, not appeasement and the antonym of communalism is not secularism.

When PM Narendra Modi kicked off his Gujarat election campaign from the Somnath temple and reignited its controversial tryst with Nehruvian ideology, we knew Nehru continues to be misunderstood. What is worse is that, his own party and protégé are unable to preserve the progressive developed secular India Nehru espoused of. Hope one day, all those masquerading as secular leaders will concede that Nehru was the only secular leader in India.

Pt Nehru's letter to Dr Rajendra Prasad

Last updated: January 21, 2018 | 15:29
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