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New Parliament Inauguration Mimicked Coronation Ceremonies of Yore

Ram Puniyani |
Installing a ‘sceptre’ amounts to reviving divine right as the source of political authority.
PM, not President, Inaugurating New Parliament Building is at Odds with Constitution

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

On 28 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a new and more lavish Parliament building. Most Opposition parties boycotted this function as they argued President Draupadi Murmu should have inaugurated it. As per Article 79 of the Constitution of India, the President, Rajya Sabha, and Lok Sabha constitute Parliament. Thus, the President is a part of the legislature. Keeping her out indicates Modi’s appropriation of centrality in all public matters and legislative affairs.

But, equally importantly, the inauguration was marked by two other significant events. One was the presence of many holy men, including priests and the heads of many religious establishments. Invocations of Hindu gods and deities such as Shiva and Ganesha rang aloud. Hindu religious rituals seemed at the event’s core, undermining the secular nature of our State and Constitution. The all-faith prayer, which was also conducted, was hardly noticed, talked about, or shown, especially on TV channels.

The Prime Minister was handed over a sengol, a kind of sceptre, by the Thiruvaduthurai Adheenam, a Shaivite establishment near Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu. Accompanied by the representatives of other Adheenams of Tamil Nadu and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister installed this sceptre in the new building and even referred to it in his speech.

The argument goes that this sceptre symbolises the transfer of power. It is said to have been a part of the tradition of the Chola Empire, in which a sengol was presented to a new king to symbolise his authority and power. The symbolism was to demonstrate the ruler derived his powers from god through the divine agency of a priest.

Therefore, the Prime Minister installing a sceptre in Parliament amounts to an attempt to revive the “glorious” tradition of divine sanction for rulers.

It is also being asserted that at the time of Independence, this particular sceptre was passed from the last viceroy of India, Albert Mountbatten, to the first Prime Minister of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a symbol of the transfer of power. This is a totally concocted work of fiction. Congress party leader and former minister in the previous United Progressive Alliance government, Jairam Ramesh, informed over a popular social media platform that “A majestic sceptre conceived of by a religious establishment in then Madras province and crafted in Madras city was indeed presented to Nehru in August 1947… There is NO documented evidence whatsoever of Mountbatten, Rajaji & Nehru describing this sceptre as a symbol of the transfer of British power to India. All claims to this effect are plain and simple—BOGUS. Wholly and completely manufactured in the minds of a few and dispersed into WhatsApp and now to the drum-beaters in the media. Two of the finest Rajaji scholars with impeccable credentials have expressed surprise.”

Nehru possibly received the sceptre from the Shaivite establishment as a marker of respect. However, the first Prime Minister found a place for it within The Allahabad Museum. It is totally false that he treated it as a walking stick, and it has been established that it was also not characterised as one at any point. Nehru and all significant leaders of the freedom movement did not uphold kingdoms or kings. They conceived India as a democracy where power flows from the people and participatory democracy is established through the universal adult franchise.

Sovereignty in India belongs to the people and does not flow from god, divine forces, or religious figureheads. The democratisation of Indian society created these values, and the Prime Minister or President are not king, emperor or ruler. They do not claim accountability or authority to religious authorities or traditions. India has no ‘Raj Guru’ or royal priest but the people and the Constitution.

Incidentally, CK Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, wrote a scathing commentary opposing the gift of the sengol and the Shaivite body’s effort to represent it as a symbol of the transfer of power. He writes, “You know they must get rid of it to pave the way for the blossom of democracy. The heads of the mutts [religious organisations], who are afraid that you might seek to implement what you have learnt, will not only give a golden sceptre but even a sceptre embedded with ‘navaratnas’ to protect themselves.”

However, Hindu ritualism has been a part of the agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offshoot, the Bharatiya Janata Party. They sought to undermine the plural nature of India and impose the Hindu nationalist view in its place. This view is part of the norms that emerged from Hindu kings and princes, who later joined with ideologues to articulate the Hindu-nationalistic vision of India. It is no coincidence that the inauguration of the new Parliament building was planned on the 140th birth anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an ideologue of Hindu nationalism and quite possibly the first to articulate this view in his book, Hindutva or Who is a Hindu. In this book, he justifies religion as the basis of nationalism, and it is the first text to advocate the two-nation theory’s core beliefs openly.

Through the spectre spectacle, Modi signalled the primacy of faith over the Constitution. He proclaimed, “Today, India is turning once again to that glorious stream of ancient times”. What were the values of those allegedly glorious ancient times? They had authoritarian rulers presiding over societies filled with caste and gender hierarchies, as the Manusmriti enunciates. Constitution writer and first law minister Dr BR Ambedkar burned Savarkar’s book. He believed the ancient scriptures established the secondary position of Dalits and women in society.

RSS ideologues glorify the inaugural event by claiming it revives a glorious Hindu tradition that places dharma above political power. According to them, the king is duty-bound to abide by dharma, and the sengol represents that. The government argues the sceptre reflects a continuity of tradition by embodying sanctified sovereignty and the rule by dharma. RSS’s Ram Madhav has written in the Indian Express that as the sengol reaches the new Parliament House, its “real significance as the ‘Dharma Dand’—the Indian civilisational tradition of ethical-spiritual authority over mere political authority—must be the point of debate rather than the nitpicking over its historicity.”

He also wrote that in the Indian civilisational tradition, monarchs and kings were never considered the supreme authority. “Irrespective of whatever regalia were used, like crowns or sceptres or orbs, the royals were always reminded by the court priests at the time of the coronation that Dharma, the ethical-spiritual order, is the only supreme authority,” he wrote.

In a way India took another step in the direction of Hindu Rashtra on 28 May. The event showed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has monarchical ambitions. The events presented a kingdom’s values in modern garb and used religion to cover for suppressing democratic values. It parallels other fundamentalisms in the name of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or any other faith. The subtle subversion of democracy was more than evident during the inauguration ceremony. After all, less than two kilometres away, the police brutally attacked protesting wrestlers and their supporters who had been protesting in the most genuinely democratic way.

The author is a human rights activist. The views expressed are personal.

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