Thursday, June 13, 2024

Parliament, Sengol& Nehru

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

A new Parliament building has come up adjacent to the old circular edifice we’d all become so accustomed to seeing as a symbol of our democracy.

The Prime Minister inaugurated the building on Sunday morning. Along with it is another symbol, the Sengol, ostensibly signifying our sovereignty and just rule, from the time of the Independence and a tradition datingback to the Sangam era. This Sengol, or mace, was believed to have been commissioned by Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, the first Indian governor-general, to give a symbolic significance to the transfer of power. Soon thereafter, the Sengol disappeared only to surface from somewhere in Allahabad, now Prayagraj.

Can these two new symbols of our democracy restore the best traditions of Parliamentary debate? Debates as they used to be in the institution’s illustrious past. In the best traditions of Nehru, Vajpayee, Krishna Menon and AKG, to name a few. Can the MPs, whichever party they are from, bring back debate and discussion in our law-making processes? Let us hope they do.

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Death anniversary

The Sengol also leads us to Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister and said to be the architect of modern India and the democratic tradition.

May marks Nehru’s 59thdeath anniversary.

Nehru’s body, Indira being consold by a woman

“The light has gone out of our lives,” said Jawaharlal Nehru on Mahatma Gandhi’s passing on January 30, 1948. Sixteen years later, on Wednesday May 27, 1964, Indians felt the same when Nehru breathed his last. He had taken ill during a trip to Dehradun and had to be brought back to Delhi.  Doctors attending on him, including those flown in from Bombay, could not save him.

As the Government announced his death, a pall of gloom descended on the national capital. So too in the deep south, in Palakkad and all across the nation. A meeting was convened at the town’s Kotta Maidan to mourn the dear leader’s passing. Shops and establishments downed shutters and educational institutions announced closure.

In Delhi, all roads led to Teen Murti House, the official residence of the Prime Minister. A sea of humanity converged there to catch a glimpse of Nehru’s body as it lay in state at the door leading to the main hall of what was once the residence of British India’s military Commander-in-Chief. 

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Day etched in memory 

The day and the date have remained etched in my memory to this day. As are other observances, including the Independence Day, Republic Day and November 14. For most Indians, these are difficult to be erased from memory.

Nehru with Sengol

My mother, sister and I caught a glimpse of the cortege on Teen Murti Marg near the main entrance and exit of Teen Murti House. Atop the jamun trees were perched hundreds to catch a glimpse of Nehru as the cortege drawn by servicemen of the navy, army and airforce wended its way. A few steps in front were men from the three services marching the dirge with reversed arms. Jawans, airmen and sailors lined up on both sides of the route of the funeral procession that passed through Teen Murti Marg, Rajaji Marg, Vijay Chowk, Kartavya Path (then Rajpath), Tilak Mark and on to his final resting place beyond Rajghat and behind the walled city, on Ring Road.

The three of us walked alongside the procession until Rajaji Marg before we turned right on to Tughlak Road in the direction of Safdarjung Tomb. Not a vehicle was on the road until we reached Safdarjung aerodrome with the hope of catching a cab or bus. 

Nehru’s funeral procession

My father had separately embarked to what was later named Shanti Vana. He described the scene as a sea of sobbing humanity. There were hundreds of thousands of fellow Indians who used every means to get to Delhi for their dear departed leader’s last journey. 

In the next several weeks, my mother collected whatever she could on Pandit Nehru. Literature of all sorts, all beautifully illustrated and with eloquently written text. These remain a cherished treasure trove of knowledge on Nehru to this day.

A few months before, November 14, 1963, I vaguely remember visiting Teen Murti Bhavan on Chacha Nehru’s birthday.  All four from our family saying Namaste to the beloved leader.

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Special supplements

I remember reading the Patriot and Indian Express. My father also ordered the Statesman newspaper. Later he brought home Time magazine, New Statesman and other international special editions – all contributing to the body of knowledge on the life and Nehru’s role in India’s development.

Patriot, edited by the respected Edatata Narayanan, to the best of my memory, brought out an edition per excellence on Nehru on May 28, the day of his funeral.

The editorial news rooms of newspapers were abuzz with intense activity. While the Dak editions gave the initial coverage, the city and late city editions were the focus of most editors. I was privy to the activities of those days in Delhi’s Fleet Street through friends and colleagues from whom I learned the sincerity and clarity of thought in personalities such as Chalapati Rau, Narayanan, Nandan Kagal and Frank Moraes, among others.

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New York Times gives the news of Nehru’s demise

World leaders mourn

Few statesmen will have got the tributes and funeral that Nehru was given. Perhaps Churchill, FDR, Charles de Gaulle, or Castro more recently. 

Present at Shanti Vana were Mountbatten, Secretary of State Dean Rusk representing the US President, Alexei Kosygin, Bhutto and Srimavo Bandaranaike, among others.

There was no dearth of tributes to Nehru from world leaders.  They came from all directions. 

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Vajayee’s tributes to Nehru

Vajpayee’s moving remarks

A moving tribute recalling Nehru’s contributions was from Atal Behari Vajpayee, then a Rajya Sabha member, who said “In the Ramayana, Maharashi Valmiki has said of Lord Rama that he brought the impossible together.  In Panditji’s life, we see a glimpse of what the great poet said. He was a devotee of peace and yet the harbinger of revolution, he was a devotee of non-violence but advocated every weapon to defend freedom and honour.”

Back to the sea of humanity on the banks of the Yamuna. As the pyre was lit and blank volleys were fired in the air, the throbbing humanity, some 1.5 million Indians, cried Pandit Nehru Amar Rahe. My father’s pocket got picked, but he did not mind it. It was a small price to pay for being there for the leader’s last journey. Jai Hind!

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Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"


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