Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter VIII Part II

The Problem of a Federated Heterogeneous Empire

The British experiment to establish an imperial federated heterogeneous set-up on a global scale faced difficulties with European settlements in America, Canada, Australia and South Africa and hence would face difficulties of a greater magnitude in dealing with countries like Egypt and India. The difficulties were so great that ‘the first temptation of the political mind, supported by a hundred prejudices and existing interests, was naturally to leave the problem alone and create a federated colonial empire with these two countries as subject dependencies’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 332-333). In this 1916 write-up, Sri Aurobindo had listed the limitations of the British experiment to foster a practical union between such different aggregates:

  1. Geographical separateness is an important factor, especially it ‘has always made India a country and a people apart, even when it was unable to realize its political unity and was receiving by invasion and mutual communication of cultures the full shock of the civilizations around it’(Ibid, pg 333). That is why pre-European invaders who came from abroad got mostly assimilated in the Indian subcontinent, made India their home, and ruled from within unlike the British Empire where actual power had its base thousands of miles away.

  2. The mere mass of population of teeming millions in countries like India posed a more complex problem ‘than the fusion of the comparatively insignificant populations of Australia, Canada and South Africa’ (Ibid).  The proletariat had become a force to reckon with, its power could not be underestimated. The Time-Spirit demanded ‘the awakening of the political sense in the mass. This is the age of the people, the millions, the democracy. If any nation wishes to survive in the modern struggle…it must awaken the people and bring them into the conscious life of the nation....’ (Sri Aurobindo,  Bande Mataram, April 26, 1908).  If a new federated empire-unit antagonized this renascent awakening of the masses by short-sighted statesmanship, then the dream of a practical unity based on the principle of heterogeneity could not be sustained (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 333).

  3. The cultural dissonance between the Eastern and Western world-views was also an impediment for a pragmatic unity amidst heterogeneity. ’There is the salient line of demarcation by race, colour and temperament between the European and the Asiatic. There is the age-long past, the absolute divergence of origins, indelible associations, inherent tendencies which forbid any possibility of the line of demarcation being effaced or minimized by India’s acceptance of an entirely or predominantly English or European culture’(Ibid, pg 333-334).

Despite such formidable difficulties, the British experiment had a possibility to develop into a supra-national unit, not as ‘a vulgar and even reactionary phenomenon’, not as ‘an imperial Zolleverein’ that would have been disastrous to the economic development of the subject dependencies but as an intermediary stage towards the creation of new habits in collective life for ‘the unity of the whole human race in a single family’ (Ibid, pg 334-335). Sri Aurobindo pointed that such a step would need ‘some sort of psychological unity’ between what appears to be ‘two widely disparate aggregates of the human race ‘(Ibid, pg 334). ‘The unity created could never take the form of an Indo-British empire; that is a figment of the imagination, a chimera which it would never do to hunt to the detriment of the real possibilities. The possibilities might be, first, a firm political unity secured by common interests; secondly, a sound commercial interchange and mutual industrial helpfulness on healthy lines; thirdly, a new cultural relation of the two most important sections of humanity, Europe and Asia, in which they could exchange all that is great and valuable in either as equal members of one human household; and finally, it might be hoped, in place of the common past associations of political and economic development and military glory which have chiefly helped in building up the nation-unit , the greater glory of association and close partnership in the building of a new, rich and various culture for the life of a nobler humanity. For such, surely, should be the type of the supra-national unit which is the possible next step in the progressive aggregation of humanity’ (Ibid, pg 335).

Anti -colonial nationalism and Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo is the first recorded voice to claim complete independence from colonial rule in British India, he was also the first person to use the term ‘proletariat’ in Indian journalism. In the first decade of the 20th century, he was considered the most dangerous revolutionary by the British government.  His singular contribution was to instill in the psyche of the Indian proletariat a settled will for freedom and his strategy planning had both political and spiritual perspectives. Yet in 1916,  he was considering the possibility of a supra-national unit where  erstwhile British colonies could be freely accommodated  in a federated heterogeneous  agglomeration while having ‘virtual independence in place of a separate and isolated autonomy’(Ibid, pg 336).This possibility did not materialize and in the final revision carried out before he passed away in 1950, he commented  ‘Things have taken, as was practically inevitable all through, a different turn….The failure of that possible experiment to come anywhere near realization is an illustration of the fact that this intermediate stage in the progress towards a total world-union presents difficulties which make it almost impossible. Its place has been taken by such agglomerations as the Commonwealth, the Soviet Union and such possibilities as the proposed United States of Europe and other continental combinations such as are coming into being as between the two Americas and may some day be possible in India’(Ibid, footnote, pg 336). When Sri Aurobindo added this footnote, he had already graduated from a fiery revolutionary to a spiritual seer par excellence.

It has been often generalized that many non-Western people tend to define their identity in terms of being different from Western people and this phenomenon is explicit in the emergence of various self-definitions that characterize cultural or political nationalism. Extending this logic, Amartya Sen commented, ‘The dialectics of the captivated mind can lead to a deeply biased and parasitically reactive self-perception’ (Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny, Allen Lane, Penguin Books,UK,2006, pg 91). Sen takes a cue from Partha Chatterjee , a contemporary social thinker who postulates that anti-colonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty well before its political battle with the imperial power by a fundamental formula of dividing the world into two domains –  Western materialistic and Eastern spiritualistic (Partha Chatterjee. The Nation and Its Fragments, Princeton, N.J, Princeton University Press,1993,pg 6). Sen is particularly worried as such reactive identities can lead to fundamentalism. It is interesting that Sri Aurobindo, who was the prime motivator of Indian Nationalism, transcends Sen’s ‘dialectics of the captivated mind’ and Chatterjee’s ‘fundamental formula’ of anti-colonial nationalism to visualize the extension of the British experiment of a federated heterogeneous empire as an intermediary step towards world-unity. It is not only Sri Aurobindo but also Indian iconic figures like Swami Vivekananda, Tagore and Gandhi who gave equal weightage to nationalism and universalism. This is because the unity-principle that emerges from Indian spirituality is integralist in nature unlike the constructed unity of science, the secular unity of humanism or the deconstructed unity of post-modernism. It is an unity that carries in its bosom the multiplicity. Differences form an equally valid poise of reality as sameness, multiplicity co-exists with unity. A new world-order needs to manifest unity as an essence without obliterating the rich and variegated multiplicity of phenomena and categories. That is why there is no inherent contradiction in Sri Aurobindo’s trajectory that spans from nationalism to internationalism, political liberty to spiritual universalism.

Date of Update: 7-Feb-12

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu