As the dust settles on what has been the most toxic, regressive, and religiously divisive elections, time to reflect on the relationship between the State and the proverbial ‘Church’. It is an ironic call to introspect for a nation that is constitutionally secular, and was borne out of an opposite impulse and rationality to the only nation to be created in the name of a religion i.e., Pakistan.

As has now become increasingly fashionable to question even the father-of-the-nation, Mahatma Gandhi, in the land of his ‘janam, dharam, karam’ (land of birth, faith, and work). Many talk half-mockingly about the ostensible hypocrisy in Gandhi’s known religious beliefs, or conversely, of his supposed appeasement of the ‘other’.

But unlike the ill-informed and bigoted sections of society, Gandhi was an extremely well-read and knowledgeable individual who had read almost all religious texts, of all faiths. His was a very nuanced, erudite, and sophisticated position on religion per se, and on Hinduism in specific.

He was to famously state that his Hinduism was, “all-inclusive. It is not anti-Musalman, anti-Christian or anti-any other religion. But it is pro-Muslim, pro-Christian and pro-every other living faith in the world”.

Indeed, when conflated with the modern flag bearers of faith, Gandhi’s large-hearted interpretation of his Hinduism is in stark contrast with the aggressive and exclusivist understanding, today. Befittingly, the ‘Mahatma’ was to die with ‘Ram’ on his lips as his last word, despite paying the price for defending the ‘other’.

Today, that vital difference in interpretation of faith, or in this case, Hinduism (as mirrored by the distinct partisan divide prevailing) is exemplified by those who genuinely revere the ‘Mahatma’, versus those, who do make a mealy-mouthed case with his assassin.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to seed and nurture the ‘Idea of India’ and define the subsequent question of national identity, was also inspired by Gandhi. Like Gandhi, Nehru was a man-of-letters, an aesthete and profound intellectual. He was given to a diachronous understanding of India’s civilisational and cultural past, which was enmeshed with modernist and progressive instincts.

He was extremely proud of the rich past, but even more concerned about the present, and the future. He knew that he couldn’t be bound by history, which was given to certain dark and complex corridors, as is the case anywhere in the world.

Therefore, he too defined his lofty interpretation of Hinduism in what he called the “widest sense of Indian culture” and not in its narrow and suffocating sense that proximate a Pakistan’s, albeit, with another religious denomination. A deliberate effort to cherry-pick elements of religio-cultural syntheses were institutionalised in the Indian consciousness and therefore, in its identity.

Befittingly, Nehru was to instead coin the term “Temples of Modern India” to invest the raw sovereign emotions and national resources towards science, technology, infrastructure, public sector entities and institutions of educational excellence.

Both Gandhi and Nehru were proud and practising Hindus, but both firmly believed that religion could never be the basis of nationhood, like in the case of Pakistan.

Understandably, the inclusivist legacy of a Mahatma or a Nehru is at variance with the ‘alternate truth’ that is sought to be supplanted, today. Part of this project is to take certain things that were either said or done out of the context, or even attribute things or statements that never happened or were never stated.

One recent falsity bandied was about how Nehru supposedly dissuaded President Rajendra Prasad from attending the inauguration of the Somnath temple in 1951. Like most accusations about Nehru these days, it wasn’t a fact, as President Rajendra Prasad did attend the temple function.

What is true, however, is that Nehru did believe that for the State to partake a religious function was avoidable. In Nehru’s mind, it perhaps made India look like Pakistan, as it violated the spirit of the Constitution, which had just been framed.

One only needs to read Nehru’s letters (none of which were ghostwritten) to understand the impulse behind his discomfort with the State associating itself with religiosity. Newly independent India was staring at crippling economic, social, and infrastructural inequities, herein to be spending (State Government had sanctioned monies toward the same) on religious sites tantamount to splurging in Nehru’s eyes.

Nehru wrote to the Chief Minister of Saurashtra, U. N. Dhebar, querying, “Whatever the importance of Somnath temple might be, this is not a governmental matter and it is for private individuals to collect money for it. I doubt if it is a proper use of public funds held by Governments to be spent in this way”.

Nehru was to write to K. M. Munshi, the force behind Somnath Temple reconstruction, echoing the same concern, “I think this is improper expenditure for a government at any time, and more especially in view of the circumstances in the country today”.

But Munshi had gone ahead nonetheless as disagreements were commonplace in Nehru’s era, and he wasn’t petty enough to hold grudges. Later, Munshi was appointed as the Governor of Uttar Pradesh.

Nehru then wrote to the ‘Jam Saheb’ Digvijay Singhji, who was not just the Chairman of Somnath Trustees, but also the Constitutional Rajpramukh of Saurashtra.

To him, Nehru clarified that he had written to the Chief Minister to express concerns on spendings and even on fundamental optics, with the President of India agreeing to attend the same. He feared, “All this naturally confusing to the foreign mind and leads them to draw certain inferences which are not really justified by the facts”.

Nehru alluded to such optics militating the inherent Idea of India by specifying, “Pakistan of course is taking great advantage of this to prove that we are not a secular state”. The reports that the ‘Jam Saheb’ had written directly to Indian missions abroad to collect water and soil from different countries for Somnath installation, too had sent confusing signals.

Lastly, not shy to express his contrarian opinion with the Rashtrapati, Nehru wrote to the President explaining the event, “it is assuming a certain political importance” and added, “we are asked how a secular Government such as ours can associate itself with such a ceremony which is, in addition, revivalist in character”.

He then pointed to the inherent prolificacy, “At any time this would have been indesirable, but at the present juncture, when starvation stalks the land and every kind of national economy and austerity are preached by us, this expenditure by a Government appears to me to be almost shocking.

“We have stopped expenditure on education, on health and many beneficent services because we say that we cannot afford it. Any yet, a State Government can spend a large sum of money on just the installation ceremony of a temple”.

Issues from financial, optical, to constitutional irked Nehru’s conscience, but perhaps the gravest issue was one of the principles involved. One that necessitated a dignified and deliberate ‘distance’ from private matters of individual faith, especially so given the historical residue of wounds, violence and diminishments from the past, which were best not invoked or scratched further, as the State needed to look at the present and future.

The past was the past. The future could not be compromised by invoking the darker side of the past, even if it meant sacrificing the electorally gratifying polarisation of society.

Decades later, President K. R. Narayanan, arguably the most accomplished, constitutionally versed, and profound Rashtrapati, had decided to uphold that hallowed ‘distance’ from religiosity.

Narayanan was one who had refused to be confined to the political monikers like ‘First Dalit President’, as it was very patronising and condescending, and not definitive of the constitutional tasks and responsibilities that he upheld.

He felt it important to rise beyond monikers and vacuous platitudes to uphold constitutionality. He was after all a most accomplished individual after having been declared ‘the best diplomat of India’ (served as Ambassador to USA, China etc.), three consecutive time member of the Lok Sabha, Vice Chancellor of a Central University with many books to his name, Central Minister, and even the Vice President – no one had a more distinguished curriculum vitae.

Narayanan therefore understood the sensitivity and necessity to walk the path of ‘distance’ from religiosity, for a Constitutional appointment.

During his tenure he studiously avoided Godmen/Godwomen or their likes from all religions and refused to visit religious sites, not out of any particular or personal disagreements with any of them, but just out of sheer respect for the healthy ‘distance’ from the proverbial ‘Church’.

He could therefore view societal dissonance, unrest and tensions owing out of political machinations by looking the leadership in the eye and questioning, as should be the norm for leadership.

Narayanan did so during the 2004 riots and the equally concerned Prime Minister, A. B. Vajpayee, had concurred with his concern. Everything aside, both men reflected the finest constitutionalists, patriots, and men of immense dignity, despite their ideological differences.

We must ask ourselves if our leadership today is maintaining a similar ‘distance’ from religiosity or succumbing to the electoral lure of pandering to the same?

As the wise Vivekananda once said, “An empty stomach is no good for religion” – with over 800 million Indians sustaining themselves on rations provided by the Government, shouldn’t the national discourse be focused on far more pressing and meaningful things. Doesn’t seem so if the discourse in the recently concluded election is anything to go by.

Lt. General Bhopinder Singh is the former Lieutenant Governor of The Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Pondicherry and an Indian Army officer who was awarded the PVSM. Views are the writer’s own.

Cover Photograph - Late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurating the Bhakra Nangal dam he described as the ‘temple of modern India’.