The one above is perhaps among the defining images of Narendra Modi’s tenure as the prime minister. He stands at the head of a phalanx of semi-clad sadhus invited to the inauguration of the new Parliament building – while his No.2 in government, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, is relegated to a corner as the lone woman in the frame.
The star of Sunday’s show was a sceptre made in the tradition of a Chola ‘sengol’, now safely installed behind the Speaker’s chair in the Lok Sabha. While it is uncontroversial that various religious orders may have visited Nehru or given him presents, the government’s spin on the event appears to be an outrageous fiction.
The sengol, their story goes, was used to officially transact the transfer of power on August 14, 1947. The government of independent India needed a material signifier of sovereignty, Rajaji contacted a Saiva Adheenam, and subsequently a Madras jeweller fashioned a neo-Chola sceptre. This artefact was then conveyed to New Delhi by a delegation of sadhus who played a game of passing-the-parcel between themselves, Lord Mountbatten, and Nehru, with a sprinkling of Ganga-jal or Go-mutra after each turn.
This invocation of a political theology, they inform us with a keen air of historical injury, was subsequently forgotten to gather dust in a museum. The reappearance of this sceptre and story was accompanied by a public-relations blitz. Major publications carried the story without so much as a perfunctory fact-check.
A battery of BJP leaders piously castigated the doubtful and went about brandishing flimsy, even dubious evidence. The sengol even has its own black-and-white advertisement video and a website. A Madras jeweller and a Saiva Adheenam were named as prominent actors in this drama to burnish its credentials.
Those luminaries have been suitably rescued from obscurity to make public noises of approval for the great leader. The government’s account is not internally consistent and is riddled with contradictions. The parts involving Mountbatten, Nehru and Rajaji are not in the historical record and are likely a florid embellishment of the facts.
While one criticism is historical, another is of the ominous symbolism underlying this exercise. The sceptre and its escort of sadhus are both anachronism and incongruity in the parliament of a modern democracy. This could also just be a cynical strategy with an eye on accruing political capital in Tamil Nadu. But such criticism perhaps misses the point. Liberal and left-wing commentary can have a dismissive air about it – that Modi and friends are a cabal of cow urine connoisseurs whose cultural politics does not deserve to be taken seriously anyway.
A basic question that warrants asking is – if the sengol story is an egregious lie, who does it benefit? To answer this question, it is important to consider how Modi invokes different linguistic, symbolic, and historical registers with the sengol. It is of no mean significance that the sceptre had to be disinterred from an Allahabad Museum (and a brief stint at the National Museum) and then consecrated as the symbol of sovereign power. A fitting metaphor for the Sangh parivar’s project of historical revisionism, and for how the past is brought to burst onto the space of the present.
The sceptre is not a ‘Chola’ artefact – it was reportedly made by a Madras jeweller in 1947. A performance of Hindu ritual re-enacting the nation’s origins is meant to draw an imaginative arc from Chola power to independence in 1947 to the dawn of ‘Amrit Kaal’ in 2023.
Modi, in a monologue of mind-numbing banality, repeatedly invoked this ‘Amrit kaal’, a floating signifier that marks the temporal rupture between ‘old’ and ‘new’ India. The Sengol connection, rendered in Modi’s valiant Tamil pronunciation, also attempts to absorb Tamil Nadu into a sacred geography otherwise legible only through Sanskrit or Hindi. The sengol episode, with its pastiche of religion, ritual, myth, and history seeks to surmount the linguistic limits of Hindutva.
It is no secret that Modi harbours a deep-seated envy of Jawaharlal Nehru, and in this re-enactment seeks to write over his legacy. But the appropriate parallel is perhaps not in the fictionalised Mountbatten-Nehru ceremony at all – but in the Bhumi Pujan for the Ram Mandir from 2020.
On Sunday, the President and Vice-President were conspicuously absent, and Modi was master of ceremonies. In Ayodhya, Modi was the solitary protagonist, an inauspicious all-in-one – Prime Minister, royal patron, pujari, and householder. The visuals of that Bhumi Pujan portrayed Modi as a divinely ordained intermediary, the bearded patriarch whose authority is both worldly and sacred. Similarly, in the Sengol-investiture ceremony, Modi can be seen saluting it, prostrating before it, grimly marching around with it. It was almost as if to displace his ambitions for absolute power onto a monarchical symbol – a ventriloquized instrument of legitimacy.
One BJP leader even argued that the presence of the Sengol compensates for the absence of the pesky opposition. The measures of a healthy polity shift away from participatory opposition, or press conferences, to a set of ritualised abstractions like a sceptre, or the monthly apparition of the leader’s voice on Mann ki Baat.
Hindutva’s claims to sovereignty are operationalised in a field of ritualised utterances and enactments – and this is where legitimacy comes to be meticulously manufactured, one absurd invented tradition, neologism, or symbol at a time. It is one of many seemingly disparate elements that must be read together, because deliberately or inadvertently, they constitute the cognitive architecture of Hindu Rashtra.
The central vista project has been controversial since it was first proposed in 2019, with concerns around everything from the proposed demolitions of Nehruvian structures, irregularities in procedures, to the blatant disregard for environmental and conservation issues.
The government’s strident rejection of all criticism made it clear how important it was for Modi, who like other authoritarians, has scores to settle with history. If one takes the deep resentment that Modi personifies seriously – as a phenomenon of society and of psyche – it is to mean that Lutyens Delhi, inherited by the Nehruvian state from the colonial administration – must be disfigured beyond recognition.
The central vista project is meant to overwrite the architectural language of Independent India’s first republic, so that the second may reveal itself in a haze of construction dust and smog. The Sengol story is another milestone along a long road of what Arjun Appadurai called ‘Falsehood and Reconciliation’. An implicit consensus to participate in, acquiesce to, or simply ignore egregious falsehood has become a necessary feature of collective life. This consensus, in silence as in cacophony, promises to be the lasting legacy of ‘Amrit Kaal’.
Vishesh Guru is a member of the Bahutva Karnataka citizens’ collective.