The Many Holes in the Union Government's Claims Around the Sengol

Hardly any documentary proof backs the government’s claim that the sceptre marked the transfer of power to independent India on August 15, 1947.

New Delhi: The Sengol, the golden sceptre that the Narendra Modi government recently claimed was given to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by the last viceroy of British India Lord Mountbatten to mark the transfer of power on August 15, 1947, has become the latest flashpoint between the Congress and the BJP.

Two days ago, Union home minister Amit Shah briefed the press to explain the significance of the Sengol that was to be installed in the new Parliament building scheduled to be inaugurated by the prime minister on May 28, 2023. He presented a docket that described the ritual of handling over the sceptre by the pontiffs of Tamil Nadu-based Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam mutt that actually “symbolised and sanctified” the transfer of power. The government’s version of events goes as follows: Mountbatten asked Nehru whether there was a ritual that would symbolise the transfer of power. Nehru, in turn, consulted C. Rajagopalachari who recommended following the Chola dynasty practice of handing over a sceptre to mark the transfer of power from one king to another. Rajaji tasked the Adheenam pontiffs to source the sceptre, following which the much-vaunted sceptre was finally flown to New Delhi to be handed over to Mountbatten first and eventually to Nehru.

The sceptre has since then been kept in the Allahabad Museum.

However, ever since the home minister made these claims, multiple news outlets pointed at the thin evidence to support the government’s assertions. Most said that the gifting of the sceptre by the mutt’s pontiffs was a part of multiple rituals that took place during the transfer of power but not one of them indicated that it was a special ceremony to sanctify or even symbolise the transfer of power that was already sanctioned by the Indian Independence Act 1947 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that received the Royal Assent on July 18, 1947.

Taking a cue from the reports, Congress’s chief spokesperson Jairam Ramesh tweeted to lash out on the allegedly made-up claims of the Union government. Ramesh asked, “Is it any surprise that the new Parliament is being consecrated with typically false narratives from the WhatsApp University? The BJP/RSS Distorians stand exposed yet again with Maximum Claims, Minimum Evidence.”

He said that while the “majestic sceptre” was conceived by the Adheenam mutt and presented to Nehru in August 1947, “there is no documented evidence whatsoever of Mountbatten, Rajaji & Nehru describing this sceptre as a symbol of 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,” Ramesh said, adding that the sceptre is being used by “the PM and his drum-beaters for their political ends in Tamil Nadu.”

The Sengol. Photo: ddnews.gov.in

Ramesh was responding to Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s press briefing in Chennai on May 25, 2023 in which she claimed that the historic sceptre’s installation at the new parliament building was a matter of pride for Tamil Nadu.

Ramesh went on to emphasise the Congress’s attack on the BJP for allegedly not allowing the President of India Droupadi Murmu, the Constitutional head of the Indian state, to inaugurate the new Parliament.

Union home minister Amit Shah soon responded and alleged that by questioning the sanctity of the sceptre, “Congress has heaped another shameful insult” at the Shaivite mutt Adheenam.

“The Thiruvaduthurai Adheenam, a holy Saivite Mutt, itself spoke about the importance of the Sengol at the time of India’s freedom. Congress is calling the Adheenam’s history as BOGUS! Congress needs to reflect on their behaviour,” Shah said.

The big question, however, is how flimsy or solid the evidence is to back the Union government’s assertions.

The Hindu reported that while there is ample evidence that the sceptre was gifted to Nehru by the Adheenam mutt’s delegation, accompanied by the recital of hymns from Thevaram, there is nothing to suggest that the ritual was treated by Nehru or Mountbatten as a symbolic transfer of power. The government’s own docket about the sceptre presented to the press is laced with thin evidence to back its own claim. The Hindu said that its August 11, 1947 edition carried a picture of the mutt’s delegation travelling to Delhi with the sceptre at the Central Railway Station, Chennai, which indicated that the sceptre was not flown to Delhi as the government claims.

Also read: The Sengol Issue: Instead of Placing Symbols, PM Modi Needs to Restore Parliament’s Legitimacy

Moreover, in most historical sources, Nehru is never shown as treating the handing over of the sceptre as an important enough ceremony to mark the transfer of power. Time magazine on August 25, 1947, in a descriptive article about celebrations around Indian independence, said the following:

“Even such an agnostic as Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of becoming India’s first Prime Minister, fell into the religious spirit. From Tanjore in south India came two emissaries of Sri Amblavana Desigar, head of a sannyasi order of Hindu ascetics. Sri Amblavana thought that Nehru, as first Indian head of a really Indian Government ought, like ancient Hindu kings, to receive the symbol of power and authority from Hindu holy men.

 With the emissaries came south India’s most famous player of the nagasaram, a special kind of Indian flute. Like other sannyasis, who abstain from hair-cutting and hair-combing, the two emissaries wore their long hair properly matted and wound round their heads. Their naked chests and foreheads were streaked with sacred ash, blessed by Sri Amblavana. In an ancient Ford, the evening of Aug. 14, they began their slow, solemn progress to Nehru’s house. Ahead walked the flutist, stopping every 100 yards or so to sit on the road and play his flute for about 15 minutes. Another escort bore a large silver platter. On it was the pithambaram (cloth of God), a costly silk fabric with patterns of golden thread. 

When at last they reached Nehru’s house, the flutist played while the sannyasis awaited an invitation from Nehru.

Then they entered the house in dignity, fanned by two boys with special fans of deer hair. One sannyasi carried a scepter of gold, five feet long, two inches thick. He sprinkled Nehru with holy water from Tanjore and drew a streak in sacred ash across Nehru’s forehead. Then he wrapped Nehru in the pithambaram and handed him the golden scepter. He also gave Nehru some cooked rice which had been offered that very morning to the dancing god Nataraja in south India, then flown by plane to Delhi.” (Emphasis added)

The description shows that the handing over of the sceptre was one of the many similar gifts that Nehru must have received while meeting multiple delegations during the transfer of power – none pointing at the government’s claim that the sceptre was first given to Mountbatten and then taken back from him to be given to Nehru after having been “purified” by water from river Ganga.

The News Minute reported that the handing over of the sceptre was “not the only religious ritual that Nehru participated [in] on the eve of independence.” The article cites the book Betrayal in India by D.F. Karaka to say that “Nehru yielded to religious ceremonies as the Independence edged closer and consented to have the blessings of religious pandits.”

“A sacred fire was consecrated according to Vedic rites at the New Delhi garden of Dr Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly. The learned members present there filed past the fire, a Brahmin sprinkled each with a few drops of water, and a woman pressed a bright vermilion dot on their foreheads. Karaka mentions that all of the ministers and the makers of the Constitution including Nehru were part of this ritual before they entered into the special midnight session of the Constituent Assembly,” the report said.

Even the newspaper articles shared by the government in its docket do not accord any official significance to the sceptre. Rather, all of them record the Sengol as a gift by Adheenam to Nehru as a courteous gesture by the seers.

The government appears to have relied on a 2021 article written by RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy in his own Tamil language magazine Thuglak, also known for its Hindu right-wing views. Gurumurthy made similar claims that the government made a few days ago on the basis of a version shared by Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi, the 68th head of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Pitham, from his memory to one of his disciples in 1978.

The government docket also contained a blog post titled “WhatsApp History” written by famous Tamil writer Jeyamohan which went on to ridicule the government’s version. It is unclear why the docket published Jeyamohan’s article that contradicts its own claims. The docket also cites the 2021-22 annual policy note by Tamil Nadu’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department that stated the sceptre as signifying the transfer of power. However, The Hindu reported that the reference was removed from the policy notes of 2022-23 and 2023-24.

Countering the claim, The News Minute said that the book Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins stated that although so many religious rituals were “tiresome” for Nehru, he “submitted to it with almost cheerful humility” as “a mark of respect to the seers”. The report also said that Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition mentions that the handover of the sceptre “took place at a private residence as part of the celebration and not as an official ceremony.”

With no historical sources confirming that the handing over of the sceptre was an official ceremony, the government’s claims are surely doubtful. Neither Mountbatten’s own accounts nor any of the documentations of transfer of power by India’s founding fathers, including Rajaji and Nehru, cite the sceptre as anything more important than a congratulatory ritual.

Speaking to The Wire, historian Madhavan K. Palat, who is also the editor of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, said, “What one must understand is at the time of transfer of power, India was a dominion. It remained so until January 1950 when India declared itself a sovereign. In 1947, power was transferred, not sovereignty. It doesn’t make sense that a royal sceptre was used constitutionally to symbolise transfer of power.”

In his interview with BBC Hindi, Palat pointed out the lack of records that back the government’s claims. “If Mountbatten had handed it over to Nehru as a symbol of the transfer of power, it would have been fully publicised. It would have been in all the photographs about the transfer of power since the British took great care about such publicity. It (the Sengol) is like the Queen’s sceptre at the Coronation and they would have loved to advertise it. I don’t think Mountbatten gave it to Nehru at all!’’

“Secondly, Nehru would never have accepted such a symbol of power from the Colonial authority. That symbolism is wrong. He would have accepted power only from the people of India, the Constituent assembly, the Constitution, or their equivalent. As a symbol, Nehru would not have taken it from the Viceroy. Mountbatten being asked to remain Governor General is one thing, but the last thing Nehru would have allowed is symbolism of this kind,’’ Palat told BBC Hindi, adding that Nehru may have accepted a “gift of some kind”.

“Not as a transfer of power. Not as a symbol of power, not at all. Who was the head of this mutt (or math) or his representative to hand over to Nehru anything as a symbol of power? What was his democratic authority? Nothing at all. If it was really a transfer of power story, there must be some evidence, some record, something, not what the Adheenam or a jeweller says. There has to be an official record of such important events. There is absolutely nothing anywhere,’’ he said.

“If, indeed, it was such an important symbol of transfer of power, why was it dumped in the Allahabad museum and why has it taken 75 years to unearth?” he said.