The anachronism of “Senkol” in Indian Democracy

Sengol Modi

On May 28, 2023, the New Parliament House, nestled in the heart of the sprawling Central Vista Redevelopment Project in New Delhi was inaugurated by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The event conducted with fanfare, pomp and gaiety were conspicuous by opposition boycott en toto and the absence of Indian President and Vice-President, allegedly uninvited, in flagrant violation and utter disregard of parliamentary protocols and constitutional etiquettes. True to megalomaniacal instincts and narcissistic traits of authoritarian demagogues, Modi hogged the limelight. The nation witnessed the undulations of “Godi Media”, and the servile stooges within the BJP ranks were singing paeans of praise for the self-appointed “Viswaguru”.

He is hailed as a sentinel of bygone civilizational glory, reviving ‘cultural nationalism’ and erasing their unpalatable vestige of “Lutyens Delhi”, namely, the Old Parliament Building replete with portraits of towering freedom fighters of the Congress Party, and offering a grim reminder of Sangh Parivar’s political vacuum in India’s Independence struggle. But even more disconcerting and preposterous than his showmanship to appease a majoritarian Hindu population was the installation of a “Senkol”, the quintessential scepter of monarchial power in the hallowed precincts of a secular democratic institution.

Ever since Abraham Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg Address, encapsulating the essence of democratic values in “a government for the people and by the people”, free liberal democracies are diligent in choosing the symbols and artifacts of governance. “Senkol”, is a resurgence of power, more precisely absolute power, prerogative to dynastic kingship, long eschewed by revolutions and mass movements in history. And it’s more than an irony that in the largest democracy in the world, it is witnessing a resurgence of the nauseating symbol of power and oppression, the Senkol or the royal scepter. Such insignias are an anathema to the modern free liberal democracies, that only deserves its nemesis in the ash heaps of history tantamount to the juggernaut of October Revolution that vanquished the Tzars or the Age of Enlightenment and the Establishment Clause that sought cultural and political independence from the Church.

The narrative of the Senkol in the new Indian Parliament, was a deliberate and meticulously crafted lie. This propaganda was spearheaded by current Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah that during Indian Independence handover, Lord Mountbatten bestowed Jawaharlal Nehru with a Senkol, symbolizing the transfer of power. A picture of the chief priest of Saivaite Mutt with Senkol incidentally, appeared on the first page of the Hindu newspaper of 29th August 1947, was widely circulated through the potent PR machinery of the BJP, the omniscient and infallible WhatsApp Universities. Below the picture was a short narration that the head-priest handed the scepter to Prime Minister Nehru symbolizing transfer of power. This event is mired in obscurity and as many claims, the Scepter was a mere gift Nehru received, as a mark of honor. This narrative was quickly rebutted and debunked by historians and eminent media personalities – like Malini Parthasarathy, former editor of Hindu- that such an event never happened and the Senkol in question was just an advertisement in the inner pages of the Hindu newspaper on that day.

A microfilm reading on the Hindu newspaper, published on 29th August 1947, available at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) ratified the falsehood, confirming that the pertinent picture of Senkol was just an advertisement. It is astounding and beyond comprehension that upper echelons of the ruling party don’t have any qualms in ‘engineering credulity’ catering to their gullible sympathizers and fanatical hardliners by concocting a trivial advert. Perhaps, such audacity comes natural for a supremacist party that is obsessed with historical revisionism by supplanting historical facts with their jingoistic version, by editing high-school history textbooks and perpetrating deleterious omissions and commissions of historical events to suit their slanted political agenda.

The theory of divine right of kings to rule over his subjects with absolute power and iron will, ordained by God, gained traction in medieval Europe. During coronations, the scepter represented the divine legitimacy of the king, that warranted total subservience from the abstract collective called people. But in 1651, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes challenged the enemies of reason and the divine prerogative when he famously posed the question, “why should people obey the king?” in his seminal book, Leviathan. The Leviathan signified an undivided government with sovereign power and this power was transferred by the people based on a social contract. The cardinal principle of the social contract was submission to authority in exchange for the guarantee to the rights of self-preservation. In simple parlance, people loan their sovereignty to a political party, a central authority or an “artificial man” to make decisions on their behalf for a limited period, mostly consummated through a political mandate. At the end of the tenure, the authority or the state returns the sovereignty back to the people. The Leviathan set in motion “The Glorious Revolution” (1688-1689), in England, replacing the divine right of kings with increasing powers vested in the parliament. The shockwaves of this new ideology which was a product of man exercising his critical faculties swept across Europe. It culminated in the French Revolution inspired by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, and Voltaire on the quintessential need of preserving the dignity of the individual and propagating the power of the masses for its self-determination. On July 4, 1789, the French National Assembly abolished aristocracy, monarchy and oppressive land taxes and instituted the Declaration of the Rights of Man, founded on the sacrosanct principles of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite. These mottos were later adopted and enshrined in the constitutions of democratic republics around the world ever since, though varied in letter, yet unified in spirit.

The Indian constitution similarly is enshrined with secularistic and pluralistic ideals, offering constitutional guarantees of equality and freedom. While the people have the liberty to profess any faith or religion, any specific religion, however majoritarian it is, should never be the legitimizing ideology of the state. The state, by principle and actions must be amoral in its religious disposition. Therefore, it shouldn’t endeavor to promote a singular religion even if its adherents are in majority and in a realpolitik sense, serve as instruments of appeasement and ultimately spawn vote bank politics. In this context, Prime Minister Modi walking into the new parliament building, clutching the archaic vestige of oppression and supremacy accompanied by sacerdotal semi-clad priests – alluding to the resurgence of a monolithic Hindu-Rashtra – are both reprehensible and discriminatory. The Indian parliament belongs to all, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Jain, Buddhist, agnostics, and atheists who have common history, culture, language and owes allegiance by birthright or naturalization to the Indian constitution. Indian unity essentially and irrevocably rests on diversity and inclusiveness.

Prime Minister Modi prostrating before the Senkol amidst chanting and incantations by Hindu priests in the citadel of secularism, conjures up worst fears of BR Ambedkar when he articulated in anguish that, “Politics in India is nothing but theology in action”. India has had a long history of migrations, invasions, civil wars, admixture of a plethora of races and ethnicities over several millennia. These amalgamations, integrations and cultural heterogeneity have attributed and are largely responsible for its rich tapestry of diversities in culture, custom, cuisine, religions, and language. The mind-boggling diversities prompted legendary American writer Mark Twain to quote, “India is the cradle of human race, the birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend and great-grandmother of traditions…and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the world combined”. Though a study in contrast on many fronts, India’s rich traditions and cultural heritage were built on the inclusive ideals of Sanatana Dharma, emphasizing tolerance, universal brotherhood, and peaceful co-existence by appreciating and accommodating diversity. Such openness and cosmopolitanism define the spirit and ethos of this great nation, which, an ethnonationalist political party trying to topple the applecart, leaves much to be desired. Culture will seek vengeance for any fissiparous attempts to deface the soul of a nation. Thomas Paine, the English born, American political philosopher, epitomized the indefatigable spirit of the people to enforce correction and change, when he wrote in his magnum opus, Common Sense, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again”.

Jayakhosh Chidambaran is a management consultant and researcher.

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