Banerjee comes up with several political theologies to drive home the need for decolonising and sub-alternising sovereignty
It’s an erudite narrative of history, which if put into present day context, promises to spark off more debates than one. Milinda Banerjee, a professional historian and a research fellow at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in a thoroughly researched book, used several political theologies to drive home the need for decolonising and sub-alternising sovereignty, going beyond Hobbes’ notion of the state as the ‘mortal god’. Consider what Banerjee, who also teaches at Kolkata’s Presidency University, has to offer, albeit in a different context, in his book: “The Mortal God-Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India”, recently published by Cambridge University Press.
“It may be asked whether critiquing state sovereignty serves any purpose in an age when the greatest menace to social equity is posed by transnational aggression of capital and when nation-states sometimes resist such predatory capital to promote and patronise the interests of their electorates, including the less privileged. However, it needs to be remembered that nation-state sovereignty still underwrites the basic formats of power which allow transnational capital to thrive today and which also maintain and reproduce class differences. Frequently, such sovereignty regimes produce violent chauvinism which discriminate against minority groups and disempowered immigrants,” writes Banerjee.
Interestingly, the triggers possibly were three famous lines from three great philosophers and poets. First, Thomas Hobbes, the founder of modern political philosophy, who in his most famous book Leviathan published in 1651, wrote: “This done, the multitude so united in one person, is called a common wealth, in Latine CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God, to which we owe under the Immoral God, our peace and defence.”
The second one by Rabindranath Tagore, who, in his poem “Raja” (1910) wrote: ‘Amra sabai Raja amader ei rajar rajatve, naile moder rajar sane milbe ki svartve!” (We are all kings in this kingdom of our king, otherwise by what proprietary right shall we unite with our king!”
And the third one by Kazi Nazrul Islam, who in an editorial in Dhumketu (1922) wrote: “Swaraj mane ki? Swaraj mane nijei raja ba sabai raja” (What does self-rule mean? Self-rule means, one is oneself king or everyone is king).
Banerjee also gives historical, political and sociological interpretations of Tagore. For instance, he writes, “Rabindranath Tagore, in a famous song (the first stanza of which has been accepted as the national anthem of independent India), embedded the unity of the Indian nation in the acclaim offered by all Indians to the divine monarch of the country. In interwar Bengal, acclamations to Pranavananda, conceptualised as an ascetic-divine ruler and avatara, were critical to the emergence of a militant notion of Hindu nationhood, one which also aspired to integrate peasants into its orbit of politics.”
In another context, Banerjee, writes, “Viveka?nanda and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, among others, experienced ambivalences about monotheistic political rulership. Rabindranath Tagore may have been enamoured of reformist rulership, but he was also one of the most creative exponents of a democratic political theology that identified divinity and regality in ordinary human beings and affirmed a non-sectarian politics of messianic hope. In a celebrated song, he articulated this ethos by making the commoner say: “we are all kings in this kingdom of our king???.We are not bound in the slavery of terror of a king of slaves.”
Banerjee argues that for Kazi Nazrul Islam, who was imprisoned by the British in 1923 in the aftermath of the Khilafat movement for his seditious writings that supported anti-colonial militancy, divinity and the messianic mantle were imminent in all human beings, hence everyone deserved basic democratic rights and could rebel against unjust authority.
In his poem “Manush” (Human Being), which was published as part of Samyavadi (Egalitarian, 1925), Nazrul Islam wrote: “Maybe Kalki arrives in me, the Mahdi and Jesus in you?..Brother, whom do you hate, whom do you kick? Maybe in the heart of that one, God remains awake through day and night!” And Banerjee explains this as messianism-inflected writings, which emanated from broader rural and urban lower class worlds of rumours and beliefs which cast the fight against the British as a messianic struggle.
In another place, Banerjee writes, “It was in peasant politics that we find the sharpest articulation of collectivist understandings of sovereign rulership, accompanied by economic and electoral programmes which sub-alterned idioms of rights, liberties and progress. Peasants, who identified themselves with divine avatars, with kingly dynasties, with Adam or as figurations of Allah’s community, radicalised local world-views ab?out the super-ordinate locus of power and authority.”
From a historical perspective with reference of colonial India, Banerjee touches upon the modern Dalit and Adivasi politics as well. “Democratisation has occurred most deeply in India when egalitarian strands among non-Brahmanical communities have been strengthened through Western-origin democratic-socialist ideas and practices, when simultaneous critiques have been offered against local communitarian types of exploitation as well as trans-local forms. In some of my case studies, as in modern Dalit and Adivasi politics in India, generally, the actors concerned have targeted multiple intersections of oppression, along lines of caste, class and gender. A critique of state sovereignty is inseparable from a critique of any format of sovereignty, including those in communitarian forms. In India, colonial rule intensified social stratification by enhancing the power of literate Indian gentry and by demilitarising and subjugating non-Brahmanical communities,” writes Banerjee.
Lots of foods for thought, for sure.
A forthcoming volume co-edited by Banerjee would explore the ways in which the 19th and 20th centuries constituted a global moment of production of ‘royal nations’: a long era when monarchies and nationalisms often symbolically linked with each other to create powerful nation-states and/or nationalist imaginaries. One would understandably look forward to the next volume.
So watch this space.