The Union government has claimed that the handover of the Sengol, a historical sceptre from Tamil Nadu, by the pontiffs of the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam mutt to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the eve of Independence, marked the moment of transfer of power between the British and India.Nehru had apparently turned to C Rajagopalachari, the last Governor-General of India, on the symbolism that should be adopted to mark the transfer of power.It was then Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji, who suggested that Nehru may receive a Sengol, which was used to mark the transfer of powers during the Chola dynasty, from the Viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten, the government has claimed.Nehru apparently agreed and assigned the task to forge a Sengol to Rajaji.But while Nehru, indeed, received a sceptre from the holy mutt, none of the accompanying claims appear to be backed by historical records.The earliest reference to the claim that both Mountbatten and Nehru had reached out to the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam to enable this transfer of power appears in a 2017 Facebook post by the mutt itself.A verbose version of this claim started doing rounds in 2019, as can be seen here and elsewhere.In addition to these, the government docket on the Sengol and a government documentary also refer to this apparent symbolism as a revival of Chola tradition.This article tries to fact check each of these claims. Sceptres were indeed a part of the Chola tradition, but they have been part of Tamil culture for centuries before the Cholas.The Tamil epic Thirukkural, dated between 3rd century BCE and 5th century CE, dedicates a chapter each to the ‘Right Sceptre’ and the ‘Cruel Sceptre’.
But the sceptre as a mark of sovereign power is not unique to Tamils, or even IndiansThe earliest found reference to a sceptre is in a plaque of Tiglath-Pileser III from 8th century BCE found in Assur.They have been widely used across the world, even marking the recent coronation of Charles III as King of the United Kingdom.It is also pertinent to note that on August 15, 1947, India was only accorded a dominion status, and George VI continued to be the Emperor of India till the Constitution came into effect on January 26, 1950.It is highly unlikely that the Viceroy of India, a representative of the Monarch of Britain, will hand over a sceptre to the Prime Minister of a dominion that he himself continued to head as the Governor-General, again a representative of the Emperor. The official and formal transfer of power to India was a result of the Indian Independence Act 1947 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which received the Royal Assent on July 18, 1947.The Act stated that “as from the fifteenth day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, two independent dominions shall be set up in India, to be known respectively as India and Pakistan.” It is this Act and the Royal Assent that marked the transfer of power.There was no requirement for any formal action on the end of Viceroy on August 15, 1947.
Even the Act was eventually repealed on January 26, 1950 by the Article 395 of the Indian Constitution.The chronology of the events surrounding the apparent symbolic transfer of power also do not validate any of the government’s claimsThe sources cited in the documentary made by the Narendra Modi government themselves make it amply clear that the gifting of a golden sceptre by the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam and the blessing by their pontiff were not part of any official ceremony.The book Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins calls this event a rendezvous of delegates that venerated superstition and occult with the prophet of a new India of science and socialism.They further say, although this event was tiresome, Nehru submitted to it with almost cheerful humility.This indicates that Nehru unwillingly participated in this event only as a mark of respect to the seers. In his book The Great Partition, Yasmin Khan mentions that a number of religious rituals were part of the celebrations.She clearly mentions that the handover of the sceptre took place at a private residence as part of the celebration and not as an official ceremony.Yasmin, however, seems to have mixed up the handover of the sceptre at Nehru’s residence and the holy fire at Dr Rajendra Prasad’s house into a single event. The book Betrayal in India by DF Karaka recalls these as two different events.Karaka mentions that Nehru yielded to religious ceremonies as the Independence edged closer and consented to have the blessings of religious pandits.
This is not the only religious ritual that Nehru participated on the eve of IndependenceA sacred fire was consecrated according to Vedic rites at the New Delhi garden of Dr Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly.The learned members present there filed past the fire, a Brahmin sprinkled each with a few drops of water, and a woman pressed a bright vermilion dot on their foreheads.Karaka mentions that all of the ministers and the makers of the Constitution including Nehru were part of this ritual before they entered into the special midnight session of the Constituent Assembly.None of the quoted sources in the documentary make any reference to the sceptre being the symbol of the transfer of power. No historical document referred by this author makes any reference to such a symbolic transfer of power using a sceptre.This includes Mountbatten’s last personal report as the Viceroy of India, sent on 16 August 1947; the chapter on ‘The Mountbatten Viceroyalty Princes, Partition and Independence’ from the book Constitutional Relations between Britain and India: The Transfer of Power 1942-7; The Transfer of Power in India by VP Menon; and even India Remembered: A Personal Account of the Mountbattens During the Transfer of Power by Pamela Mountbatten. Newspaper articles from August 1947, which are quoted by the docket provided by the Modi government, also record the Adheenam gifting the Sengol to Nehru.But there is no mention of Rajagopalachari and Mountbatten asking for it, or that of Mountbatten receiving and handing back the sceptre to the Adheenam. The government docket relies heavily on an article by RSS ideologue S Gurumuthy in the magazine Thuglak to establish the historical significance of the sceptre in the so-called transfer of power.This article published in May 2021, in turn relies on a book published in December 2019 recalling the speech made by Kanchi Sakaracharya Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati in August 1978 about the Sengol. Apart from the Thuglak article, the government docket quotes social media and online blogs liberally.It is ironic that the government docket also refers to a 2019 blog post by the famed Tamil author Jeyamohan, titled ‘WhatsApp history’.In the article, Jeyamohan expounds on the psyche of social media forwards and how they create narratives of parallel “WhatsApp history”.He also vehemently denies the claims of Rajaji’s involvement in the episode and the transfer of power using the sceptre.The fifth session of the Constituent Assembly of India commenced in the constitution hall, New Delhi, at 11 pm on August 14, 1947.
In the special midnight session, Jawaharlal Nehru passed a motion requesting the members to take a pledge as the clock strikes midnightThe full resolution as read out by Nehru before the Constitutional Assembly is popularly known as the ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech.As the clock struck twelve, all the members took the following pledge:“At this solemn moment when the people of India, through suffering and sacrifice, have secured freedom, I……….a member of the Constituent Assembly of India, do dedicate myself in all humility to the service of India and her people to the end that this ancient land attain her rightful and honoured place in the world and make her full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare mankind.”The power transferred automatically at midnight as per the Indian Independence Act, and the Constituent Assembly assumed power for the governance of India with the pledge mentioned above.The Constituent Assembly then appointed Lord Mountbatten as the Governor General of India from August 15, 1947.With this, the midnight session came to an end. The swearing in ceremony commenced at 8.30 am on August 15, 1947, wherein Chief Justice of the Federal Court of India, Sir Hiralal J Kania, swore-in Lord Mountbatten as the Governor General.Mountbatten then issued the oath to the new cabinet including the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
This ceremonial appointment of the new cabinet by the Governor-General/President is continued till date.The Sansad Bhavan (Parliament House) housed the Constituent Assembly which appointed Mountbatten as the first Governor-General and selected the first cabinetThe Constituent Assembly indirectly reflected the will of people as expressed in the 1946 Indian provincial elections.The Constituent Assembly was succeeded by bicameral houses whose members are elected directly and indirectly by the people of India. As the Parliament moves to its new location, it is important to remember that Parliament and the government derives its power from the people of the country and not from any symbols remnant of its monarchical past. Santhosh Saravanan is a Chennai based analyst interested in economics and public policy.References: Mountbatten’s last personal report as Viceroy of India, 16 August 1947 | The British Library (bl.uk)The Sceptre, its Origin and Significance (jstor.org) Sign up for a Weekly Digest from Dhanya Rajendran* indicates requiredEmail Address * First Name