‘King’ Modi’s sceptre and the wrestlers without rights

In the state that Modi is building, no one — not even Hindus he claims to speak for — will have rights. Or a voice.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi carries a sengol as Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla looks on during the inauguration of the new Parliament building in New Delhi, May 28, 2023
Prime Minister Narendra Modi carries a sengol as Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla looks on during the inauguration of the new Parliament building in New Delhi, May 28, 2023 [India's Press Information Bureau/Handout via Reuters]

On May 28, 2023, the Indian capital, New Delhi, witnessed two dramatic scenes play out within 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) of each other.

Just as a new parliament building was being unveiled, police officers were manhandling some of the country’s top female wrestlers who have brought home medals from the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

The wrestlers have been on the streets for the last month demanding an investigation into Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, president of the Wrestling Federation of India, who has been accused of sexually abusing them and other women wrestlers, including a minor. On that day they tried, with their supporters, to march peacefully towards the new parliament building but were blocked by Delhi police, whose officers pushed them around, dragged them and lifted them against their will, before detaining them and filing charges.

Meanwhile, Singh, who is a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as a member of the same parliament, entered the new building triumphantly waving to the cameras.

It is this same police who were reluctant to even register a complaint by the wrestlers against the legislator. It took a Supreme Court order for the Delhi police to perform this basic and mandatory function. But this is in keeping with the behaviour of the Delhi police department, which reports to the central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the last eight years, it has repeatedly refused to register reports against leaders of the BJP when they have openly incited violence as well as against organisers or participants of assemblies calling for violence against Muslims. It has started behaving like an arm of the ruling party.

On that Sunday, the bizarre and horrible combined. It was comical to see a prime minister, elected through a democratic process, turning an inauguration of a new parliament building into a ceremony that felt like the unveiling of a new republic with a majoritarian monarchical hue. Priests from the southern state of Tamil Nadu were flown in on special planes to lead a ceremony that looked like the anointment of an emperor.

These priests presented Modi with a golden sceptre, which was taken out of a museum it had been lying in for the last 75 years. It had been sent there by the office of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who had been given this sceptre, called a sengol, by the priests of an Adheenam or Mutt – part of the Shaivite religious sect of Tamil Nadu.

These priests had come to Delhi by train on the day in August 1947 when India was to be declared free and the constituent assembly was to take power from the British Monarch.

The sengol is a symbol of divine power. Some variant of it exists in nearly every society. Recently, King Charles III was seen holding a sceptre after being anointed as the new monarch of the United Kingdom.

Nehru, the democrat, could not allow this sengol to be part of the official inauguration ceremony of a secular democracy. Himself agnostic, he accepted it from the priests privately, at his residence, as a gesture of respect. As pointed out by historians, it was put in a museum like many other gifts he had received.

Modi’s government then wove a lie around it. It claimed that the Hindu priests had handed over this sengol to Britain’s Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India who then handed it over to Nehru signifying the transfer of power from the British to Indians.

According to the BJP government, the sengol represents the continuity of the divine power of ancient times, which was held by a succession of Hindu kingdoms on its behalf. That continuity was broken for 1,300 years, which saw Muslims ruling India, and then a brief interlude of British rule. After the departure of the British, the power should have returned to its rightful owners – that is, the Hindus. By not placing the sengol in the seat of power – the parliament – and instead sending it to a museum, the BJP claims Nehru had disrespected it as well as ancient Indian tradition.

Historians immediately busted the lie in this claimed sequence of events. But it was propagated by the print and TV media as well as the ruling party as an act of historical injustice to the Hindus, which was now being corrected by Modi. The spectacle around the inauguration of the new parliament building was therefore meant to suggest the restoration of Hindu power.

The sceptre was handed to Modi with Hindu religious chants. Holding it in his hands, Modi entered the parliament building followed by his MPs and the speaker of the house. He then placed the sengol near the seat of the speaker, where it is supposed to remain as a reminder of that divine power.

What Modi did was not new. He has been performing similar symbolic acts for the last eight years, effectively presenting himself as a new Hindu monarch even if elected through a democratic process. He conducts religious ceremonies and unveils temples in his official capacity.

In August 2020, Modi led a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of the Ram Temple at a site in the city of Ayodhya where the Babri Mosque had stood for more than 500 years before it was demolished by a mob mobilised through a years-long-campaign spearheaded by Modi’s party and its affiliates. Modi himself actively participated in that campaign.

Modi has not hidden his contempt for the secular character of India. After his second election victory in 2019, he boasted before his party’s lawmakers that he had effectively banished the word secularism from India’s political discourse. The inauguration of the new parliament building was again used to give a Hindu colour to the highest seat of power in India.

Opposition parties had boycotted the ceremony, blaming the Modi government for trashing parliamentary norms and accusing it of violating constitutional principles. It was a Modi show. The president of India, the titular head of state in whose name the government functions, was not invited. The vice president, who also chairs the upper house of parliament, was also kept out of it.

This ceremony was played live by the country’s major TV media, largely blocking out the scenes of violence against wrestlers and their supporters. They were condemned as those who had muddied a sacred occasion with their selfish demands.

This contrast represents the truth of what Modi calls “New India”. On the one hand, it involves using symbols like the sengol to try to usher in a Hindu nation. Yet, in reality, the scenes of female wrestlers being battered in the vicinity of the new building make it starkly clear that this nation can flourish only by stripping all citizens, including Hindus like the leading wrestlers, of their rights.

As Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of the now-abolished state of Jammu and Kashmir said, Hindus must not make the mistake of thinking they are the masters of this nation. The new India, she said, was bound to follow Kashmir in its repression – where it’s hard to even breathe in freedom.

What is being built is a state where no one can claim their rights. Those who try to will be suppressed. Just like the wrestlers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.