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The sengol (royal sceptre) is yet another masterstroke by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reassert the idea of an Indian nation in which Tamil Nadu is an integral but unique part of it. By having the non-brahmin adheenams participating in the ritual, it dents any Dravidianist critique that the religious nationalist project is a brahminical one.
The sengol’s connection with the Union government has a strange history. It appears that the agnostic Jawaharlal Nehru could only recall the bloodletting by Mughal princes who killed their brothers and moved against their fathers when they took power. For Delhi-centric Nehru, only the bloody Mughal tradition was of recall value when Mountbatten wondered on the eve of August 15, 1947 that an ancient civilization such as India would surely have a ritual appropriate to the transfer of power. But Nehru had the grace and sense to toss this question to Rajaji, the scholar of traditions and proponent of native wisdom.
Rajaji dipped into Tamil traditions and found an appropriate answer, one involving the sengol. So, before Nehru marched to the Central Hall to deliver his Tryst With Destiny oration, he became the Chola king emperor to whom power was being transferred. The nadaswaram playing completed his Tamilization.
At the Central Hall of Parliament, Nehru started by expressing his awe at the civilizational aspect of India but soon moved on to say that such a civilization had to be in blight for so many hundreds of years before it could get a chance to rediscover and renew itself. The Tryst With Destiny speech then swiftly moved to practical aspects and pressing issues of the day. All that civilizational stuff could wait. Let’s move on to putting food in the mouth of the millions, Nehru seemed to think.
The religious rituals accompanying the Sengol may have been overlooked in early independent India as Nehru himself saw little value in such things. But the Modi government has rediscovered it and through it asserted its view of what India is
The sengol has been rediscovered now. Central to the Sangh and nationalist narrative is that Tamil Nadu may be unique, different and distinct. But it’s an integral part of the Indian-Hindu civilization and ideas.
Going further, this narrative holds that Tamil Nadu, in-part due to its geography, is where much of the original Hindu civilization has thrived unmixed with, or “untainted by” in the BJP view, Islamic rule, traditions and culture. Scholars of Tibet such as Robert Thurman often say that Tibet became the protective storehouse of Indian civilization and some of its treasures during Islamic rule. For the BJP, Tamil Nadu is another such storehouse of what is original and untainted.
The religious rituals accompanying the Sengol may have been overlooked in early independent India as Nehru himself saw little value in such things. The Modi government has rediscovered it and through it asserted its view of what India is. But, as the Dinamalar reporter seemed to be indicating to Amit Shah in New Delhi, the BJP has been shut out of south India so the Sengol cannot quite indicate southern affinity for the BJP. Karnataka has breathed new life into the opposition. There’s still a long way to go for the opposition but they have smelled blood.
The BJP has consistently championed Thirukkural as a Hindu-Indic text. Recently, Modi released a translation of Thirukkural into the native language of Papua New Guinea. Modi has said India is great because it has the oldest living language in the entire world – Tamil. Under the leadership of K Annamalai, the BJP has been vigorously positioning itself as the true opposition to the DMK. In his last visit to Tamil Nadu, Modi seemed to be finally connecting with Tamils. Even in 2019, while the Modi wave swept practically all of India, Tamils remained indifferent, even hostile to it.
It would be ironic indeed if the BJP were to improve its standing in Tamil Nadu next elections. During the Emergency, as the Congress bit the dust all over India, Tamil Nadu stood by it.
Who knows? When the rest of India moves away from the BJP, Tamil Nadu may become more favourable to it. That would be in keeping with Tamil contrarian traditions. Its uniqueness.
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