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The Relevance of Aurobindo
Shall India be Free?: Unity and British Rule
2 May 1907
It is a common cry in this country that we should effect the unity of its people before we try to be free. There is no cry which is more plausible, none which is more hollow.
What is it that we mean when we talk of the necessity of unity? Unity does not mean uniformity and the removal of all differences.
There are some people who talk as if unity in religion, for instance, could not be accomplished except by uniformity. But uniformity of religion is a psychical impossibility forbidden by the very nature of the human mind.
So long as men differ in intellect, in temperament, in spiritual development, there must be different religions and different sects of the same religion. The Brahmo Samaj was set on foot in India by Rammohan Roy with the belief that this would be the one religion of India which would replace and unite the innumerable sects now dividing our spiritual consciousness.
But in a short time this uniting religion was itself rent into three discordant sects, two of which show signs of internal fissure even within their narrow limits; and all these divisions rest not on anything essential but on differences of intellectual constitution, variety of temperament, divergence of the lines of spiritual development.
The unity of the Hindu religion cannot be attained by the destruction of the present sects and the substitution of a religion based on the common truths of Hinduism.
It can only be effected if there is, first, a common feeling that the sectarian differences are of subordinate importance compared with the community of spiritual truths and discipline as distinct from the spiritual truths and discipline of other religions, and, secondly, a common agreement in valuing and cherishing the Hindu religion in its entirety as a sacred and inalienable possession. This is what fundamentally constitutes the sentiment of unity, whether it be religious, political or social.
There must be the sense of a community in something dear and precious which others do not possess; there must be an acute sense of difference from other communities which have no share in our common possession; there must be a supreme determination to cherish, assert and preserve our common possession from disparagement and destruction.
But the sentiment of unity is not sufficient to create unity; we require also the practice of unity. Where the sentiment of unity exists and the practice does not, the latter can only be acquired by a common effort to accomplish one great, common and all-absorbing object.
The first question we have to answer is - can this practical unity be accomplished by acquiescence in foreign rule?
Certainly, under foreign rule a peculiar kind of uniformity of condition is attained. Brahmin and Sudra, aristocrat and peasant, Hindu and Mahomedan, all are brought to a certain level of equality by equal inferiority to the ruling class. The differences between them are trifling compared with the enormous difference between all of them and the white race at the top.
But this uniformity is of no value for the purposes of national unity, except in so far as the sense of a common inferiority excites a common desire to revolt against and get rid of it. If the foreign superiority is acquiesced in, the result is that the mind becomes taken up with the minor differences and instead of getting nearer to unity disunion is exaggerated. This is precisely what has happened in India under British rule.
The sentiment of unity has grown, but in practice we are both socially and politically far more disunited and disorganised than before the British occupation. In the anarchy that followed the decline of the Moghul, the struggle was between the peoples of various localities scrambling for the inheritance of Akbar and Shahjahan. This was not a vital and permanent element of disunion. But the present disorganisation is internal and therefore more likely to reach the vitals of the community. This disorganisation is the natural and inevitable result of foreign rule. A state which is created by a common descent, real or fictitious, by a common religion or by common interests welding together into one a great number of men or group of men, is a natural organism which so long as it exists has always within it the natural power of revival and development.
The Moghul rule had not this tendency because it immediately naturalised itself in India. British rule has and is forced to have this tendency because it must persist in being an external and intruding presence encamped in the country and not belonging to it.
It is doubtful whether there is any example in history of an alien domination which has been so monstrously ubiquitous, inquisitorial and intolerant of any centre of strength in the country other than itself as the British bureaucracy.
There were three actual centres of organised strength in pre-British India - the supreme ruler, Peshwa or Raja or Nawab reposing his strength on the Zemindars or Jagirdars; the Zemindar in his own domain reposing his strength on his retinue and tenants; and the village community independent and self-existent.
The first result of the British occupation was to reduce to a nullity the supreme ruler, and this was often done, as in Bengal, by the help of the Zemindars. The next result was the disorganisation of the village community. The third was the steady breaking-up of the power of the Zemindar with the help of a new class which the foreigners created for their own purposes - the bourgeois or middle class.
Unfortunately for the British bureaucracy it had in order to get the support and assistance of the middle class to pamper the latter and allow it to grow into a strength and develop organs of its own, such as the Press, the Bar, the University, the Municipalities, District Boards, etc.
Finally the situation with which British statesmen had to deal was this: - the natural sovereigns of the land helpless and disorganised, the landed aristocracy helpless and disorganised, the peasantry helpless and disorganised, but a middle class growing in strength, pretensions and organisation.
It was in Bengal that the middle class was most developed and self-conscious; and it was in Bengal therefore that a quick succession of shrewd and dangerous blows was dealt at the once useful but now obnoxious class.
After Mr. Morley came to power, it was, we believe, intended to recognise and officialise the Congress itself if possible. Even now it is quite conceivable, in view of the upheaval in Bengal and the Punjab, that an expanded Legislature with the appearance of a representative body but the reality of official control, may be given not as a concession but as a tactical move.
The Partition opened the eyes of the threatened class to the nature of the attack that was being made on it; and the result was a widespread and passionate revolt which has now spread from Bengal to the Punjab and threatens to break out all over India. The struggle is now a struggle for life and death.
If the bureaucracy conquers, the middle class will be broken, shattered perhaps blotted out of existence; if the middle class conquers, the bureaucracy are not for long in the land. Everything depends on the success or failure of the middle class in getting the people to follow it for a common salvation. They may get this support by taking their natural place as awakeners and leaders of the nation; they may get it by the energy and success with which they wage their battle with the bureaucracy.
In Eastern Bengal, for instance, the aid of a few Mahomedan aristocrats has enabled the bureaucracy to turn a large section of the Mahomedan masses against the Hindu middle class, and the educated community is fighting with its back to the wall for its very existence. If it succeeds under such desperate circumstances, even the Mahomedan masses will eventually follow its leading.
This process of political
disorganisation is not so much a deliberate policy on
the part of the foreign bureaucracy, as an instinctive
action which it can no more help than the sea can help
flowing. The dissolution of the subject organisation
into a disorganised crowd is the inevitable working of
an alien despotism.