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The Brink

On Milinda Banerjee’s The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state.

This post, a contribution to the “Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations” symposium, is a shortened version of an essay that will appear in Political Theology.

Sovereigns have ascended to power since the time of the first pharaohs and emperors in relation to various traditions of interpreting the unseen, whether that which was hidden from sight was the future or the truth of the past-present or some other mystery. Though predictive powers continue to be a feature of sovereignty into the present, these ancient traditions, or at least those that successfully passed through Enlightenment filters, came to be classified as religions. It was no coincidence that the transformation of interpretive traditions took place while sovereignty was being rethought and moved out of the body of the sovereign and into non-corporeal bodies, most importantly the state. There is nothing new in this observation. However, when the genealogy of the godlike modern state form is traced through colonial and global contexts rather than an often hypostatized “Europe,” we are afforded fresh new perspectives on well-worn ideas undergirding modern political thought. In the hands of Milinda Banerjee, Hobbes, Bodin, and other stalwarts of theorizing sovereignty appear in relation to British colonial statecraft, Hindu cosmology, Christian and Islamic theologies, and peasant mobilizations—casting a new light on each of them. Most significantly, following the trace of the sovereign through multiple contexts becomes a counter-history demonstrating the recursive moments of instability and interruption that marked the global foundation, universalization, and reproduction of a singular, “modern” concept of sovereignty.

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state (see especially chapter three). In other words, a single king for a continent-sized India was never a possibility even as real and mythical kings and queens of the hoary past animated various political movements that at times converged in the state form(ation). In turn, whether intentionally or more often not, sovereignty as a (re)new(ed) concept of power enters the world distributed across fragmented and delimited territories yet making possible the very Oneness of worlding that had eluded religions and empires seeking universal acclimation. In The Mortal God,the layers and expansiveness of this process are richly demonstrated; such that, nineteenth- and twentieth-century changes to sovereignty—in thought and practice—can be regarded as much more than the product of a simplistic imposition by colonial powers or a diffusion of ideas originally hatched among a few European thinkers, even as those empires and intellectuals played important roles in the global history of political power’s second apotheosis.  Instead, approaching modern sovereignty and the “globally-entangled spread of political theologies” (407) by mapping a constellation of sovereign figures, real and imagined, materializes the jagged edges of a singular sovereignty while displacing centers and origin points. Moreover, the routes to a release from sovereignty’s hold are returned to the field of politics. In other words, tracking rather than resolving the slippage between claims to/on the human and the divine that is constitutive of a sovereignty that claims to universality illuminates its fissures and retains its founding instability.  

“Second apotheosis” is an apt label for the stories of sovereigns and sovereignty Banerjee recounts in great detail, and India proves to be the perfect theater for their staging. Long at the crossroads of traditions (“big” and “small”) that were and were not theological, with gods and sovereigns, kingship and sovereignty all set in a dizzying array of relations, Indian history from pre-colonial through the post-colonial periods provides ample fodder for global political thought. The colonial period’s specificity is also crucial to the argument about sovereignty, both as a new global product and in regards to the notion of a second apotheosis. Limning its openings and closures through Indian historical examples, one of the refreshing insights of The Mortal God is that “India” could not have been made without all manner of people, who engage the problem of sovereignty in their own contextually specific ways in a time of intensifying global connectivity. The work is especially strong in bringing to light the political import of those sidelined (or elided entirely) from nationalist narratives and even from some of the more sophisticated recent global intellectual histories. He moves from and through colonial spaces of thinking and justifying imperial sovereignty to Bengal’s elites and subalterns in their various encounters with that thought and its material effects. As Banerjee succinctly concludes:

I have discussed the manner in which colonised actors designed new models of sovereign rulership in dialectical interface with the constructions of state sovereignty imposed upon them through colonial rule. These designs often embodied future-oriented teleologies of social engineering and political emancipation, drawing on localised struggles for rights and justice, as well as translocally-connected constructions of political association, solidarity and freedom. The discourses on the ‘sovereign’ articulated, with varying degrees of clarity, blueprints for power-sharing in the colonial or (longed for) postcolonial polity.


The loudest and thus most easily accessible voices in Indian history—agents of colonialism and high nationalism—are surely well represented in this study. However, from the perspectives of an all-too-often Bengali-centric South Asian historiography (to which this work contributes and challenges) and the political present, the most forceful chapters and sections attend to the subaltern possibilities for political action that were always, and continue to be, a feature of sovereignty (and its potential undoing).

Even as political theological concepts à la Schmitt and Kantorowicz are readily identifiable in the discourses underwriting the formation of a singular Indian nation, Banerjee also shows how the apotheosis of state continued to be contested by other deities and their followers. “Indo-Islamic thinking” would be the context in which one would expect to locate something like the European trajectory of constitutionalist conceptions of sovereignty. While this was true to some extent, Banerjee also reveals the points of divergence (particularly in how the separation of religion and politics was thought). Nonetheless, a convergence could be found in the fundamental linkage of monotheism and sovereignty driving an “intense confessional one-upmanship,” with India and Pakistan one might argue by extension being the logical outcomes (see chapter 3; quote on 225).  However, elite nationalist framings of the state as sacred sites did not sit well with everyone.  We see this, for example, when he traces the re-signification of Rajavamshi identity and the goddess Kamta Ma (Chandi), which has political ramifications into the present (see chapter 4). The case of the Rajavamshis, “the largest Scheduled Caste in West Bengal” today, provides fascinating insight into the malleability of caste and the creative powers of the political imaginary of subaltern groups facing colonial and nationalist claims of rights to sovereignty. The resort to royal and martial (Kshatriya) self-styling had different form and implications in the colonial and post-colonial periods, with the former witnessing nascent attempts at regional dynastic state formation while the later saw the deployment of similar claims to kingship (or, memories of) to advance subaltern political claims often against state.

The threads Banerjee unravels in the global history of sovereignty do not exclusively center the subaltern as some ontological curiosity yet always involves changing relationships between elites and peasants that are in turn pegged to changing political-economies. The way that icons of pre-colonial Indian power were reshaped and deployed for nation-making by elite intellectuals like Bipin Chandra Pal echoes a widely shared Indian discourse on sovereignty that was contingent on divinity’s earthly presence. This shared ground was crucial for political solidarity and opposition. Banerjee demonstrates these points especially well in his case studies of the ‘monarchizing’ princely states of Cooch Behar and Tripura. Here he argues that the self-styling of these hill regions with multiple centers of authority as unified princely states during colonial rule aligned with and was aided by the terms of imperial sovereignty; nonetheless, confronting broader Bengali caste and linguistic conceits in the new context of colonial race politics required adapting the local to the global. That form of adaptation, which involved the invocations of deities and mythical rulers, took another turn after independence as princely states were evacuated of their substantive authority and national developmentalist policies put new strains on peasant social formations.

Many of Banerjee’s findings resonate with my recent study of the limits and implications of regarding sovereignty as the secular apotheosis of political power, through the unlikely lens of a life history of an Indian-Arab Sufi who lived in the nineteenth century. Even though it may seem at first that this is far too much freight to load onto one life, For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World could not not be a global history of sovereignty’s investment in the modern state. In part this was quite simply because the evidence all pointed in that direction, and because the expansion of the British Empire and the privatization of religion were phenomena of global scope in whose wake many like Sayyid Fadl were caught. In response, he grappled in writing and action with the potentiality of an Islamic political theology within this deeply changed world-historical context—as the Indian Ocean was made a “British lake” and as Muslim lands fell to Christian-secular rule. Even if he had never heard the word sovereignty, Muslim self-rule as an individual and collective problem forced itself into his thought and practice as a noble descendant of the Prophet Muhammad with a responsibility for shepherding his flock. His transregional political and religious career across the Indian Ocean and the Middle East made the terms of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism topographical features simultaneously obstructing and delimiting future horizons of life.  At the end of his biological life, however, he did not seem to have an answer to the problem of sovereignty to the extent that he could not reconcile the new globally salient dispensation and the tradition of his fathers, which could only affirm the sovereignty of God.

Returning to my book in light of Banerjee’s amplifies the point that modern sovereignty was a concept of power globally reconciled along multiple axes, even if the numbers did not always add up for everyone. In other words, the formula for securing sovereignty-in-state became the prized and prime driver of international politics and the emerging global order realized in the twentieth century, often over and against the wishes and political aspirations of millions. In this regard, sovereignty could not not exceed its definition in terms of European philosophy and imperially ordained juridical practice. Even as the latter determined in significant ways the prevailing international order, histories of figures like Sayyid Fadl, notions of Hindu unity, or peasant mobilizations offer not so much an alternative or “lost” genealogy of sovereignty, rather, they represent an interruption of the seamless narrative of transition to political modernity.  When histories of politics and political thought are traced outside conventional grids of intelligibility (Eurocentric development and diffusion of democratic idea(l)s, elite anti-colonial nationalism creatively adapting those idea(l)s, traditionalists advocating homegrown, culturally authentic idea(l)s, etc.), then even ür-concepts like sovereignty might be opened up to expansive genealogies and more importantly to the possibility of displacement.  

Introduction: Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations

The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow.

Unity of Being against State and Capital

In hearing [Fadl’s] story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

On Milinda Banerjee’s The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state.

The “Ideal” Islamic Polity: History-Making and the Modern Nation-State in Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state.

The Public Lives of Sovereignty

By furnishing us with analyses of protests, citizen-generated media, and everyday conversations through which relations of sovereignty are rerouted, the books extend our understanding of the cultural dimensions of sovereignty.

Religion and National Integration in Sudan and India

How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work?

A Comment on Christopher Tounsel, Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan

My concluding question is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.

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