Work in Progress: 5
GEM OF A NATION
Political Biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad
By Dr BSM Murty
Extract from Part VI, Chapter 4 : On Nehru and Rajendra Prasad
Clash of convictions
The story of the first few years of Prasad’s presidency had several such unseemly episodes of conflict between him and Nehru, episodes that help to understand, by contrast, the differences between them that were not only ideological but often temperamental. Prasad was always as thoughtful and forbearing with the Prime Minister as Nehru was impulsive and often injudicious with the President. Besides his indelicate objection to Prasad’s attending Patel’s funeral, Nehru expressed, even during the first two years of the presidency, his strong disapproval of two other personal acts of the President. The first related to Dr Prasad’s visit to Banaras in March, 1950, and the second to his Somnath visit in May, 1951, for the inauguration of the newly restored Shiva temple there on the western coast of Gujarat. Both these episodes in Nehru’s opinion went counter to the protocol for the President of a secular state.
Only a couple of months after his taking over as President, Dr Prasad, on 28 February, 1950, went on a five-day visit to Banaras (now Varanasi) and Patna with a packed schedule ahead of him. He was to be conferred an honoris causa D Litt by the Banaras Hindu University, and had also to inaugurate the Silver Jubilee of the Indian Inter-University Board there and visit Kashi Vidyapeeth, the national university established by Gandhi during the Non-cooperation movement. But soon after landing at Banaras airport, Dr Prasad first went to attend a session of Vishwa Sanskrit Parishad where as part of the initial rituals, with the other dignitaries, he first washed with his own hands the feet of some of the eminent Sanskrit scholars invited there.
“He did it out of humility”, writes Handa, “and a deep-rooted feeling of reverence for men of classical learning.” [RLH,17] But this was adversely commented upon in the press and proved singularly rankling for Nehru. By many, including Nehru, Prasad’s quaint act was seen as ‘strengthen[ing] the forces of revivalism and obscurantism’. But an unfazed Prasad would stick to his innate conviction. ‘If honouring knowledge and dedicated scholarship meant revivalism in the eyes of some, [I] could not help their wrong grasp of things’, he quipped to a friend. If revivalism was reflected in wearing a sacred thread by a Hindu, or a beard by a Muslim or long hair and turbans by Sikhs, then ritual acts performed by several later Presidents as part of their personal faith could all be interpreted as acts of ‘revivalism and obscurantism’.
After Banaras, the President’s itinerary included visits to Patna and Arrah. In fact, this was the first visit of Dr Prasad to Bihar after becoming President. In Patna, on March 2, he first visited Sadaqat Ashram and his old hut still extant there, and from there he went to Sinha Library to unveil the portraits of Dr Sacchidanand Sinha and his wife, Shrimati Radhika Sinha. By a cruel irony of fate, only four days after that meeting, Dr Sinha expired on March 6 morning. Dr Sinha had been like a mentor and guardian to Dr Prasad over the past decades and in a press statement issued from the Rashtrapati Bhawan he said:
To me personally he was more than an elder brother who had taken such deep and abiding interest in me since I was in my teens and a youngster reading in college. He was happy to meet me in Patna only three days ago when he told me that… [he] had lived to see India free and an independent Republic and also to see me installed as its first President. He said he was ready for the end and the end did come only three days later when he passed away fully conscious to the last moment… [CSD,12/444]
On March 3, Dr Prasad had to visit Arrah, 60 kms west of Patna, to inaugurate the newly constructed building of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha there and to be felicitated with a festscrift volume Rajendra Abhinandan Granth by Acharya Kripalani who presided over the ceremony. By happenstance, I myself, a lad of fourteen, was present in that function with my father who had edited that festschrift volume. Only a month earlier, Dr Prasad’s memoir Bapu ke Kadamon Me had come out which had also been edited, like Dr Prasad’s Atmakatha, by Shivapujan Sahay. He records in his diary for that date: “President Rajendra Babu arrived at nine. Raja Radhikaraman introduced me to him as the top litterateur of Bihar. Though I know what I am - a mere nobody. Mangal Murty was also with me.”
The Granth was a monumental festschrift with articles on history, language and culture, along with scores of memoirs and poetic pieces by most of the eminent Hindi litterateurs of the time. Dr Prasad made a long speech on the occasion in Hindi in which he emphasized various points about the immense potentiality and suitability of Hindi as Rashtrabhasha. Expressing satisfaction over the rapid progress of Hindi during the past decades, both in language and literature, he said:
No language, if it is a living organism, can grow or change its course under pressure of external direction: all change is the outcome of association. Therefore, a language should be allowed to evolve without any hindrance…If Hindi-speaking people are not liberal and imagine such changes to be against the purity and sanctity of their language, either our efforts would end in failure or the status of Hindi would be reduced to that of a regional language. Hindi will succeed in maintaining its position as the national language only if it is sufficiently liberal and elastic enough to accept and recognize the regional languages. [CSD, 12.370]
It was once again the same policy of syncretism applied to Indian languages which the Congress had evolved and followed over decades in the geo-political sphere throughout the freedom struggle, echoing the ‘unity in diversity’ principle enunciated by Nehru in his book The Discovery of India. Nehru himself in that book had admitted that a Hindi-Urdu blend in Hindustani was rapidly ‘developing into a common language understood all over India’. He had endorsed Prasad’s view much before it became a contentious issue during the constitution-making period. Nehru, in his book, wrote: “The real language question in India has nothing to do with this variety [of languages and dialects]. It is practically confined to Hindi-Urdu, one language with two literary forms and two scripts. As spoken, there is hardly any difference; as written, especially in literary style, the gap widens’. The issue of Hindi as a national language to replace English had become particularly rankling during the constitution-making period and members from the south saw the imposition of Hindi as an instance of ‘Hindi imperialism’. [Guha120] However, a twin-pronged strategy was agreed upon as a middle course in which Hindi was finally recognized as India’s national language and steps were started to enable it to develop speedily into a suitable form to replace English as a functional language chiefly in areas of administration, judiciary and education. Simultaneously, it was provided that for ‘fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement’. [Guha/120]
The language issue remained of vital national concern throughout the fifties and even beyond, particularly in view of the proposed reorganization of states on linguistic bases, and President Prasad strove hard to propagate the cause of Hindi as the only possible language to bind the nation in unity. Fortunately, he remained in relatively good health during the two-year period of his transitional presidency - except for short spells of his chronic illness – when he toured frequently and widely throughout the country with his message of social harmony and national progress. While in Delhi his formal engagements kept him busy through the day – meeting foreign dignitaries, heads of states, ambassadors, his Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament, as also other eminent people who came to pay respects or discuss various political and national issues. The Prime Minister would routinely visit him every Monday forenoon to discuss important matters of state. Prasad would generally agree with Nehru on most policy issues or willingly conciliate to an affable understanding because both remained conscientiously aware of their momentous role in running a new government effectively and laying down healthy conventions for a newly emergent democratic polity.
Meanwhile, Prasad’s frequent tours in the country enabled him to enlighten the masses on issues of national concern in public meetings and institutional addresses as well as to acquaint himself personally with the way things were unfolding away from the Centre. For instance, in the remaining nine months of 1950, he had gone on an almost equal number of tours to Bombay, south Bihar, UP, Gujarat, Assam, Bengal, Nagpur and Kashmir, besides his two visits to Shimla, mainly for health reasons, in May and October. And during all these tours he had also visited a number of nearby places to attend several inaugural functions, and often to deliver convocation addresses in universities or receive an honorary doctorate. He already had two doctoral awards from the universities of Patna (1947) and Sagar (1950) and a ‘Vidya Vachaspati’ from the Banaras Hindu University during his recent visit there. Again, a year later in April 1951, he was awarded an honoris causa Doctor of Laws from Mysore University. He already had an M.L. degree as a first class topper from Calcutta University as early as 1915 and had contemplated joining a Doctor of Laws course there that could not materialize.
In the first two years of the interim presidency, Prasad had often to travel widely to inaugurate various ceremonial functions or lay down foundation stones and address important conventions across the country. As head of the state, he had to undertake these frequent and long air journeys in spite of his frail health. Even in the early months of 1951 he had gone on travels to places like Khajuraho, Ajmer, Allahabad, Cochin and Mysore. But it was his visit in May to Somnath in Saurashtra (Gujarat) to lay down the foundation stone of a new Hindu temple there that raised a huge controversy.
The Somnath temple near Veraval in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat is considered as one of the holiest places for Hindus, the first among the twelve ‘Jyotirlinga’ shrines of Shiva. The ancient temple on the shore of the Arabian sea was destroyed several times over the centuries by Muslim invaders and rulers, right from Mahmud Gazni to Aurangzeb, and rebuilt beside the ruins by Hindu kings. The most recent rebuilding of the temple started in 1947 on Sardar Patel’s initiative, and after his death in 1950, it continued under the patronage of K.M. Munshi, a Cabinet colleague of Nehru. Gandhi, too, had blessed the temple-restoration idea and had said that he was proud of the project. In May, 1951, Munshi invited President Prasad for the ‘Pran-Pratishtha’ or installation ceremony of the temple. Apparently, there was no secular issue involved in the installation ceremony. The ruins had been pulled down in October, 1950, and a mosque present on the sight had already been moved a few kilometers away without any hassle. But once again Nehru would put his foot down. “The Prime Minister objected”, writes Handa, “to the President’s associating himself with the function on the plea that such an act would not be in keeping with India’s policy of secularism”. President Prasad, however, disagreed ‘with Nehru’s interpretation of secularism and his understanding of the status and place of the Somnath temple in Indian history’. [H/50] He decided to go there in spite of Nehru’s objection. Handa quotes K.M. Munshi’s account of the event.
When the time came to install the deity in the temple…I approached Rajendra Prasad and asked him to perform the ceremony…. He promised that he would come and install the deity, whatever the attitude of the Prime Minister, and added: “I would do the same with a mosque or a church if I were invited.” This, he held, was the core of Indian secularism. Our State is neither religious nor anti-religious. My foreboding proved correct…Jawaharlal vehemently protested against his going to Somnath. But Rajendra Prasad kept his promise. [H/51]
Prasad’s speech on that occasion is a significant assertion of his interpretation of Indian secularism where the ‘State is neither religious nor anti-religious’. It would neither favour nor show disrespect to any religion; on the contrary, it would give equal respect to all religions that are an intrinsic part of a multi-religious society. Nehru’s concept of secularism in comparison with Prasad’s was rather exclusivist. Prasad’s speech was a clear and categorical assertion of his ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ principle of inclusive secularism. He began his speech by emphasizing the universality of all religions and explained his idea of secularism as envisioned in our Constitution. The core of that impassioned speech can be summed up briefly in a translated gist.
There are several paths to the attainment of God or Truth. If we serve humanity with love and faith and conviction, then whichever path we choose to tread upon, we can surely have a glimpse of God or Truth through our devotion… Just as all rivers flow into the ocean, similarly all religions lead us to union with God. There have been horrible, destructive wars in the name of religion. But history shows how religious intolerance has only led to animosities and evil. The need of the hour for us today is harmony and egalitarianism among all communities which is the core principle of secularism as envisaged in our Constitution. In accordance with this core principle, I bear equal respect towards all religions, as also towards all places of pilgrimage in all religions, and try to visit them all – mosques, dargahs, churches and gurudwaras – with the same sense of reverence as I do with my Hindu temples, whenever I get such an opportunity… I also believe that an attempt to redeem and restore our lost heritage cannot be seen as an act of blind revivalism. [VC/14.511-13] My Trans.
Referring to the restoration of the ancient Hindu Shiva temple, Prasad ended his speech thus.
It is my view that the reconstruction of the Somnath Temple will be complete on that day when not only a magnificent edifice will arise on this foundation, but the mansion of India's prosperity will be really that prosperity of which the ancient temple of Somnath was a symbol….The Somnath temple signifies that the power of reconstruction is always greater than the power of destruction.
There could be no greater dichotomy between a spiritual conception of inclusivist secularism and a materialistic view of agnostic and exclusivist secularism that Prasad and Nehru represented respectively. To Nehru, the reconstruction of the Hindu temple was a misguided attempt at revivalism and the President’s participation in the event was a blatantly anti-secular act. But to President Prasad it was a sacred act of restoration of a lost heritage that was symbolic in a free India of the spirit of reconstruction of a lost civilization that had been ruined and ravaged for centuries.
© Dr BSM Murty
Photos : Courtesy Google Images
On Principal Manoranjan / Dr Vijay Mohan Singh : Shrimati Bachchandevi Sahitya Goshthi / Virendra Narayan Granthavali / Shri Shankar Dayal Singh
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