Chapter XXIX Part IV
The Idea of a League of Nations
From Free Nationality to a Free World-Union
Sri Aurobindo was musing on how the toying with the idea of free nationality by European nations towards the end of World War I could lead to the development of a free world-union. At that fluid point in early 1918, he noted four important points:
(a) The ‘disappearance of Russia as an aggressive empire and its transformation from an imperialist aggregate into a congeries or a federation of free republics’ was the ‘result of the Russian Revolution born out of the war and its battle-cry of free nationality but contingent on the success and maintenance of the revolutionary principle’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.529) It could be a pointer to world-union but, as Sri Aurobindo noted after three decades of writing this (1949-50) that the Bolshevik rule did not guarantee freedom in practice but as the principle was there, the possibility of a ‘freer future’ was also there. (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo’s emphasis on the term ‘freer future’ is interesting as actually in the turn of events it came to signify a freedom from totalitarianism leading to disintegration of the USSR in 1989.(Ironically, when Gorbachev was to sign the official termination of USSR, his pen had no ink and he had to borrow a pen from the television crew!)
(b) The second important event at the end of the World War I seemed to be ‘the destruction of the German type of imperialism and the salvation of a number of independent nationalities which lay under its menace’. (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo writes this in January 1918, more than an year before the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. Sri Aurobindo’s contention that this augured well for the movement to free world-union was justified when the Treaty of Versailles allowed the erstwhile German colonies to be transformed into League of Nation mandates though they would be divided among Belgium, UK, France and Japan. However Sri Aurobindo, in a footnote decades later commented on the unfortunate turn of events in Germany due ‘to the formidable survival of a military Germany under the Fuhrer’. (Ibid)
(c) The third interesting development was ‘the multiplication of distinct nationalities with a claim to the recognition of their separate existence and legitimate voice in the affairs of the world, which makes for the strengthening of the idea of a free world-union as the ultimate solution of international problems’. (Ibid)
(d) The fourth event had a definitive value and needed to be studied in details. It was the ‘recognition by the British nation of the qualified principle of free nationality in the inevitable reorganisation of the Empire’. (Ibid)
Developments in the British Empire
Sri Aurobindo described how the qualified principle of free nationality that arose in the context of World War I led to two developments:
(a) the ‘recognition of the principle of Home Rule in Ireland and India’ and
(b) the ‘recognition of the claim of each constituent nation to a voice, which in the event of Home Rule must mean a free and equal voice, in the councils of the Empire’. (Ibid, pg.530)
The Indian Home Rule movement during 1916-1918 aroused nationalistic sentiments with leaders like Joseph Baptista, BalGangadharTilak, G. S.Kharparde, SubramaniaIyer, Satyendra Nath Bose, Jinnah and Annie Besant deciding to organize a national alliance of leagues to demand Home Rule or self-government within the Empire. After Annie Besant’s arrest in 1917, the Empire issued the Montague declaration on 20th August, 1917 that reiterated the British acknowledgement of progressive realisation of responsible government in India.
Meanwhile the British Empire was already conceding Dominion Status to semi-independent polities under the Crown beginning with Canada (1867) followed by Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland in 1907, Union of South Africa in 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1922. The Statute of Westminster 1931 consolidated the legislative independence of the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire.
Writing in January,1918, Sri Aurobindo had foreseen such development and appreciated its importance as ‘it could mean in the end the application within certain limits of precisely that principle which would underlie the constitution, on the larger scale, of a free world union’. (Ibid)
The movement towards unity inevitably faces obstacles as the human psyche, both individual and collective has a passionate perversion for divisibility. Sri Aurobindo comments on a footnote three decades later:
‘Unfortunately, this recognition [of Home Rule later called Dominion Status] could not be put into force except after a violent struggle in Ireland and was marred by the partition of the country. After a vehement passive resistance in India it came to be recognized there but in a truncated form shifting the full concession to a far future. In Egypt also it was only after a struggle that freedom was given but subject to a controlling British alliance. Still the nationalistic principle worked in the creation of a free Iraq, the creation of Arab Kingdom and the Syrian republic, the withdrawal of imperialistic influence from Persia and, above all, in the institution of Dominion Status substituting an internally free and equal position in a commonwealth of peoples for a dominating Empire. Yet these results, however imperfect, prepared the greater fulfilments which we now see accomplished as part of a new world of free peoples’. (Ibid)
It is also interesting that by the turn of the 21st century, many of these republics who could have extended their freedom to newer heights of development fell prey to the obscurantist forces of religious fundamentalism. This is an indication of the Time Spirit or Zeitgeist pressing humanity to shake off the hold of the past. The political ideal of freedom cannot be successful in an isolated way unless it acknowledges the growth of consciousness as the sine qua non of progress.
Date of Update: 16-Feb-19
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu