Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Revised draft of the Readings of Chapters

Readings in Chapter VIII

The Problem of a Federated Heterogeneous Empire


The failure of the British Experiment

The British experiment failed to establish a supra-national unit, albeit a heterogeneous world-empire though history had given it a chance. Sri Aurobindo examined the implications of this failure and the lessons for a world-unity in 1916 when the British Empire still existed.

The first mistake England did was "the fatal American blunder" (The ideal of Human Unity, pg. 332). The British colonies refused to pay taxes to an Imperial government in which they had neither voice nor share. This ultimatum was followed by the taking up of arms leading to a six-year war that culminated in winning independence in 1783. The refusal to pay taxes is one of the most powerful acts of defiance against administrative authority but what made the American imbroglio unique was the determination to snatch independence by war if the Imperial government did not pay heed to the ultimatum. Unfortunately, the ground reality was different in British India. Sri Aurobindo, while designing the Boycott policy of Indian subjects had compared the Indian scene with the American one: "An ultimatum should never be presented unless one is prepared to follow it up to its last consequences. Moreover, in a vast country like India, any such general conflict with dominant authority as is involved in a no-taxes policy, needs for its success a close organization linking province to province and district to district and a powerful central authority representing the single will of the whole nation which could alone fight on equal terms the final struggle of defensive resistance with bureaucratic repression. Such an organization and authority has not yet been developed".(The Doctrine of Passive Resistance, Part Four, Bande Mataram, April 11th to 23rd, 1907) Therefore, the American slogan of ''no representation, no taxation" was replaced in British India by "no control, no assistance" to support a program of passive resistance that ranged from industrial boycott, judicial boycott, educational boycott to executive boycott (Ibid).

Sri Aurobindo also pointed that England was on the verge of committing a political mistake in South Africa which would be detrimental to its Imperial hegemony but this was timely corrected. After the British victory in the Boer War (1902), the erstwhile Boer republics were granted self-government (1906) and later allowed to join the Union of South Africa in 1910 which became independent and withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961. It is another story that the European settlers in South Africa completely messed up the racial scenario, something that was not practiced by the British in India or Egypt. South African politics was dominated by the conflict between White supremacy and the rights of the black majority. The adoption of Apartheid (Policy of Racial Segregation) in 1948 led eventually to the Group Areas Act in 1950. Residential and business sections were specified for each 'race' and 'pass' laws required non-whites to carry identification papers. Public facilities, educational opportunities , jobs and labour unions were segregated, non-whites were denied participation in the national government and black African 'homelands' were established which were partly self-governing but politically and economically dependent on the national government. Universal condemnation lead to dismantling of apartheid laws around 1990-91 and free elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the country's first black President.

However, the failure of the British experiment of a federated heterogeneous trans-national conglomeration was already evident by the beginning of 20th century when "the evolution of Australia and Canada at least into young independent nations was considered the inevitable end of the colonial empire, its one logical and hardly regrettable conclusion"(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 330). European settlement in Australia began with the Dutch (1616) and the British (1688) but it was James Cook's expedition in 1770 that established Britain's claim. In 1788 British settlement was initiated with convicts and sea-men. By 1859 British colonies in Australia were stabilized at the cost of a sharp decline of the indigenous population, courtesy, the introduction of European diseases and weaponry. Circumstances forced Britain to allow limited self-government in the mid 19th century and by 1900-1901, the separate English settlements federated into the commonwealth of Australia. It took another seven decades to formally abolish British interference in government through constitutional links (1968). A similar picture emerged in Canada. In the conflict among European settlers in Canada, Britain gained an upper edge over France by 1763. After the American Revolution, loyalists fled the United States, swelling the population. In response, the British segregated the colony into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791 which were reunited by 1841. Circumstances forced the confederation movement and the Dominion of Canadian provinces was established in 1867. It was in 1931 that Canada was recognized as an equal partner of Great Britain through the Statute of Westminster. In 1971, the Canadian government issued the Multiculturalism Proclamation recognizing the ethnic diversity. It was only in 1982 that the British power to legislate for Canada formally ended.

The chain of events that unrolled in Australia, Canada and South Africa and sounded the decline of the colonial British Empire was foreseen by Sri Aurobindo. In his 1916 write-up, he listed several reasons for these developments:

1. Geographical: "The geographical necessity of union was entirely absent; on the contrary, distance created a positive mental separation. Each colony had a clear-cut separate physical body and seemed predestined, on the lines on which human evolution was then running, to become a separate nation".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 330)

2. Economic: "The economic interests of the mother country and the colonies were disparate, aloof from each other, often opposite as was shown by the adoption by the latter of Protection as against the British policy of Free Trade". (Ibid)

3. Political: The sole political interest of the colonies in the Empire "was the safety given by the British fleet and army against foreign invasion; they did not share and took no direct interest in the government of the Empire or the shaping of its destinies". (Ibid)

4. Cultural: "Psychologically, the sole tie was a frail memory of origin and a tepid sentiment which might easily evaporate and which was combated by a definite separatist sentiment and the natural inclination of strongly marked human groupings to make for themselves an independent life and racial type. The race origin varied, in Australia British, in South Africa predominantly Dutch, in Canada half French, half English; but in all three countries habits of life, political tendencies, a new type of character and temperament and culture, if it can be so called, were being developed which were as poles asunder from the old British culture, temperament, habits of life and social and political tendencies". (Ibid, pg 330-331)

5. Long-term interests: In the long run, "the mother country derived no tangible political, military or economic advantage from these off-shoots, only the prestige which the possession of an empire in itself could give her. On both sides, therefore, all the circumstances pointed to an eventual peaceful separation which would leave England only the pride of having been the mother of so many new nations". (Ibid, pg. 331)

It might be argued that in his zeal for seeking a supra-national federated conglomeration, Sri Aurobindo might be underplaying the contribution of colonial exploitation to capital formation in the colonizer's mother country. It would be ordinarily assumed that the main economic benefit in the case of the British Empire would be amassing huge capital generated from colonial exploitation. But there is strong evidence that such assumption is at best overstressed. Amlan Dutta in his landmark 1972 essay titled 'Primitive' Capital Accumulation (Selected Works of Prof. Amlan Dutta. Development Challenges and Responses, Vol.1: Perspectives, Edited by B.B.Dutta, S.Mazumdar, S.Das; Divya Jeevan Foundation, India, 2011, pg. 40-41) cites several examples:

1. Much of the black money gained from the loot of Bengal by the servants of the East India Company could not be productively invested.

2. The Spaniards loot of Latin American wealth contributed comparatively little to the growth of trade and industry in Spain itself.

3. England's commerce with the United States and her investment therein greatly increased after America became independent.

4. Countries like Denmark and Sweden made remarkable progress in trade and industry without having to depend on colonies at all.

5. Japan had a period of colonial expansion prior to World War II when its industrial growth was supplemented by growth of national qualities like education, improved farming, a positive work-culture and the appearance of highly investment- conscious entrepreneurial class. When she lost her empire after World War II, her qualities remained and she displayed a more rapid and robust industrial growth than when she had colonies.

Amlan Dutta concludes that as losses and gains do not always balance, colonial exploitation might well have been a "negative-sum enterprise" (Ibid). Sri Aurobindo is in consonance when he points that the "mother country" derived no tangible political, military or economic advantage from its colonies (vide supra) leading invariably to an eventual separation, nipping in the bud the dream of a federated heterogeneous empire. Yet humanity continues to dream of unifying mankind. Therefore, in altered conditions of the modern era, the fusion of the colonial empire-idea into a great federated commonwealth or something akin becomes an inevitable alternative.


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 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" [the erstwhile German Customs Union] 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 someday be possible in India."(Ibid, footnote, pg 336). Much before 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: 24-Jan-22

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu