June 04, 2023

The Curious Case of the Sengol

TWENTY opposition parties had boycotted the inauguration of the new parliament building on May 28 on the grounds that the Modi government had bypassed the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, who is the head of the state as well as and head of parliament and decided that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the new parliament. This constitutional impropriety of imposing the head of the executive over parliament was a legitimate reason for the opposition protest.

But what actually unfolded on the inauguration day only reinforced the decision of the opposition to stay away. All of a sudden, the Union Home minister, Amit Shah, announced that a sengol (sceptre) which was handed over by Viceroy Lord Mountbatten to Jawaharlal Nehru to mark the transfer of power would be installed inside the parliament. In the words of Amit Shah, “India's transfer of power took place through handing over the sengol to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.” Thus a fictional account of a Hindu religious artifact symbolising the “transfer of power” from the British to the new government, was manufactured.

It was officially stated that Lord Mountbatten had asked Jawaharlal Nehru whether there was any Indian ceremony to symbolise the transfer of power. Nehru then consulted C Rajagopalachari, the veteran Congress leader about it, who in turn checked with religious mutts in Tamilnadu and advised that a sengol should be made the symbol of transfer of power. It was also briefed that Lord Mountbatten himself had handed over the sengol to Jawaharlal Nehru on the night of 14th August, before the official meeting at the Constituent Assembly.

But what is the actual fact and history of the sengol? There is no record or evidence of Mountbatten having asked Nehru about the symbol to be used for transfer of power. Nor is there any evidence of Rajaji’s role in the matter. In fact, Mountbatten did not hand over the sengol to Nehru. He had gone to Karachi on 13th August evening and returned late at night on the 14th.

The sengol was made at the behest of a Saivite mutt in Tamilnadu which was then brought to Delhi and handed over to Nehru at his residence on the night of 14th. There was no official function and it was a private initiative. The fact that Nehru accepted it, like many other gifts, and it was eventually placed in the Allahabad museum, shows how Nehru viewed the matter.

Making this bogus claim that “transfer of power” on the night of 14th August by handing over the sengol suits the RSS-BJP narrative of how centuries of slavery were ended by the restoration of a Hindu raj. This “Hinduisation” of the transfer of power is achieved by an ahistorical sleight of hand, where the so-called actors are assigned manufactured roles. The only constructed version of this sengol episode is by S Gurumurthy, an RSS ideologue, who wrote about this in a Tamil magazine in 2021.

The spectacle of Prime Minister Modi holding the sengol and leading a procession of adeenaams (priests and heads of mutts) to install it behind the Speaker’s chair on the morning of 28th May is part of the symbolism of new India which is a mimicking of Hindu rashtra. It goes against the grain of a secular democratic republic. The sengol is traditionally a sceptre given by the head priest to a newly ordained king to rule righteously. This is totally out of place in a democratic republic where citizens elect their governments. It is also against the secular character of the republic wherein a religious symbol is placed in a prime position in parliament.

May 28 was selected for opening the new parliament building as it was also VD Savarkar's birth anniversary. This also served to build the narrative of a new India. Savarkar who started as a freedom fighter, abandoned the fight against British rule after he was released from the Andaman Cellular Jail, consequent to his being released after his repeated mercy petitions. He then turned his attention to fight Muslims, the erstwhile rulers, and establishing Hindutva. The BJP rulers endorse his Hindutva and see the establishment of a Hindu rashtra as the culmination of the end of a thousand years of servitude.

The claim of the BJP rulers that the sengol represents dharma (righteousness) was itself badly dented that day when just a few hundred metres from the new parliament building, women wrestlers who had been peacefully protesting were brutally dragged away by the police and arrested.

 The symbols of the new India ushered in by Narendra Modi – the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, the Central Vista and the new parliament building are all hallmarks of a new authoritarian Hindutva state. History has been distorted and manufactured to suit this new narrative.

(May 31, 2023)