Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter VII Part I

The heterogeneous federal aggregate

Till date the largest successful human aggregate has been the nation that surpassed the tribe, clan, and the city or regional state. The evolutionary trajectory presses Nature towards a more complex heterogeneous formation – a heterogeneous nation or a federal empire. Such a formation may be of two types. It can be a mere enlargement of the nation –type or a new type of aggregate that exceeds and supersedes the nation. Whatever the ‘form’, this new aggregate can only be viable if it can reflect a true psychological unity in the matrix of ethnic, cultural, racial, religious, linguistic, geographical and ecological diversity. The ‘ mere physical fact of political and administrative union may be nothing more than a temporary and artificial creation destined to collapse irretrievably as soon as its immediate usefulness is over or the circumstances that favored its continuance are radically or even seriously altered’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 323). The world has witnessed the fate of the erstwhile Soviet Republic. Observers are also keenly watching whether in the absence of a psychological unity in the psyche of a large section of Tibetan people, an assimilation of Tibet with China can remain consistently viable.

In Chapter VII of his treatise on human unity, Sri Aurobindo examines the creation of a heterogeneous nation or federal empire. He takes up the example of Great Britain as a case study. In fact, the case of Britain gives us two insights; Great Britain as an enlargement of the nation-type and the British Empire as a unique aggregate surpassing the British nation itself.

Great Britain

The British nation evolved as a composite entity from an amalgam of ‘an English-speaking Anglo-Norman England, a Welsh-speaking Cymric Wales, a half-Saxon, half-Gaelic English-speaking Scotland’ with a partial influence of a Gaelic Ireland (Ibid, pg 315). What is unique is that the political unity preceded and became a basis for psychological unity in the union of Scotch, English and Welsh to form the composite British nation (Ibid, pg 311). In fact, this success propelled the British nation to explore and expand into a larger imperial aggregate that later became the British Empire where proverbially “the sun never set". Despite that, the union with Ireland did not take place on expected lines.

Why did the British experiment succeed in amalgamating with Wales and Scotland and not fully with Ireland? Sri Aurobindo explains that SEPARATISM and PARTICULARISM are two distinct phenomena that have to be appreciated.Particularism can coexist with unity, separatism cannot. In the case of Wales and Scotland, a minor particularist sentiment persisted. Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1916 that this sentiment could awaken in future due to repercussion of the Irish separatist factor and crave for recognition of provincial distinctions (Ibid,pg329) though the greater living unity of the British nation would be more enduring(Ibid,pg310).In contrast the Irish sentiment was marked by separatism that could not be coeval with unity. Sri Aurobindo’s observations proved true as in 1997, referenda were approved for devolution of power to elected assemblies in Scotland and Wales though both continued to remain as part of the composite nation of Great Britain. After all, ‘it is such a composite nation on a large scale which it is the business of the federal empire to create’ (Ibid, pg 325).

Why was the amalgamation with Ireland difficult even though the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was set up in 1801? Sri Aurobindo in his 1916 write-up listed the main reasons:

  1. Firstly, ‘the economic life and prosperity of Ireland were deliberately crushed in the interests of British trade and commerce. After that it was of little use to bring about …the political “union” of the two islands in a common legislature, a common governing organ; for that governing organ was not a centre of psychological unity…. The famine which depopulated Ireland while England throve and prospered was Nature’s terrible testimony to the sinister character of this “union” ….The Irish movements of Home Rule and separatism were the natural and inevitable expression of Ireland’s will to survive…’(Ibid, pg 327-328). In fact, it was the Great Famine of the 1840s that led to large scale exodus which built up the pressure for Irish Home Rule. While Sri Aurobindo was writing this in the spring of 1916, Ireland was witnessing the Easter Rising that preceded the civil war of 1919-1921 between the Catholic majority of Southern Ireland who yearned for total independence and the Protestant dominated Northern Ireland who preferred continued union with Britain.

  2. Secondly, ‘British statesmanship in Ireland committed an equally radical mistake in its attempt to get rid by violence of all elements of Irish particularism. Wales like Ireland was acquired by conquest, but ….was left to undergo the peaceful pressure of natural conditions and its preservation of its own race and language has been no obstacle to the gradual union of the Cymric race and the Saxon in a common British nationality. A similar non-interference, apart from the minor problem of the Highland clans, has resulted in a still more rapid fusion of the Scotch race with the English… The opposite process in Ireland, the attempt to substitute an artificial process where the working of natural conditions with a little help of management and conciliation would have sufficed, the application of old-world methods to a new set of circumstances has resulted in the opposite effect. And when the error was discovered, the result of the past Karma had to be recognized and the union has had to be effected through the method demanded by Irish interests and Irish particularist sentiments, first by the offer of Home Rule and then by the creation of the Free State and not under a complete legislative union’ (Ibid, pg 328-329).

What would be the consequence of the Irish separatist movement? Sri Aurobindo speculated , ‘This result may well reach beyond itself; it may create the necessity of an eventual remodeling of the British Empire and perhaps of the whole Anglo-Celtic nation on new lines with the principle of federation at the base’ (Ibid, pg 329). Subsequent events validated this observation:

  1. Dominion status was granted to the Irish Free State (Southern Ireland) in 1921. Such status was earlier given to Canada (1867), Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), and the Union of South Africa (1910). After World War I, the dominions signed the peace treaties as independent states and joined the League of Nations in that status.

  2. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster considered the dominions as independent countries within the British Commonwealth of Nations.

  3. The 1997 referenda granted devolution of power to independent assemblies in Wales and Scotland though both remained part of Great Britain.

  4. The Irish Free State (Southern Ireland) became a sovereign independent country in 1937. Northern Ireland which was a partially self-governing unit remained besieged with conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Irish Republican Army resented British presence in Northern Ireland but later agreed for a Home Rule. Thus while being part of the composite British nation, power was devolved to an elected assembly of Northern Ireland in 1999.

 All these turn of events reaffirm Sri Aurobindo’s conviction that the principle of federation would gain consolidation in the eventual remodeling of the British hegemony. The British Empire described by Britannica Ready Reference Encyclopedia (2005 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc) as worldwide system of dependencies – colonies, protectorates , and other territories that over a span of three centuries came under the British government since 17th century onwards was remarkable not only in the manner in which it was formed but also in the manner in which it systematically devolved power to its constituents which became independent but mostly voluntarily agreed to be part of a free association of sovereign states . This association was initially named as the British Commonwealth of Nations (vide the 1931 Statute of Westminster) but was later redefined as the ‘Commonwealth of Nations’. No wonder, Sri Aurobindo had commented as early as 1916 that the British psyche and matrix provided a great experimental field to work out the unique idea of the heterogeneous federal aggregate (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 329).

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu