Chapter XXIX PART III
The Idea of a League of Nations
The Qualified Principle of Free Nationality
A peculiar scenario developed towards the end of World War I when the European section of the Allied Powers, namely England, France and Italy ‘contemplated a political rearrangement of the world’ based on the principle of free nationalities and yet could not visualize any radical change of its existing order’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.527). These powers themselves were thoroughly imperial in character and had their own colonies with their own vested interests. They could apply the principle of free nationality only if their own imperial interests were not affected. There were two situations where this could be done (Ibid, pg.528):
(a) In the forces representing the Central Powers (the German and Austrian interests and Turkish powers) for they had invited the clash (Sri Aurobindo writes this months ahead of the armistice that had been prepared by Britain and France and signed by Germany in November, 1918 agreeing to peace and no more fighting);
(b) In their own colonies, this principle of free nationality could not be applied in purity but in a qualified form – a concession of internal self-government or Home Rule. (In India, Annie Besant took the opportunity to attack the colonial government and call for self-rule. Also, in 1920, the Fourth Irish Home Rule Act would establish Northern Ireland as a home Rule entity within the United Kingdom but would not be successful in the case of Southern Ireland leading to the eventual partition of Ireland and Irish Independence through the Irish Free State Constitution Act of 1922).
Even before the World War I officially ended, Sri Aurobindo speculated what would happen if the Allied Powers applied the principle of free nationality in a qualified form to its colonies:
(a) Obviously, there would be no field of application in USA (Ibid, pg.528).
(b) In Africa where no nations existed ‘in the political sense of the word’ except in Egypt and Abyssinia, the continent would be partitioned between ‘three colonial empires, Italy, France and England, with the continuance of the Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese enclaves and the precarious continuance for a time of the Abyssinian kingdom. (Ibid, pg.528-529) (In fact, in the post-war settlements, German colonies in Africa were divided between Britain, Belgium, Portugal and South Africa. By the 1960s, all German colonies in Africa had gained independence except Namibia which gained independence from South Africa in 1990).
(c) In Asia, it would mean ‘the appearance of three or four new nationalities out of the ruins of the Turkish Empire’ foredoomed to remain temporarily under the influence of ‘one or other of the great Powers’ (Ibid, pg.529). (Months after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned with British, French and Italian troops occupying Constantinople and subsequently new States arose with the creation of the modern Arab world and the Republic of Turkey).
(d) In Europe it would imply ‘the diminution of Germany by the loss of Alsace and Poland, the disintegration of the Austrian empire, the reversion of the Adriatic coast to Serbia and Italy, the liberation of Czech and Polish nations, some rearrangement in the Balkan Peninsula and the adjacent countries’. (Ibid) (Subsequent to this write-up in the beginning of 1918, the Austrian-Hungary empire was dissolved and new nations were created: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. France gained Alsace-Lorraine from the German Empire and Poland was recreated from parts of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires. Sri Aurobindo’s astute speculations had come true.)
Sri Aurobindo also pointed out that these changes would be significant in the world map yet would not indicate any radical transformation in terms of free nationality, pure or qualified. Instead, a few new nations would be created and the already existing imperial aggregates would get extended further in terms of territory, influence and international responsibilities. (ibid)
It is easier to proclaim a high political ideal like the principle of free nationality but it is difficult to implement it. ‘The pure application of ideals to politics is as yet a revolutionary method of action which can only be hoped for in exceptional crises; the day when it becomes a rule of life, human nature and life itself will have become a new phenomenon, something almost superterrestrial and divine. That day is not yet’. (Ibid, pg.527). After a century, that day has not yet arrived.
Ironically, at that nascent hour of 1918, it was the Russian idea that maintained its idealism careless of all but the ‘naked purity’ of its principle. (ibid, pg.528) That it could not be sustained would be another story.
Date of Update: 22-Jan-19
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu