Sengol, PM Narendra Modi
The entire event on Sunday from its handing over by the Adheenam heads to the prime minister, and the ritualised march to the Lok Sabha Speaker’s podium, was unabashedly a Hindu religious spectacle.

For 75 years no one missed the Sengol, for the right reasons

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Until May 25, except for Tamils, few had heard about the “Sengol”. A day later it seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Its 750 km journey, from the Allahabad museum to the symbolic centre of India’s parliamentary democracy, accompanied by a retinue of Hindu Shaivaite math heads, is further confirmation of the country’s religious trajectory.

That Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sangh Parivar ideologues thought up the Sengol idea is not a surprise. It is the latest manifestation of the ruling BJP’s express intention to inject religion and/or Hindu religious symbols wherever possible. No longer defensive, but assertive, the BJP has made it more than clear that it stands for Hindutva, will promote its version of the Hindu religion and work solely for the majority Hindu community.

The Sengol is being interpreted as a tool of the transfer of power, and justice, to give it a secular veneer but it was used by the Hindu kings of the Chola empire in a feudal era as a quasi-religious totem. The entire event on Sunday from its handing over by the Adheenam heads to the prime minister, and the ritualised march to the Lok Sabha Speaker’s podium, was unabashedly a Hindu religious spectacle.

Also read: Explainer: What is ‘Sengol’, who crafted it and what’s its significance?

To stamp the BJP’s Hindutva authority, and to remind everyone where India is heading, the Sengol is now permanently docked next to the Speaker’s chair. An ameliorative follow-up comprising a multi-faith chant of religious verses in no way dilutes the significance and meaning of the Sengol and the manner in which it has been affixed prominently in the House of the People.

India remains on paper and constitutionally a secular republic. But in practice, especially in the last nine years under Modi’s BJP, majoritarian Hindutva is in full-blown view. The practice of BJP ministers, for instance, conducting vedic rituals before taking possession of their offices after an election is so normalised that the media does not even report it anymore.

In its seventh decade after Independence, India under the BJP is seeing religion take centre-stage in political praxis, social narratives and inter-personal discourse. Families and friendships are falling apart on WhatsApp groups and social media over toxic arguments on the issue of religion. A big change is coming. And, it’s worrying.

Also read: New Parliament building reflects aspirations of New India: PM Modi at inauguration

The adage “public memory is short” turns out to be sadly prophetic every time. By encouraging and promoting religion in the public sphere, India’s ruling party appears to be forgetting that it was essentially religion that triggered the country’s partition in 1947.

Post-independence, after the horrors of Partition, the Congress’s Jawaharlal Nehru government sidelined religion by opting for a secular Constitution. The reason was not just because Nehru was an idealist, but also an attempt to prevent any similar division from occurring in the future. And, whatever his or the Congress’s shortcomings may be, India has remained united proving that secularism was the right antidote to religious fundamentalism.

When there is a howl of protest from a large section of Indians over a political party’s brazen public dalliance with religion it is partly due to the fear of its destructive potential. Religion and its practices are best left to the choices of individuals in their personal lives.

Also read: New Parliament inauguration: Sengol triggers BJP-Congress war of words

A look at the world beyond India makes it clear that whichever country in the modern era has opted for the religious route over secularism has had to pay a heavy price in many ways, not least the dilution of democracy.

Way back, in 1979, Iran experienced an uprising against the then Shah deposing him from power. What started off as a broad-based revolution was hijacked by a Shia group headed by the Ayotollah Khomeini, converting the uprising into an “Islamic revolution”.

The uprising was justified as the Shah’s regime was notoriously authoritarian. But secular groups wanted it to be replaced by a genuine liberal democracy. Instead, the religious takeover of the uprising turned it into a pyrrhic victory. Today, the dominance of religion in social life and a theocratic state in Iran have severely stifled its democracy.

Also read: Is the ‘august’ Sengol a symbol of transfer of power? This is what experts in TN say

Pakistan’s sharp turn into a near-theocratic Islamic state in the 1980’s under President Zia ul-Haq, after the process was initiated by his predecessor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, has seen a sharp deterioration in the quality of its democracy. Sectarian killings, of Shias by the Sunnis, and the insecurity of minorities in that country have added to social instability among other issues.

Bangladesh is hovering dangerously between a secular government represented by the Awami League and the pro-Islamic Bangladesh National Party (BNP) backed by the Jamaat and other fringe religious groups. Again, it is the dangers represented by the BNP that make minorities in that country insecure and nervous over what the future holds for them – such is the existential threat posed by religion in the public space.

In the case of the Arab Spring a decade ago, it was again religion that played a spoilsport in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood that was voted to power attempted to push through an Islamic Constitution. This was resisted by the secular sections, eventually rupturing the unity of the uprising. The military under its commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used the opportunity and staged a coup, taking the country back to the pre-Arab Spring authoritarian era of Hosni Mubarak.

Also read: Rituals at new Parliament building inauguration show country is regressing: Pawar

In Syria, its authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad used the religious-sectarian divide between the Shias and Sunnis to weaken the democratic uprising, eventually snuffing it out. The uprising itself, after initial victories, was weakened due to the attempt by religious fundamentalists to browbeat the secular sections. The story is sickeningly repetitive.

The most tragic has been Yemen where the fight between Houthis (a Shia sect) and the Sunnis spilled over into the larger geopolitical fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom consider themselves leaders of the Shia and Sunni sects respectively. The intense fighting in Yemen has turned that country into a humanitarian disaster.

The examples are endless, of the damage and destruction that the practice and promotion of religion in public space can do. In retrospect, Nehru’s act in showing the Sengol its place seems prescient. It appears that after a Tamil Nadu Adheenam handed the Sengol from India’s last viceroy Lord Mountbatten to Nehru, he quietly passed it on to the Allahabad museum – without much fanfare.

And, no one missed it. Until Prime Minister Modi resurrected it on May 28, 2023.

Also watch: Top 10 takeaways from Modi speech at new Parliament inauguration

Also read: Wrestlers detained: TN CM Stalin says Sengol has ‘bent’ the very first day

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