The Sengol Is a Symbol of 'Divine Right' to Power. It Does Not Belong in Parliament.

Parliament derives its mandate from the people, not from a divine entity or priests.

Union home minister Amit Shah announced that a Sengol (sceptre), which he claims was presented by the last viceroy of British India Lord Mountbatten to Jawaharlal Nehru on August 14, 1947 to mark the transfer of power from Britain to India, will be placed in the new parliament building that Prime Minister Modi will inaugurate on Sunday, May 28.

Shah’s claim has been questioned for lacking credible evidence in its support. It may be mentioned that the Sengol was the golden sceptre handed over to a king in Tamil Nadu by a God or Goddess for ruling the subjects and ensuring justice in their name. Shah provided an account stating that at the time of independence in August 1947, Mountbatten asked Nehru if any rituals were being followed in India for the transfer of power. Nehru then turned to Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji, who referred to the tradition that kings in Tamil Nadu followed for transferring power by handing over the Sengol.

Shah maintained that Rajaji arranged for a sengol from Tamil Nadu, which Mountbatten handed over to Nehru to signify the transfer of power from Britain to India. So far, he has not authenticated his claim with the support of any credible historical documents.

Constituent assembly and the transfer of power

Such a claim is completely contrary to the constituent assembly’s proceedings at midnight on August 14, 1947, when India became independent. Those proceedings illuminatingly reveal that the assembly adopted a motion moved by its president Rajendra Prasad for the transfer of power. Its text is worth quoting:

… it should be intimated to the viceroy that (1) the constituent assembly of India has assumed power for the governance of India, and (2) the constituent assembly of India has endorsed the recommendation that Lord Mountbatten be Governor-General of India from the August 15, 1947, and that this message be conveyed forthwith to Lord Mountbatten by the president and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

A view of the constituent assembly during one of its debates. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The adoption of that historic motion was a sequel to the sanctioning of the British parliament for transfer of power by enacting the Indian Independence Bill, 1947, which received royal assent on July 18, 1947 and became an Act. Immediately after that motion was adopted, Prasad and Nehru went to Mountbatten and informed him about the assembly’s decision to assume power to govern India. That constituted the real transfer of power, and there was no other way in which power was transferred.

Therefore, Amit Shah’s claim is a subversion of the facts of history that are recorded in the constituent assembly’s debates and its legislative intent. All those details were reported in The Hindu on August 15, 1947. It also reported that after announcing the assumption of power by the assembly, Nehru retired to an ante-room where a brief religious ceremony was held, and that a priest blessed Nehru and his mission.

There was no record or any evidence whatsoever of Mountbatten handing over the sengol to Nehru to mark the transfer of power.

Even eminent biographer of Rajaji and his grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, expressed bewilderment at Shah’s claim confessed with all consternation that he had heard about the sengol for the first time when Shah made his announcement.

The compiler of Nehru’s selected works, professor Madhavan Palat, asserted that had such a landmark event taken place marking the transfer of power, Nehru would have recorded it in his writings, and the media would have widely and prominently covered it.

Now that the hollowness of Shah’s claim has been brought to the limelight, it is imperative to examine the correctness of placing the Sengol in the new parliament building and that too near the Lok Sabha speaker’s chair.

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

The Sengol is rooted in the divine right theory

The Sengol is associated with the divine right theory of power and sovereignty, and such a theory has been long rejected and buried in democratic India. In Madurai’s Meenakshi temple, an oil painting shows the Goddess Meenakshi presenting a sengol to the king of Madurai, and thereby conveying the message that the king would rule in Her name and do justice to his subjects.

There is a mural in the 17th-century Ramalinga Vilasam Palace of Ramanathapuram, where the Goddess Rajarajeshwari is shown handing over the sengol to the king (the sethupathi, who basically ruled Ramanathapuram under the suzerainty of the rulers of Madurai).

The essence of it was that the king derived power not from the people, but from the Goddess. It depicted nothing but the divine right of kingship and firmly symbolised that all power, authority and sovereignty flowed from the Goddess. As in real life, a Goddess could not hand over the Sengol, so the brahmin priest in the ruler’s court handed it over to him.

Thus, the handing over of the Sengol is rooted in the divine right theory of power and in Brahmanical supremacy. It is, therefore, completely antithetical to democracy and the ideals of equality, equal opportunity and people as the source of power and authority.

Nehru was against the divine right theory

Nehru moved the Objectives Resolution in the constituent assembly on December 13, 1946, and he was shocked when some members of the assembly raised objections to a portion of it that said “sovereignty belongs to the people and rests with the people”.

Observing on January 22, 1947 in the assembly that “it is certainly a surprising objection”, Nehru sharply remarked:

“It may not be very surprising if those people who have lived in an atmosphere of medievalism do not give up their cherished illusions, but in the modern age how can a man believe for a moment in the divine and despotic rights of a human being?”

Asserting that the constituent assembly would never allow – and indeed repudiate – any notion entertained by some people that they would rule over human beings by special divine dispensation, he held that to be an “intolerable presumption”. It is hard to believe that Nehru, who rejected the divine right basis of power, authority and sovereignty in January 1947 would accept the Sengol in August that same year from Mountbatten.

He might have accepted the Sengol at his home, when some people who were visiting him possibly gave it to him out of sheer affection or admiration for his high stature and contributions India’s freedom. Because it was associated with the divine right theory of power and sovereignty, disregarding people as source of power, Nehru may have decided to keep it in a museum.

Sardar Patel’s rejection of the Travancore kingdom’s assertion

It is quite instructive to learn from the example of the Travancore Kingdom’s princely rulers who, in 1946, refused to join the Indian Union on the grounds that Hinduism and the Hindu God Padmanabhaswamy would be in danger if the kingdom become part of India.

They invoked the divine right theory of sovereignty to defend their decision and declare Travancore an independent country (strangely receiving recognition from Pakistan at that time). They asserted that the sovereignty of Travancore rested with Lord Padmanabha and He could not be subservient to the sovereignty of India. V.P. Menon mentioned in his book The Story of the Integration of Indian States that the Travancore maharaja’s devotion to Padmanabha bordered on fanaticism.

Former president K.R. Narayanan, in a speech delivered on August 14, 1998 on the occasion of unveiling a statue of Sardar Patel in parliament, made a poignant reference to that point and said:

When the dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, held out the argument that no one could negotiate a merger of the state with India as Travancore was ruled “in the name and on behalf of the tutelary deity, Sri Padmanabha”, Sardar Patel snapped with a twinkle in his eye, “Is that so? Then please tell me how could Travancore’s rulers allow Lord Padmanabha to become subservient to the British crown?”

When Narayanan, as vice-president of India, unveiled a portrait of former Hindu Mahasabha president N.C. Chatterjee in the parliament’s central hall, that portrait was also kept in the museum of parliament. That is because when something is kept in a museum, it is seen by lakhs of people. If it is instead kept in parliament, it will be seen by only those who have access to parliament.

Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon with Maharaja of Kochin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Parliament is not the place for the sengol

In any case, the Sengol is associated with the divine right of kingship. We are a democracy and no God, Goddess or Brahmin presents power to the elected ruler – it is the people who by their votes give the mandate to elected rulers.

The Sengol must be returned to the museum, and the constitution of India should be the guiding, fundamental law for our parliament and the nation.

S.N. Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K.R. Narayanan.