Explained: The sengol in Tamil history and BJP’s appeasement plan

The Union government made a surprise announcement that the sengol from Tamil Nadu used by Jawaharlal Nehru at the time of Independence will be shifted to the new Parliament building. But what does this move signify?
Illustration of a king being handed the sceptre
Illustration of a king being handed the sceptre
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The surprise announcement by the Union government that a sengol (sceptre) from Tamil Nadu is to be used in the inauguration of the new Parliament building raises many questions on the history, significance, and political messaging of using the artefact. The sengol was last seen at a public event in 1947 when it was handed to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, by Kumaraswamy Thambiran, the deputy head of the Thiruvaduthurai Adheenam, a prominent Saivite mutt.

The new Parliament building is set to be inaugurated on May 28 in the midst of a political storm. Nineteen Opposition parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and others, have decided to boycott the event, protesting that it is inappropriate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lead the inauguration instead of President Droupadi Murmu, as is custom. The Union government’s decision is also being seen as the sidelining of India’s first Adivasi president.

What is the sengol’s history?

In various ancient Tamil texts, the sengol is referred to as the symbol of a just and benevolent ruler. In the Silapathikaram, for example, repeated references are made to the sceptre of the Pandyas. According to the text, the Pandya sceptre is so synonymous with justice that it has never been known to bend. It is within this setting that the murder of Kannagi’s husband, Kovalan, in the Pandya kingdom’s capital Madurai is described:

And since the champion of justice
failed to safeguard Kannagi’s beloved spouse,
the upright sceptre of the Pandya kings
became forever bent.

The above translation by Alain Danielou, brought out by Aleph Publications, carries forward the imagery. C Rajeswari, a socio-religious analyst, additionally explains to TNM that the sceptre and similar devices are a symbol of authority. “The word ‘gol’ refers to the device’s staff-like structure. This structure when envisioned as a sengol signifies benevolence; the other side of power is punishment, in which case the sceptre would be referred to as ‘kodungol’.”

She also adds, “If you look at Christian literature, you will see the use of the shepherd’s staff. The hook at the end of the staff is used by shepherds to keep their flocks from wandering off.”

The handing over of a sceptre to a ruler is a practice in monarchies and is believed to signify just rule. Critics have been quick to point out that such a practice should not have a place in a democracy. “Nehru was an atheist. He wasn’t ‘anti-Hindu’ as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been projecting him. His exposure and education pushed him towards secular views. But he was also from the Pandit [Brahmin] caste, so the ideas of ‘sanatana dharma’ [the foundation of caste hierarchy] may have been deeply ingrained in him. He saw the sengol as a formality rather than one of huge religious significance, while also being anxious about something as important as independent rule. But the BJP is construing his use of the sengol as an acceptance of the Hindu Rashtra,” Rajeswari says.

Since independence, the sengol has been sequestered away in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) at the Anand Bhavan Museum, which is dedicated to the Nehru family. It will now be displayed at the new Parliament building after the inauguration.

Who are the Adheenams?

The Adheenams are a Tamil Saivite sect who emphasise on worship in Tamil and not Sanskrit. It is to be noted that the heads of the Adheenams are never Brahmin.

Earlier, during a controversy regarding the current Madurai Adheenam head, folklorist AK Perumal told TNM, “Tamil Saivite traditions worked to undermine Brahmin hegemony, though they were covert about it instead of being directly confrontational, such as dismissing the need for Sanskrit in worship.” It is also to be noted that this, however, does not mean that the tradition served to dismantle caste structures entirely. As Perumal mentioned to TNM at the time, the Madurai Adheenams pick their head seers almost entirely from the Saiva Vellalar community (Forward Caste). Across Tamil Nadu, the Aadheenam heads of various mutts come from whichever intermediate caste is the most dominant in the region.

Last year, the head of the Madurai Adheenam courted controversy by speaking at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) conference in Madurai city. Desigar Gnanasambandar made several divisive and communal remarks. This was in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Gnanasambanda Desika Paramacharya, who was widely seen as a secular figure who espoused inclusive views.

Rajeswari highlights another important factor. “The Adheenams at one time did not want to be identified as Hindu. They wanted to be known simply as Saivaites. Also, Saivism has been a huge problem for the BJP Hindutva narrative. But outside Tamil Nadu, the sengol will only be seen as something from a Hindu mutt in the state.”

Perumal had also previously told TNM that an attempt was underway to bring various worship forms under a homogenous Hindu identity. He explained that there was a time when Saivites and Vaisnavites in the state could not stand each other, but they have now been brought together under the Hindu umbrella. The folklorist further elaborated that Tamil Saivism began as a direct confrontation to north Indian Saivite traditions that had the patronage of the Chola kings. “The Adheenams endorsed worship in Tamil, rooted in the context of the land. There are even many references to Sivan in Sangam literature. The Adheenams viewed him as a Tamil god,” Perumal had said at the time.

With the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu being one of the major Opposition parties to the BJP, some are also wondering if the move to use the sengol at the inauguration is a form of ‘Tamil appeasement.’ Interestingly, at the press conference given regarding the sengol on Thursday, May 25 at the Raj Bhavan in Chennai by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman, the stage was shared by Tamil Nadu’s Minister for Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) PK Sekarbabu, alongside Union Minister for State Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, and Dairying L Murugan, Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi, and Telangana Governor and Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundarajan.

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