Column: From Nehrus temples to just temples

Written by Jaithirth Rao | Updated: Aug 19 2013, 06:15am hrs
In 1924, during the glorious reign of Nallamudi (IV) Krishnaraja Wodeyar, an engineer named Mokshagundam Visvesvarayya designed and supervised the construction of a dam over the divine Kaveri river. In the process, the ancient village of Kannambadi was submerged. In Kannambadi were three temples, all holy to the villagers. One of them, the Venugopala temple, was a 700-year-old Hoysala structure. Our gracious Maharaja moved the villagers to a new Kannambadi village. The villagers removed icons and idols from their temples voluntarily and happily. Downstream on the Kaveri were dams like the Grand and the Little Anicuts, dating to Chola times (1,000 years earlier), during the construction of which several holy villages and temples were doubtless submerged.

In 1946, Sir Louis Dane, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, laid the foundation stone of a dam across the river Sutlej (its ancient Sanskrit name was Sutadhari) in a village named Bhakra. The construction of the dam started in 1948. Jawaharlal Nehru, the 59-year-old Prime Minister of a young nation, took great interest in this dam which he referred to as a New temple of a resurgent India. When the dam was completed, Nehru revealed his non-denominational spirit, when he said: May you call it a temple or a gurudwara or a mosque, it inspires our admiration and reverence. The Bhakra dam submerged the ancient town of Bilaspur, where there were many temples and sites, traditionally associated with Maharishi Vyas, the author of the Mahabharata.

Krishnaraja Wodeyar was a Hindu king of a Hindu kingdom. Neither he nor his subjects, the residents of Kannambadi, believed that Venugopala (Krishna with the divine flute) was confined to one village and that his temple could not be moved. Nehru was a rationalist, committed to the scientific spirit. Neither he nor his fellow-citizens, the residents of Bilaspur, believed that the submergence of Bilaspurs holy sites were acts of sacrilege.

In 2013, the Supreme Court of India suggested that the Dongria Kondh residents of 12 villages, by majority vote, decide whether the Niyamgiri hills are, per their beliefs, the abode of the god Niyamraja and therefore not to be mined for bauxite. A new right has been conferred on the residents of these 12 villages, which was never thought of years ago for the residents of Kannambadi or Bilaspur. Krishnaraja Wodeyar, a devotee of the great goddess, would have agreed that the goddess was present in every particle of dust of the holy earth of our land, and that we should seek her forgiveness, her permission and her blessings, on every occasion when we plough the earth, mine the rocks or dam our rivers.

But his beliefs did not prevent him from acting rationally and voting for progress. Nehru would be shocked that India, which he hoped would acquire the scientific spirit, was regressing. He would have understood if somebody made the case that the Niyamgiri mines would be too environmentally disruptive or the bauxite too costly to mine.

But Nehru would not have gone along with the quaint idea of preserving Niyamrajas abode or, for that matter, Venugopalas home. Nehrus daughter Indira was keen on a constitutional amendment making it a duty of citizens to cultivate the scientific spirit.

Something has changed between 1924 and 1948, when Visvesvarayya and Nehru were pushing for science, technology, industrialisation and progress, and 2013, when the people who can be heard in the din are those pushing the case for the religious traditions of the Dongria Kondhs and the sovereignty of their god Niyamraja. Indian citizens are to be preserved as museum pieces for foreigners (who have been present in some numbers in Niyamgiri) and left-liberal social scientists to study and admire. Aiding them is the Church of England, which has had a long tradition of trying to keep India backward. Multiculturalism insists that the Dongria Kondh belief regarding Niyamraja is as true as the average chemists belief that aluminium is present in bauxite. The republic of India, in the year 2013, has embraced post-modernism, deconstructionism and multiculturalism.

Anyone can occupy a piece of public land and build a makeshift temple. Squatters rights to the temple now belong to the god inside, although the principal beneficiary may be the land-grabber. If the state wants to build a road on that land, the resident god of the temple becomes a litigant and the legal battle goes on for years in our courts, who have, of late, become very sympathetic to multiculturalism. If it is a mosque or a church, then the land-grabber is in a stronger position, because the rights of the god of the minorities are even more sacred than those of Hindu gods. Arguments which involve appeals to the scientific spirit, the need for progress, the need for roads, dams or mines can and will be dismissed as elitist, pro-corporate, neo-liberal and so on.

As pilgrims to Mecca have increased, the Saudi government has not hesitated to pull down old mosques and tombs to widen roads and provide better facilities for pilgrims. They see their acts as pro-pilgrim and pleasing to god. We prefer to learn regressive things from the Saudis, not their progressive traits.

All progress is environmentally disruptive. The first farmers who cleared forests and ploughed lands began the process of human assault on the environment. Today, if we choose to adopt the scientific spirit, we can have a dialogue on the cost-benefit analysis of road-building, mining or constructing a chemical plant, including externalised costs imposed on the environment. We can discuss whether these costs can be mitigated. We can then decide to go ahead or drop the project. Given the scientific knowledge base that we have today, Visvesvarayya and Nehru would not have supported blind industrialisation; they would have approved of decisions that take into account total costs and mitigants. Neither of them would have approved of the bizarre religious and cultural arguments being made in contemporary India. We seem committed to stagnation and going backward, not to going forward.

The author is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur