Modi wields the sceptre in India more than ever

MEAphotogallery (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What was a sunny Pentecost weekend for you and me took on the colours of a political high mass in India. MO* contributor Gie Goris: “The images leave no doubt: Modi is wielding the sengol.”

Translation of this article is provided by kompreno, using a combination of machine translation and human correction. More articles from MO* are included in kompreno‘s curation of the finest analysis, opinion & reporting — from all across Europe, translated into your language. Original source.

“Even his detractors acknowledge that Narendra Modi is remarkably adept at the politics of spectacle,” writes Shoaib Daniyal in his newsletter The India Fix on Monday 29 May. This art of spectacle culminated the day before, Daniyal adds, with the official opening of the new parliament building in Delhi.

Sunday 28 May was indeed a day of theatrical drama and symbolic messages. It was also, in a sense, the kick-off for the national elections due in a year’s time. Not insignificantly, the day Modi chose to inaugurate the new parliament building was also the 140th birthday of V.D. Savarkar, arguably the founder of Hindu nationalism.

The day Modi chose to inaugurate the new parliament building was also the 140th birthday of V.D. Savarkar, arguably the founder of Hindu nationalism.

The culmination of Modi’s spectacle politics was an accumulation of well-chosen accents. The political emphasis, given the date, was on Hindu nationalism; the ceremonial emphasis was on Parliament as the expression of the people’s will; the symbolic emphasis was on Hindu religious blessings; the historical emphasis was on the royal power with which Modi was identified; and finally the cultural emphasis was on the importance of Brahmanical (the highest of the four varnas of the Indian caste system, ed.) rituals and Tamil priests, perhaps as part of a wider electoral strategy.

One-man show

The entire choreography of the inauguration was built around Narendra Modi and him alone. This meant, first of all, that the President of India was not even invited, even though the President is the head of the democratic institutions of the Republic. The fact that Draupadi Murmu is only the second woman president and the first from an indigenous community made her absence all the more bitter for critics. The mockery of the president was enough to prompt the political opposition to boycott the entire ceremony — drawing even more attention to the prime minister.

The old Parliament House was built by the British as a colonial edifice and was too much of a reminder that Indian independence had come about by British decision rather than the overthrow of the colonial state through a liberation struggle

The new building should put an end to this once and for all: the building contract was awarded by an Indian prime minister, the plans were drawn up by Indian architects, the construction company that completed the work in record time is Indian, and the MPs who will sit there will be elected by Indian voters only. And the two billion euro cost of the whole thing will be paid for by Indian taxpayers.

Seducing the South

It is therefore particularly curious that the entire ceremony revolved around the installation of a ceremonial sceptre — the sengol in Tamil — which, according to the now official legend, the last British viceroy, Mountbatten, is said to have given to Prime Minister Nehru as a symbol of the transfer of power. In this way, Modi associates the heart of democracy with the colonial past and the absolute power of medieval rulers. The most plausible explanation for the introduction of the sceptre and the accompanying ceremony with Tamil Brahmin monks is ideological and electoral.

Modi associates the heart of democracy with the colonial past and the absolute power of medieval rulers.

Modi’s BJP party is weak in South India and is attempting to underline its respect for South Indian Hinduism. The fact that it can also dismiss the other parties as Tamil haters for boycotting the inauguration is a nice touch. But it is not clear, however, whether this discourse will resonate with Tamils, who have traditionally been suspicious of Hindu nationalists and their emphasis on Hindi as the national language and their power base in the Hindi belt of northern India.

Monks without worry or fear

Another “advantage” of the sceptre ceremony, of course, is that it gave all the photographers a chance to capture dramatic images of a generously striding Modi with the sceptre in the new parliament building. The aura of royal power matches the cult of personality that is being erected around Modi.

The fact that only Hindu priests of Brahmin origin were allowed to consecrate the parliament building, while the prime minister lay on the floor with his hands folded, is a provocation to all those who do not like a Hindu nationalist project: Muslims, Christians, secularists and others. The Indian newspaper The Telegraph summed up the outrage with the scathing headline: “2023 BCE”.

Only Hindu priests of Brahmin origin were allowed to consecrate the parliament building

A word about on the sceptre and the legend. There seems to be no historical evidence to support the story that Mountbatten asked for an indigenous ritual, or that Nehru got the idea for the sceptre from one of his advisers, or that any ritual of transmission of the sceptre took place. It is the present government that is gradually piecing together a history to support its future ambition — a Hindu India. Sometimes important historical events are omitted from the curriculum, sometimes events are invented. And often the facts are changed to fit the ideological narrative.

On Monday 29 May, The Wire published a translation of a trenchant essay written in 1947 in which V.N. Annadurai took the monks’ motives for awarding a golden sceptre to task. He also questioned the impact of this “gift” on the democratic governance of the country.

The monks made the donation to protect their privileges, Annadurai claimed 76 years ago. “Forget for a moment that it is made of pure gold and is one and a half metres long and beautifully designed. Forget that and look at the sengol. Only then will you understand how the lords and the rich bourgeoisie fear the wrath of the people. But the congregations fear nothing, they sit without fear or worry, with the frightened people at their feet, with the government protecting them and the rich sending them troops. The sceptre is a plea. It is not a gift, not a sign of love, not a symbol of patriotism. It is a mere plea!”

Under the Hindu flag

Prime Minister Modi’s choice of V.D. Savarkar’s birthday to inaugurate the parliament building is also significant, argues Ronojoy Sen in, because “Savarkar never had anything to do with elections or a parliament.” An ideologue of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, he saw no place for Muslims or Christians and was very much in tune with the romantic nationalism that swept Europe in the early 20th century. Blood, soil and a common religion were never far away.

Blood, soil and a common religion were never far away.

In his weekly Sunday morning podcast, Modi praised Savarkar as a freedom fighter who “could not tolerate any attitude of slavery.” This clashes somewhat with a plea for mercy to the colonial government that Savarkar wrote in 1913. In it, he emphasised the importance he attached to loyalty to the British government as a condition of progress. But more importantly for what Modi is saying, “slavery” in his lexicon refers to the centuries-long presence of Muslim rulers in Indian territory.

The Tamil sceptre, the Brahmin priests and Savarkar’s birthday tell a clear story: “That the nation should be founded under a Hindu flag,” to use Savarkar’s words. It was a dream, he wrote, “to be realised in this generation or the next. If it is not realised, I may be considered a daydreamer, but if it becomes a reality, I will be considered a prophet.”

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