AFTER the defeat of the mutineers in 1857, the reins of India passed from the hands of the East India Company to the British Crown. The Queen’s Proclamation of 1858, which promised all subjects equal treatment and admission to government offices, tried to establish the idea of a benevolent monarchy. It was an idea that was to have a “profound impact on Indian political discussions”.
Interestingly, after 1876, Queen Victoria, while remaining the “Queen of England”, would assume the title of “Empress of India”. The distinction was apparently made on the basis of the fact that while the United Kingdom possessed a constitutional government, its rule in India was a despotic one.
The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India by Milinda Banerjee is a fascinating exploration of the concept of monarchy in India under British rule, how the colonial rulers used it for their own ends and the key role it played in shaping the political thinking of Indians. The author also examines the Indian nationalist movement in relation to the idea of singular rulership and the inspiration it derived from the idea. It is, in fact, a unique book that delves deep into aspects of Indian history that have mostly been glossed over or, at best, superficially touched upon.
To establish a strong centralised rule in India, Lord Lytton (Viceroy from 1876 to 1880) had the idea of earning the loyalty of Indian aristocrats by rewarding them with honours without giving them any real political power. The British even made sure that the Indian princes did not assume those emblems or badges of royalty that were exclusively the right of the representative of the Crown. “Ultimate authority, including its symbolic form, was to be concentrated in a sovereign centre,” writes the author.
This concept of centralised power was further emphasised in the Durbar of 1903—a show of power and grandeur to remind all subjects of the region that they were under the dominion of a new and single sovereign. In this scheme of power, the Viceroy himself, as imagined by Lord Curzon, would represent both the justice of the royal government and the “personal attributes of the monarch”. But the pomp and rulership as stamped upon India was in evidence 100 years earlier, in 1803, with the completion of the grand official residence of Governor General Lord Wellesley in Calcutta (now Kolkata).
The “vernacularising” of the cult of the crown is an important and interesting feature in the study of the concept of single rulership in colonial India and its impact on the nationalist movement. Even in the early days of nationalism, when the extreme loyalism of the zamindars was lampooned in newspapers, protest against exploitation was often expressed through a personalised appeal to the British monarch.
For example, in Girish Ghosh’s play Hiraka Jubilee, written on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, he says: “Mother, turn your glance towards your poor subjects who cultivate the soil; we are without means, without wealth, and poor….”
The author observes that Queen Victoria’s appeal rested in part on her maternal image. “In Bengal, traditionally known for its goddess-centred religiosity, Victoria was often portrayed as a quasi-divine figure, compared, in some texts at least, to Indian goddesses,” writes Milinda Banerjee. At the same time, there was this feeling, particularly prevalent in Bengal, that the British monarchy was a “fake kingship”. Many felt that the visual majesty of the monarchy as displayed by the British was empty of real content as the rulers did not have any real love for Indians.
In fact, many nationalists from Bengal felt that while precolonial rulers, in spite of their hierarchical forms of authority, at least tried to integrate the ruled into the framework of power through acts of generosity, the British simply exploited the ruled and deliberately kept them out of decision-making. “…this critique generated new discourses on kingship as well, which sought to counter models of industrial exploitation with normative expectations of monarchic rule. Thus, while reflecting on the visit of the Prince of Wales to India in 1905-06, Rabindranath Tagore denied that there was any true raja in British India. Rather, British rule expressed the power of one nation over another,” says Milinda Banerjee.
Mahatma Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai held views similar to Tagore’s. In 1910, Gandhi suggested that it would be better for India to be ruled by a British king rather than the entire British people as “the tyranny perpetrated upon a people in the name of the people was more danger than the atrocities committed by one individual”.
One of the most enlightening parts of The Mortal God is where Milinda Banerjee explores how the princely states in the late 19th and 20th centuries provided Indian reformers “new grammars of imagining national rulership, charismatic and paternalist governance, political theologies of monistic sovereignty and economy, as well as idioms of progress and civilisation”. He points out that while there has been extensive work on the socio-economic and political history of the princely states, and their relationship with the British administration, there has been relatively little research on the “discursive impact of princely governments on Indian intellectuals and politicians who operated from (non-princely) British India”.
In his attempt to address this gap in academic research, Milinda Banerjee makes two case studies, the princely states of Tripura and Cooch Behar and two of the greatest minds of that age intimately associated with the two states: Tagore with Tripura and the social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen with Cooch Behar.
Sen, who had given his daughter away in marriage to Nripendra Narayan, the maharajah of Cooch Behar, regarded the institution of monarchy as vital to his reform programme. “He found the princely states inspirational for the manner in which the subject there showed an enthusiastic outburst of genuine sentiment and personal attachment for the sovereign,” writes Milinda Banerjee. Sen, it must be remembered, had even met Queen Victoria and Princess Louise in 1870 in a private interview during which he discussed his social reform policies in India and the subject of women’s education. “The impact of this meeting was quite momentous in terms of moulding Keshub’s ideology,” says Milinda Banerjee.
The Tagore family’s links with the princes of Tripura date back to the time of Rabindranath’s grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore, but the relationship between the two families was closest during the friendship of Rabindranath with Raja Birchandra Manikya (reign 1862-1896). Three important works of Rabindranath Tagore—Mukuta (1885), Rajarshi (around 1885), and Visarjana (1890)—were directly influenced by his association with the royal family of Tripura. “Rabindranath Tagore’s world view clearly resembled British colonial perspectives, in terms of regarding a strong male monarch as essential to maintaining a kingdom’s security and protecting its borders. But he added to that an indigenising vision of national, social and moral reform,” says Banerjee. The fact that Rabindranath Tagore idealised the relationship between social reformers and princes is made very clear in Rajarshi (“The Sage Prince”).
It must be borne in mind that many Indian nationalists of the time were attracted by the idea of “indigenous sovereignty” that the princely states seemed to promise and often sought alliances with the rulers in order to implement their programmes of national uplift.
Interestingly, as Milinda Banerjee points out, the model of monarchy was at once rejected and dialectically appropriated by a large number of Indian intellectuals and politicians who “imagined national sovereignty through concepts and ceremonies relating to singular rulership”. Rulers from Indian history and legends were hailed in public meetings, referred to and celebrated in literature and songs and even discoursed in political essays. Several international events, including the unification of Germany and Italy in the 1860s and 1870s and the victory of Japan over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05), apparently heighted the attraction of a national monarch among the Indians. The author cites a unique instance in India’s colonial history when Surendranath Banerjea, one of India’s most prominent nationalist leaders, tried to have himself anointed and crowned in 1906 at the height of the Swadeshi movement. Milinda Banerjee observes that though no analysis of this attempted coronation was ever foregrounded in academic scholarship, the incident showed the “limits of kingly discourses in practical instantiation”. What was more important was the representation of singular rulership, not the practical aspect of it.
Across the late 1900s and 1910s, the author says, precolonial Indian rulers, such as Rana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, and anti-British rulers, such as Sirajuddaulah and Bahadur Shah Zafar, “were ubiquitous in seditious pamphlets which were circulated in militant revolutionary circles and among the general public in Bengal”.
Milinda Banerjee does not overlook the fact that in Indian nationalist discourses, not just the kings but also the queens of Indian history were conceived as symbols of nation construction. He observes that there were essentially two ways that queens were imagined: benevolent motherly figures such as Jijabai Shahaji Bhonsale and Rani Ahilyabai Holkar or fierce Hindu Goddesses such as Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Chand Bibi. “The Indian nation itself was imagined as a regal goddess, Bharat Mata,” he points out.
An interesting aspect of the book is its focus on peasant and tribal politics and their contribution in “collectivising and democratising notions of rulership, divinity, and sovereignty in twentieth century India”. The author makes a study of those peasant and tribal groups that while demanding self-governance claimed to have royal origins and described themselves as descendants of Kshatriya kings. He draws attention to the recent movement for a separate state of Greater Cooch Behar where protesters were seen carrying pictures of King Nripendra Narayan. And so, like in the days of the British rule, people were demanding autonomous political existence in the name of an erstwhile king as recently as in 2016.