Global History

Spectral Sovereigns and Divine Subalterns

by guest contributor Milinda Banerjee

Spectres of dead kings are haunting the world today. In a 2015 interview, Emmanuel Macron declared that since the death of Louis XVI, there has been a vacuum at the heart of French politics: an absent king. According to him, the Napoleonic and Gaullist moments were efforts to fill this vacuum. Since becoming President, Macron has been steadily emphasizing regal symbolism to represent his authority. Across the Atlantic, scholars have long observed the monarchic lineages, or even messianic roots, of the American Presidency via British-European constitutional thought. But the monarchic turn has intensified of late, as Donald Trump’s Christian supporters compare him to the Biblical monarchs David, Nebuchadnezzar, and Cyrus. Romans 13, the New Testament passage used for centuries to justify submission to rulers as supposedly ordained by God, now finds increasing traction in American discourse about Trump, especially surrounding immigration and foreign policy. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has invited comparison with Pharaohs, while academic discussions note continuities between interwar Arab monarchies and post-royal dictatorships in the region.

In India, when Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, became Prime Minister in 2014, Hindu nationalists celebrated him as the first proper Hindu ruler in Delhi in 800 years since the defeat of King Prithviraj Chauhan at the hands of Turko-Afghan invaders. Bollywood has also been making blockbuster movies, celebrating – supposedly  Hindu nationalist – kings, while the soon-to-be-tallest statue in the world is being built off Mumbai, depicting Shivaji, a seventeenth-century monarch dear to Hindu-Indian nationalism. We are clearly witnessing a global phenomenon: the return of monarchic figures in political thought, comparison, ritual, and iconography, hand in glove with the rise of strongman leaderships and nationalisms.

To explain this planetary resurgence of kingly manes, we need to draw upon lenses of global intellectual history, enriched by scholarship on earlier epochs of connected waves of monarchism and state formation, such as by Sanjay Subrahmanyam and David Cannadine. We may also take a cue from models of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, Ernst Kantorowicz, and Giorgio Agamben. In my recently-published book The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India, I try to provide a historical genealogy for this global phenomenon through a focused study of modern India. I suggest that British administrators and intellectuals, like Viceroy Lord Lytton, Viceroy Lord Curzon, and the author Rudyard Kipling,  as well as elite Indians, like the socio-religious reformer Keshub Chunder Sen, frequently justified the construction of strong imperial and/or princely sovereign state apparatuses in late nineteenth and early twentieth century South Asia by using monarchic concepts and images. Often, Christian-inspired notions of monotheistic authority anchored their visions of providentially-mandated monistic-centralized state sovereignty. For example, Lieutenant-Governor Alfred Lyall quoted Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea to relate imperial unification to the triumph of monotheism, in the Roman Empire as well as in British India. The title of my book gestures towards this sacralisation of the state, and, more specifically, towards the widespread citations of Hobbes in modern India, especially by Indian intellectuals and politicians, to debate these constructions of sovereignty (Mortal God, Introduction, Chapters 1-3).

In challenge, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Nabinchandra Sen, and Mir Mosharraf Hossain created blueprints of non-colonial sovereignty, in the form of Hindu-Indian-nationalist or Islamic righteous kingdoms (in Sanskrit/Bengali, dharmarajya), which were ideologically anchored on the unity of a monotheistic divinity and/or sacred kingship. Many Indians were inspired by the monarchically-mediated nationalist unification of Italy and Germany. By the 1900s, Japanese monarchy and Shintoism offered templates of state-building to Hindu and Muslim actors. In the 1910s and early 1920s, the Ottoman Caliphate question inspired many Indians to combat colonial authority in the name of divine sovereignty: the trials of Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali embodied a fierce battleground. In interwar years, Indians also cited other royal models to imagine national sovereignty: Amanullah’s Afghanistan, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Iran, Faisal I’s Iraq, Rama VII’s Siam/Thailand, and the (incipiently anti-Dutch) kingships of Java and Bali. Ultimately, an ancient Sanskrit word for kingship, sarvabhauma – literally, (lord) of all earth – offered the root word for ‘sovereignty’ in most Indian languages (Mortal God, Chapters 3 and 5).

For a proper global historical explanation of today’s monarchist resurgence, we need however to look beyond India. Hence, a book I edited with Charlotte Backerra and Cathleen Sarti draws on case studies from across Asia, Russia, Europe, North Africa, and Latin America, to conceptualize ‘royal nationhood’ as a transnationally-constructed category. My chapter uses lenses of global intellectual history, and offers various examples, including Walter Bagehot and Kakuzo Okakura, to show how actors from around the world learnt from other societies to place the figure of the (present, historical, and/or imagined) monarch as a (practical and/or symbolic) centre around which national unity and sovereignty could be built up, surpassing class and factional differences. Today, monarchic spectres are being resurrected again by sectarian nationalisms, which derive material strength from the inequality-breeding regimes of global capitalism and the grievances they invariably spawn among those left out. Ruling classes and angry populations are deploying these spectres to delineate majoritarian-national unity – a mythic unitary sovereign above classes and factions, with Caesarist and salvific promise – against vulnerable minorities, refugees, and aliens. Taking a cue from the comparison of Trump with the Biblical Nehemiah in terms of building walls – and Émile Benveniste’s discussion on the Indo-European rex/raja as a maker of boundaries between “the interior and the exterior, the realm of the sacred and the realm of the profane, the national territory and foreign territory” (Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society, 312) – I would argue that sectarian nationalists today invoke regal manes to forge borders, segregation, and inequality. If sovereignty is seen as a motor of global conceptual travel, we can explain why the globalization of models of centralized and exclusionary state sovereignty over the last centuries has also propelled periodic and global waves of monarchic conceptualization, often even after the demise of real-life kingships: clear evidence how republics too are haunted by (to borrow Jacques Derrida’s words) the “patrimonial logic of the generations of ghosts” (Specters of Marx, 133). It is thus ironic, but fitting, that supporters of the defunct Italian monarchy should draw strength today from Trump’s aggressive nationalism, while reposing faith in a sovereign who would embody the nation by being super partes.

However, sovereignty is not a ‘thing’ which merely spreads top-down, via elite interventions and circulations. The mysterious pathways of sovereignty do not only translate ‘sacred’ hierarchies into human government, but also engender agonisms and dialectical transfigurations. Thus in colonial India, women like Sunity Devi, Nivedita, Sarojini Naidu, and Begum Rokeya, invoked Indian, European, Islamicate, and Chinese models of queenship, to demand women’s right to political authority. These interventions often became linked to transnational feminist and suffragette networks, and opened up spaces beyond strongman nationalism (Mortal God, Chapter 3). Simultaneously, peasant, ‘tribal’, and pastoral populations asserted royal ‘Kshatriya’ identity and divine selfhood, drawing on precolonial-origin models of community autonomy and regal theology, as well as liberal-democratic and socialist-Communist forms of association. They claimed democratic representation, dignity of labour, material betterment, and reservations in education and employment. They grounded their claims to rulership and divinity on practices like ploughing and animal husbandry, outlining ideals of nourishing and pastoral governance that bear comparison with (even as they sharply diverge from) those outlined by Michel Foucault. Politicians like Panchanan Barma in Bengal and Dasarath Deb in Tripura used Kshatriya organization to structure peasant resistance against high-caste Indian elites. Many of these ‘lower caste’ movements – and their ‘vernacular’ intellectual trajectories – remain powerful even today, rooting ideas of universal rights, equality, and democracy in the collectivization of divine and regal selfhood (Mortal God, Chapter 4).

Peasant and working-class agitation in colonial India also drew on varied messianic models, from ideas about the Mahdi’s advent and Allah’s sovereignty in relation to peasant autonomy, to the notion of ‘Gandhi Maharaj’. The Russian Revolution and Communism were sources of inspiration too. These popular utopianisms, instigated by discontent against colonial fiscal oppression and political-military brutality, fuelled grand insurrections, dismantling the British Empire in the subcontinent. Inspired by such struggles, the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam as well as Rajavamshi peasants devised sophisticated forms of materially-grounded dialectical theory, involving transition from servitude (dasatva) and heteronomy (parashasana) – when one alienated one’s self (sva-hin) – to the recovery of self and ethical-material autonomy (svaraj, atmashasana), leading finally to the anarchic cessation of all rule when one realised the fullness of divinity within oneself and others (Mortal God, Chapters 4 and 5).

These Indian cases invite wider comparisons, such as with the seventeenth-century Leveller Richard Overton’s statement about “every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet” or with Ludwig Feuerbach’s nineteenth-century conception of divinity as present in every human being. Rather than a theory of democracy predicated on an empty/disembodied centre, as in Claude Lefort, we are tempted to outline a radically novel conception of the democratic political embedded in the proliferation and multiplication of divine being. There is a barely-developed hint in Agamben’s recent opus, Karman (78-79, 83), of such a turn, drawing on ancient India, to inspire a new model of action. In our world of strongman sovereigns and unrelenting degradation of human and nonhuman actors, we need to recuperate such globally-oriented political theory and practice, while remaining critical towards, and abjuring, the chauvinistic and hierarchical elements historically present in them. If engaged with dialectical intimacy, visions which once inspired rebels to overthrow ruling classes can help us conjure today solidarities with peasants and refugees, neighbours and strangers. To see everyone as regal and divine, and act upon this, can become a lightning bolt to wield for unshackling democracies to come.

Milinda Banerjee is Research Fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich from 2017 to 2019, as well as Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Presidency University (Kolkata, India). His dissertation, which offered an intellectual history of concepts and practices of rulership and sovereignty in colonial India (with a primary focus on Bengal, ca. 1858-1947), has now been published as The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2018). His research project at LMU is titled ‘Sovereignty versus Natural Law? The Tokyo Trial in Global Intellectual History’.