India’s new Parliament building: Sceptre from Tamil Nadu at heart of raging debate

This handout photograph taken on May 28, 2023 and released by the Indian Press Information Bureau shows India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi carrying the Tamil sceptre during the inauguration ceremony of the new parliament building in New Delhi on May 28, 2023. - AFP

NEW DELHI (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): A 1.5m-long gold-and-silver ceremonial sceptre is at the heart of a controversy raging around Sunday’s (May 28) inauguration of a new Parliament building in India.

Crafted by the Vummidis, a famous jewellery-making family in Tamil Nadu, the sengol, or “staff of righteousness”, was commissioned by the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam monastic order. It was handed over by its members to the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in a ceremony at his Delhi residence in August 1947.

The government claims that this process marked the “transfer of power from British to Indian hands”, in keeping with a tradition adopted from the Cholas, a powerful Tamil dynasty that ruled parts of southern India and beyond from 300 BC to 1279 AD.

Its rulers, it is believed, would accept a sengol from a head priest before assuming their responsibilities.

Until on Sunday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi installed the sengol next to the Speaker’s chair in the Lower House of the new Parliament, it had lain in relative obscurity in a museum in Prayagraj in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Modi, who received the sceptre from members of the monastic order on Saturday at a ceremony at his residence, attacked the opposition Congress party, accusing it of disrespecting the relic by having it displayed as a “walking stick” at the museum in Prayagraj.

Claiming it connected “traditions of India’s past with the future of independent India”, he said: “The sengol is getting its deserved place in the temple of democracy.”

Congress has, however, contested the government’s claim and emphasised that there is no documented evidence of the handing over of the sengol to Nehru as a symbol of transfer of British power to India.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said the claim was “bogus”, one that was “wholly and completely manufactured in the minds of a few and dispersed into WhatsApp, and now to the drum-beaters in the media”.

“The sceptre is now being used by the PM and his drum-beaters for their political ends in Tamil Nadu. This is typical of this brigade that embroiders facts to suit its twisted objectives,” he added in a tweet on Friday.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been trying to secure greater popularity in southern India, including in Tamil Nadu. In May, however, the party lost in an election in Karnataka, the only state in southern India where it had held power.

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India , parliament , sengol , sceptre , Modi , controversy


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