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Parliament Is Not a Temple Where We Worship Gods and Men

A divine symbol will not make parliament more democratic. Only a government which is aware that the opposition has also been elected and deserves respect can accomplish that.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the new parliament building. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

What does the Sengol, a religious symbol that was catapulted onto the collective consciousness of Indians a few days ago, have do with the new Parliament? Arguably the two have no relationship with each other. The Sengol, or so goes the story, signifies the divine right of the king to rule over his domain, his right to expand his territory, and his power to do with his people as he wills. More significantly the Sengol transforms raw power into moral authority, which is considered legitimate. The word of the King is the word of a divinely sanctioned monarch. Therefore, we must obey. If Kings derive their authority from God and not from an earthly power, least of all from an abstract category called the people, no one can challenge his decrees.

The doctrine of divine right of Kings emerged in the period between medieval times and the early modern period in Europe. This was the time when absolutist rulers saw themselves as the repository of power bestowed and sanctioned by the divine. The equation between the divine and secular power changed when in 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously asked the question – why should people obey the king? His Leviathan challenged the divine right theory, and spoke instead of a social contract between free and equal persons. Overturning the theory of the Greek political scientist Aristotle, who had argued that the political order was natural to man, because he was the zoon politikon, Hobbes suggested that the natural habitat of man is the pre-political and pre-social state of nature.

Tired of the uncertainty of a lawless state of nature, individuals created the state-the Leviathan through a social contract. They transferred to him all their natural rights, except their priority right to self-preservation. The divine rights theory was replaced by the idea of the state as an ‘Artificial Man’, set up and sanctioned by human beings for their own good. His power was transformed into moral authority because the source of the power was the sanction of the people. The Leviathan’s power was enormous. But he could not do anything that would harm the self-preservation of his people. That was the condition of the contract. Self-preservation ranged from the right to life, to the right not to be denied sustenance, to the right not to be forcibly conscripted. That is the reason we obey the state.

Also read: In One Fell Swoop, Narendra Modi Has Turned Parliament Into a One-Man Show

Hobbes was no democrat, but he was no lover of the absolutist state, or of the divine right of Kings, a theory that in South India signifies a Goddess descending from heaven to anoint a new King by handing him a Sengol, or so the story goes. The handing over, note, is a part of the ceremonies of a Coronation. But in India the British Parliament handed over power to two Dominions: India and Pakistan vide the India Independence Act enacted on 18 July 1947. The Act not only transferred power it also partitioned the country though the exact boundaries were demarcated later.

Power now devolved to Jawaharlal Nehru, who had led one of the greatest freedom movements in history, and who was the interim prime minister of the interim government. The erstwhile colonial power was not divine, it was very concrete and very corporeal. The agent that power was transferred to, must have been elated but also very troubled. The Constitution was still being written, Partition loomed large over the heads of people in Punjab, Bengal, and the North-West Frontier and the princely states had to be integrated the moment boundaries between India and Pakistan were decided. The government to whom power was transferred had still to hold general elections to elect a new government.

Nehru had to manage the writing of the Constitution, the outcome of the tragic Partition of India, the integration of princely states once borders were decided, and in October of the year 1947 the trouble unleashed by Pakistani incursion into Kashmir. The last resulted in what is euphemistically referred to as the Kashmir problem. As the head of an unusually gifted group of leaders, Nehru had to achieve the impossible, even if the outcome of the Partition, and later Kashmir was outside his control. We got a wonderful constitution, but the Partition left death and destruction in its wake, and the Kashmir problem still dodges the heels of the government. But Nehru continued to be a democrat, believing in the will of the people and not religious symbols or divine sanction.

Nehru disdained the divine right theory as medieval, as simply inappropriate for the modern mind. He said as much to the rulers of princely states who were reluctant to integrate into the Federal system. If the Gods had visited him to hand over the symbol of kingly power, he probably would have asked them to dinner, and then handed back the symbol with a smile and a polite ‘no, thank you’. For Nehru, the source of power as moral authority was the people. He was the ultimate democrat committed to a modern secular democracy and not to legitimisation through religion. This he knew through his extensive reading of history.

In England, by the 17th century, the theory of the divine right of kings disappeared from political vocabularies after the Glorious Revolution (1643-1750) and increase in the powers of Parliament. In France the revolution of 1789, inspired by the ideals of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, erupted amidst a devastating economic crisis, high tax rates imposed by the government so that it could fight wars, and the rise of the proto-bourgeoisie. A period of sustained agitation against the monarch culminated in the Fall of the Bastille; the symbol of monarchical tyranny on July 14, 1789. King Louis the XVI had to yield to the demands of the people. On August 4, 1989 the National Assembly abolished the monarchy, the aristocracy and land tax. On August 26 it adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which proclaimed as the objectives of the new order: liberty, equality, property rights and above all the right to resist tyranny.

This put an end to any pretension that the king ruled by divine right, or that he was the state as Louis XIV (1643-1715) had pompously declared in the legislature in 1655. A few decades later, the people decreed that they would rule themselves. They were the repository of popular sovereignty. A new order came into being. It introduced citizenship and fundamental rights as the basis of political arrangements.

Also read: The Many Holes in the Union Government’s Claims Around the Sengol

A modern democratic polity has to be secular in the widest sense. It has to reduce, if not eliminate the role of religion, in the public sphere. This is not to suggest that religion should go away. It is as Karl Marx wrote “the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless condition”. To be secular is not to renounce religion, but to suggest that the proper place for religious beliefs is the non-state sphere-households, temples, gurudwaras, mosques and other places of worship.  Religion is not the legitimising ideology of the state. Governments do not have moral authority vide religious sanction granted by heads of various denominations or symbols.

This is the democratic model that the founders of our constitution conceptualised and codified in the foundational document of the Indian state that politicians pledge their allegiance to. The Preamble of the constitution proclaims freedom and equality as the linchpin of democracy. There is no valid reason why the majority religion should dominate the public sphere even if its adherents are in a majority. There is no legitimate reason why minorities should be disadvantaged even if they are numerically smaller. In a multi-religious society, the public discourse has to be a shared discourse. It has to draw upon our common history as a referral for the present and for the future. We ‘the people’ have to restore the history that is left out in the speeches of politicians, and now in text books, the history of a shared culture, a shared language, and shared allegiance to the Constitution.

Parliament is the sphere in which laws which affect beneficially or adversely the lives of people are enacted, the theatre of debate, the forum which represents us. As of today, the Sengol occupies pride of place next to the Speaker. But it will not make a partisan speaker less partisan, a speaker who denies opportunities to the opposition more democratic, and a speaker who favours his own party more just. A speaker is judged by his rulings and by his actions not by a divine symbol.

Parliament is not a temple where we worship gods and men. It is the site of representation, the place where laws are passed, and give and take of arguments that express our hopes and our expectations. A divine symbol will not make parliament more democratic. That only a government which is aware that the opposition has also been elected and deserves respect, can accomplish. Politics is the art of the impossible, not that of seeking divine sanction.

Finally, though the inaugural gave the Prime Minister another opportunity to showcase his ‘pride and prejudice’ [with apologies to Jane Austen] in a new India, the fact is that Parliament belongs to all of us, Hindu, Muslim. Sikh, Isai, Parsi, and other religious denominations. Here we expect that the representatives we have elected and hold responsible, will take into consideration the sentiments of their followers as well as that of their opponents.

The Sengol is the symbol of hereditary monarchy. Our Parliament is a condensate of popular sovereignty. There is frankly no relationship between the two, not in a modern democracy at least.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

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