Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter V Part III

External unity and liberty

We shall now try to understand Sri Aurobindo’s second query .He raises the issue whether external unity can be achieved by crushing both individual freedom as well as the right of self-determination of collective units. This is again a complex phenomenon. Such an attempt did not survive in the erstwhile Soviet republic. Yet the union of the Scotch, English and Welsh to form the British nation is a unique example of how an external unity held by political force could precede and become a basis for psychological unity (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 289). It is also ironical that foreign rule which denies individual liberty and discourages regional self-determination can paradoxically help to temporarily consolidate a loose psychological unity and galvanize an amorphous national sentiment so that a nation-in-waiting gets ready to emerge at an optimal point in time to justify and uphold the ideal of liberty. This process may take a long time and may even span successive foreign dominations. ‘There is none of the modern nations in Europe which has not had to pass through a phase more or less prolonged, more or less complete, of foreign domination in order to realize its nationality. In Russia and England it was the domination of a foreign conquering race which rapidly became a ruling caste and was in the end assimilated and absorbed, in Spain the succession of the Roman, Goth and Moor, in Italy the overlordship of the Austrian, in the Balkans the long suzerainty of the Turk, in Germany the transient yoke of Napoleon. But in all cases the essential has been a shock or a pressure which could either waken a loose psychological unity to the necessity of organizing itself from within or would crush out, dispirit or deprive of power, vitality and reality the more obstinate factors of disunion’ (Ibid, pg 289-290).

The important thing is that the psychological unity underlying a nation-idea has to develop and over-rule other variables. A mere external unity can be both a deterrent as well as a motivator for the psychological unity. Nature uses various combinations and circumstances to move towards its goal of developing the ‘nation’ as a viable collective unit. Often, a variable period of foreign rule may be needed to rouse a people steeped in inertia, ignorance or moral and economic deprivation. That does not mean that foreign rule can be a panacea. ‘It is obvious that foreign rule can only endure so long as political consciousness can be either stifled by violence or hypnotized into inactivity. The moment the nation becomes politically self-conscious, the doom of the alien preponderance is sealed’.(Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, April 29, 1907)


Foreign domination in India

The role of foreign rule in nation-making varies across the time-fields in history: ‘ some cases the phenomenon of foreign domination is momentary and imperfect, in others long-enduring and complete, in others often repeated in various forms. In some instances the foreign element is rejected, its use once over, in others it is absorbed, in others accepted with more or less assimilation for a longer or briefer period as a ruling caste. The principle is the same, but it is worked variously by Nature according to the needs of the particular case’ (Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 289). India is special as all types of foreign rule with multifarious implications have been experimented here and yet the momentum for unity persisted as an ‘obstinate subconscious necessity’ (Ibid). As an ‘extreme illustration of a general law’(Ibid),’the conversion of the psychological unity on which nationhood is based into the external organized unity by which it is perfectly realized, has taken a period of more than two thousand years’(Ibid). Of course, ‘ it must be remembered that France, Germany, modern Italy took each a thousand or two thousand years to form and set into a firm oneness’(Ibid, footnote).

In a famous editorial in Bande Mataram on April 30th, 1907, Sri Aurobindo explains that the making of a nation is a phenomenon of growth and not a process of manufacture. It is interesting that the foreigners who invaded India with the exception of the British got assimilated into the Indian culture. One great difficulty was in the area of religious tolerance. There are three types of outcome:

(a)The foreigners can be converted to the religion of the conquered people as happened with the ancient invaders of India,

 (b)The conquered people can be converted en masse to the religion of the rulers as in Persia and other countries invaded by the Arabs,

(c)The two religions may become habituated to each other and mutually tolerant. In spite of continual conflicts, such a social fabric persisted in India even during Mohammedan rule. The attempt of Nature to ‘effect an organic adjustment in the body politic’ (Bande Mataram,April 30,1907) was yet present amidst the final anarchy that preceded British domination.

On the other hand, while the essence of Christianity was appreciated and assimilated in India, the British culture as well as its body politic could not be amalgamated with the Indian tradition. Such an amalgamation could be effectuated in two ways. Either the foreign body should have cut itself from its origin to take up home in the conquered country or else, it should have assimilated the subject State into the paramount State by the removal of all differences, inequalities, and conflicting interests (Ibid). It would have not been possible for the British to make such enormous sacrifices for assimilation. Indeed their reluctance to assimilate coupled with their efforts to crush individual liberty as well as regional self-determination facilitated and accelerated the nation-building process in India.

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu