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On Sengol, Savarkar and Indian Secularism

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By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

On May 24 Union Home Minister Amit Shah was briefing the press about the new Parliament building which was to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 28. In the midst of it he pulled a rabbit out of BJP’ hat. The highlight of the ceremony, he announced, would be presentation of Sengor, a golden sceptre used by the kings of Chola dynasty while transferring power to a successor king. This was the Sengol that had been preserved in the Allahabad Museum. Cynics wondered if it was a much needed distraction for the BJP smarting from the humiliating defeat in the Karnataka election.

‘Sengol,’  derived from Tamil word ‘semmai,’ which means righteousness, has an important place in Tamil culture.  It  reminds the recipient that he has the divine decree to follow Raj Dharma and rule justly. The practice dates back to nearly 2000 years. We are told that when Lord Mountbatten initiated the transfer of power to the Indians he asked Pandit Nehru to find an appropriate symbol of regalia and sovereignty to mark this transition. Nehru in turn consulted C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor-General of India, who in turn had the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam – a Shaivite Math-  prepare the five feet long intricately carved gold-plated silver sceptre, with a finial of Nandi on top.

The theory of the Sengol symbolising the transfer of power from the British to free India has been contested by many academics and historians and the brouhaha over the sceptre, complete with its Chola legend and ritual anointment is seen as an effort to transplant a religious practice from monarchy into modern democracy, which is at variance with the spirit of the founding of our Republic.

There is no contemporary account that refers to Sengol being used as a symbol of transfer of power from the British to the Indians or it being done on the advice of Rajaji. Rajmohan Gandhi, who happens to be Rajagopalachari’s grandson and biographer, said he had ‘never heard of Rajaji’s purported role in the Sengol story.’ There is no  document or photograph to suggest that the sceptre was first symbolically given to Mountbatten and taken back before being presented to Nehru, symbolising the transfer. But we do have evidence that the Sengol was ceremonially given to Nehru by Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam. It is mentioned by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their book Freedom at Midnight and the story was also carried at that time by Hindu newspaper and Time magazine.

Nehru, a professed agnostic and rationalist and an advocate of the scientific temper would not have consented to being  part of such a religious event had it not been for the communally tense atmosphere at the time of Independence. He must have thought that his refusal would be counterproductive for social harmony, so he accepted the Sengol with the accompanying rituals. The incident has now been  resurrected by the BJP to help their brand of politics. Since Nehru baiting is the favourite pastime of Sangh Parivar a folklore has been concocted to prove how insensitive Nehru was to Indian cultural sensitivities.

There is another twist to the tale. Contrary to claims by Modi government that Sengol was labelled ‘Walking Stick’ by Nehru, a retired curator of Allahabad Museum Dr. Onkar Anand Rao Wankhede has disclosed that the item on display at the Allahabad Museum was simply titled ‘Golden Stick gifted to Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru,’ and was kept there since 1952 along with Nehru’s entire collection of memorabilia donated to the museum. Wankhede said that Sengol was labelled ‘Golden Stick’ by the first curator of the Museum S. C. Kala in 1952.

Incidentally Jawahar Sircar, a TMC member of Parliament, said that the design of  the new Parliament building has been copied from the old Parliament of Somalia. Jawahar tweeted that an architect from Gujarat has charged Rs.230 crore for imitating Somalia’s old rejected Parliament. What an inspiration for new India! The claim has not been refuted.

May 28 was deliberately chosen for the inauguration for the new Parliament building. Modi had returned from his recent visit to Japan where he had gone to attend the G7 Summit. There in Hiroshima he unveiled a statue of Mahatma Gandhi while giving the message that the Mahatma’s idea of non-violence needed to be  taken forward. Ironically, the day also marks the birth anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who stands in polar opposition to Mahatma Gandhi. No two individuals could be more dissimilar in their outlook and conduct. The former, the proponent and ideologue of Hindutva, is a supremely polarising figure while the latter is universally recognised as an apostle of peace and communal harmony who practised and preached non-violence all his life.  Savarkar can never be forgotten for his associations with those who conspired to kill Gandhi.

The publication of Savarkar’s book Essentials of Hindutva published in 1923  marked an important stage in the conceptual formulation of Hindutva.  In this book Savarkar’s early enthusiasm for communal harmony was no longer visible as he shifted his  arguments for ‘Indians’ to a primary focus on ‘Hindus.’ His Hindutva is obsessed with the past, and this sentimental intoxication is what invigorates the followers of Godse. However, India is known to the world for Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore and not for Savarkar, Godse and Golwalkar.

One can sense the unease of those in the Sangh Parivar with the idea of secular as it informs Indian polity today. The word secular was not formally a part of the Indian Constitution since the architects of the Constitution believed that the idea was implicit in the framework of the document providing enough space for religious freedom, not recognizing any religious group as privileged over others.  However the word ‘secular’ (along with ‘socialist’ ) was formally added to the Preamble of the Constitution of India only in 1976, through an Amendment. It became therefore a cherished objective to safeguard the plural ethos of Indian society irrespective of the religious faith of a citizen. But with this insertion the secular also became a serious bone of contention for competitive political ideologies. While the centrist and left-of-centre political formations welcomed it, those on the right resented it and have been denouncing it as a conspiracy against the majority Hindu community to pander to the sentiments of the minorities. The word ‘secularism’ itself is viewed with suspicion, the argument being made that it is an alien concept which is irrelevant in the Indian context and has little meaning in India where religiosity reigns supreme. Secularism as a post-Enlightenment idea in Europe was founded on the separation of Church and State. It may therefore seem incongruous in a land that is home to all the major religions of the world.

If religion and the State are to be separated it does not mean that the State is to be declared irreligious or godless. It only means that the State ought to be  neutral towards religion. It is apparent that Indian secularism, among other things, primarily means that the state cannot establish or practice any religion.

India has had its own tryst with modernity which in its process of modernization and secularization did not break away with its well-entrenched religious traditions and hence in the Indian context it cannot be said that secularism denies religion. In fact it is the multiplicities of religious beliefs in India and their co-existence which has given it its own version of secularism. Supporters of the Hindutva project may view secularism as being antithetical to Hinduism but this position is taken basically for the sake of political mobilization.

The dichotomy secularism / religion is not likely to go away given the deep-rooted convictions of people. Religion, it must be granted,  is an essential element in the warp and woof of our societies and vibrant pluralistic public sphere. Despite the predominantly secular temper of modern societies belief in God, in whatever form, remains pervasive in most countries, and attendance at places of religious worship remain high. One should therefore advocate not an anti-religious worldview imposed by the state, but instead, an anti-theocratic secular state which is compatible with the dignity of the individual irrespective of one’s religious persuasion.

On a lighter note: Our legislatures in recent years have become scenes of pandemonium and acrimonious debates which often degenerate into shouting, fist fights, tearing of papers and throwing them at the Chair. Passions usually run very high. Whether the Sengol installed in the Parliament will have any sobering effect on the members reminding them of their Raj Dharma is anyone’s guess.  One only hopes that at some stage an enraged honourable (?) member of the house does not pull out the sacred Sengol and use it as a club or ‘Bajrang Bali ka Gada’ to thrash the opponents. That will be both uncivil and  sacrilegious.

                   (The writer is former Professor  and Head of  the Department
of English, H.N.B.  Garhwal  University)