Herald View: Why so many lies about the Sengol?
It is no less than tragic that the present government and the prime minister choreographed an elaborate charade to mislead the nation
The Union government was evidently aware of the elaborate lies it cooked up to justify the ‘coronation’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the new parliament building, accompanied by Hindu religious rituals. Acutely aware that the fairy tale it had woven around the sengol or sceptre allegedly given to the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a ‘symbol of transfer of power’ in 1947 would be questioned, the government distributed ‘documentary proofs’ to the media while unveiling the plan.
An article from TIME magazine, passages from the book Freedom at Midnight, a brief ‘report’ published in the The Hindu, and an article published in the Tamil magazine Thugluk, edited by RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy in 2021 were among the exhibits produced by the government. The evidence unravelled quickly enough.
The report ostensibly published in The Hindu in Madras (not in newspapers published from Delhi) turned out to be a paid advertisement by the Madurai mutt, on an inside page, in August 1947. The advertisement gave no indication of the great historical significance the government appears to attach to it 75 years later.
The article in the Tamil magazine edited by the one and only S. Gurumurthy in 2021 turned out to be based on the ‘memory’ of a disciple who claims the head of the mutt had shared the story with him in 1978. It was undoubtedly a coincidence that a ‘note’ appeared around the same time on the website of the Hindu religious and charitable endowments department of the Tamil Nadu government, detailing the significance of the sengol.
The note mysteriously disappeared from the website in 2022–23. The department has failed to explain how it briefly appeared on the website and what was the source.
The references made to the article in TIME magazine and the passages from Freedom at Midnight merely reported and reflected on the gifts, religious rituals and chants that filled the air in New Delhi on the eve of Independence. They made no mention of the sengol as a symbol of any transfer of power.
The other books by Dr Ambedkar, Perry Anderson and Yasmin Khan, referred to as evidence, merely frowned upon the rituals witnessed in the homes of Congress leaders on the eve of Independence. None of them mention the sceptre as a symbol of transfer of power; they clearly do not amount to the ‘documentary proof’ that home minister Amit Shah and finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman asserted they constitute.
The claim appeared to be absurd from the beginning, not only because contemporary newspaper reports made no mention of it but also because the monastery in Tamil Nadu and its priests had nothing to do with the transfer of power from the colonial Raj to the prime minister.
Moreover, even Amit Shah claims the sceptre was handed over to the first prime minister at his residence on York Road in Delhi. It could not, therefore, have been an official or a state function. Perhaps that is why Narendra Modi also received another sengol (or a pair) at home?
Another elaborate lie was cooked up, therefore, to make the story credible and it was said that C. Rajagopalachari had been asked by Nehru to suggest an appropriate ‘ritual’ for the transfer of power. It was on Rajaji’s suggestion that the sengol was made, the government’s website claims.
Significantly, Nehru—who wrote copiously and recorded events in minute detail—has made no mention of it. The lies are deeply problematic because an authoritarian regime appears to have fabricated them to usurp an ancient symbol of righteousness in order to claim a just and fair rule. The converse of ‘sengol’ is ‘kodungol’ (authoritarianism) in Tamil, and it will be interesting to see if the sceptre makes any real difference to this regime.
Meanwhile, historian Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson and biographer of Rajaji, has gone on record to say that this is the first time ever that he has heard of the sceptre as a symbol of transfer of power in 1947. Another historian, Madhavan Palat, who has edited 41 of the 100 volumes of Nehru’s Selected Works, has been even more emphatic in stating that there is no evidence of any such ceremony in 1947.
A sceptre, held traditionally by rulers as a symbol of divine blessings and power devolving from the gods, would have been repugnant to Nehru, he pointed out. Besides, it would have been inappropriate and undignified in a democracy. While Nehru may have accepted the gift, as he did many others, he would have treated it as utterly inconsequential.
It is no less than tragic, therefore, that the present government and the prime minister choreographed an elaborate charade to mislead the nation. One of the two plausible motivations was cited by Palat, who felt it was simply an emotional ploy, an electoral gambit to win a few votes in Tamil Nadu.
The other, admittedly far-fetched, probability is that the ceremony and the rituals were prescribed by the superstitious priests to prolong the ‘reign’ of a ‘Hindu’ parliament.