Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XVIII Part III

The Idea of Self-determination

The logic of the World War I and the spectre of defeated nations gave birth to the idea of a new basis for free groupings based on the principle of national sentiment .It was initiated in restricted terms by empires that had advantage in the War, 'Russia by the concession of autonomy to Poland, England by Home Rule in Ireland, and a federation with her colonies' (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 435). However, the same empires that had allowed such concession at some places were equally forceful in suppressing and denying similar concession to other human groupings within their ambit. Despite hurdles, this new principle of human groupings appealed to the collective mind-set of humanity. 'A name even was given to this new principle, and for a time the idea of self-determination received an official sanction and almost figured as a gospel. However imperfect the application, this practical enforcement of it, if effected, would have meant the physical birth and infancy of a new ideal and would have held forth to the hopes of mankind the prospect of its eventual application in a larger field until it came to be universalized'(Ibid).

In the aftermath of World War I, Sri Aurobindo listed two important obstacles to 'this ideal of a rearrangement of the world on the basis of free national groupings':

(a)  The first and most powerful obstacle to the idea of self-determination is national and imperial egoism. 'To give up the instinct of domination and the desire still to be rulers and supreme where rule and supremacy have been the reward of past efforts, to sacrifice the advantages of a commercial exploitation of dependencies and colonies which can only be assured by the confirmation of dominance and supremacy, to face disinterestedly the emergence into free national activity of vigorous and sometimes enormous masses of men, once subjects and passive means of self-enrichment but henceforth to be powerful equals and perhaps formidable rivals, is too great a demand upon egoistic human nature to be easily and spontaneously conceded where concession is not forced upon the mind by actual necessity or the hope of some great and palpable gain that will compensate the immediate and visible loss' (Ibid, pg 435-436).

(b)  The second obstacle to the idea of self-determination was the incipient desire in the European psyche to impose its self-proclaimed superiority over the non-European world. It was as if a self-professed cultural superiority automatically justified political and intellectual affiliation to guarantee equality and liberty. Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1917 : 'There is, too, the claim of Europe, not yet renounced, to hold the rest of the world in the interests of civilization, by which is meant European civilization, and to insist upon its acceptance as a condition for the admission of Asiatic races to any kind of equality or freedom. This claim which is destined soon to lose all its force in Asia, has still a strong justification in the actual state of the African continent. For the present, let us note that it works strongly against a wider recognition of the new-born ideal and that until the problems it raises are resolved, the settlement of the world on any such ideal principle must wait upon the evolution of new forces and the coming to a head both in Asia and Europe of yet unaccomplished spiritual, intellectual and material revolutions'.

While adding footnotes nearly four decades later to his manuscript during 1949-50, Sri Aurobindo noted with satisfaction that the situation was reversed and the obstacles to the idea of self-determination were gradually fading out. There are vestiges of European cultural superiority still canvassed in certain intellectual realms and in promotion of commercial items but these have been reduced to the status of ‘Brand Europe’ in a global market culture.

Date of Update: 25-Jul-14

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu