India and “Federal Union”

Dr Eddy Asirvatham

By Dr Eddy Asirvatham (University of Madras)


When the World War of 1914-18 was being fought, there were many who sincerely believed that it was a “righteous war,” and “a war to end war.” On the ruins of this war it was hoped that a new world order in which war would become a thing of the past would be created, and that men would live together in peace and prosperity. A League of Nations was set up representing the governments of various lands; and it was confidently expected that this League would provide security for all its members, reduce armaments, and settle all major disputes between nations by adjudication or arbitration.

The experience of the past twenty years, however, has belied all these hopes. The world has been plunged again into the throes of terrible wars, the end of which no one is able to foresee. For a decade now the dismemberment of China has been going on apace, with little or no interference from the outside world. In 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia under a slight pretext and annexed the whole territory to her empire. When the war was in progress, the League of Nations, which by then had discredited itself by its policy of watchful inaction, decided after much hesitation on applying economic sanctions. But some of the very nations which had helped the League to make this decision began to sabotage it.

Soon after the subjugation of Abyssinia, troubles began to brew in Europe. A civil war broke out in Spain in all its fury, and the agony was prolonged much longer than need be by the intervention of the principal totalitarian States of Europe on one side or the other of the contending elements. Hitler, who had come to power in Germany in 1933, after having recourse to a few years of vigorous military preparation and intense propaganda, first annexed Austria and afterwards Czechoslovakia in two installments. What has happened since September 1939 is a story fresh in our minds. Poland has been dismembered and contrary to all her professions of peace and anti-imperialism, Soviet Russia is at present engaged in the task of subduing Finland and making her a vassal State of Russia.

In other fields of international relations, too, the world has been in a bad way. During the twenty years since the close of the Great War, conferences of various kinds have been held to regulate international trade, to promote prosperity, to restrict armaments, and to preserve peace by regional agreements. But hardly any of them has been a success. Barring the signal success of the Washington Conference held in the early years after the War when the whole world was war-weary, other conferences have produced no lasting result. The Locarno Treaties, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Nine-Power Treaty, the Ottawa Agreement, etc., have all proved to be broken reeds. The League of Nations itself, which achieved some success in minor disputes, in social and humanitarian work, in the economic rehabilitation of post-war Europe, and in intellectual co-operation, has failed in all major political issues. It failed because, by the very nature of its constitution, it could not go beyond the limited authority given to it by the member-States.


All that this shows is that the time is ripe for a complete change in the outlook of people on international questions and for the devising of an international machinery adequate to meet the demands of a new world. Collective security has really produced collective insecurity. Wars and rumours of wars, the economic exploitation and political domination of the backward peoples of the world, planless production, and iniquitous distribution–all these are bound to last so long as each self-governing country claims the right to manage all its own affairs with regard solely to its own interests, irrespective of the effects of its actions upon its neighbours and upon the world at large.

The chief enemy of freedom and progress today is not Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini; it is an excess of nationalism. The doctrine of national sovereignty came into existence in Europe at a time when the modern State was being born. Thinkers like Bodin in France saw the need of an ultimate political authority within the State from which there could be no appeal–an authority strong enough to assert itself against the Church and the various contending elements within the State. Writers who came after Bodin developed the idea of national sovereignty more fully and claimed that sovereignty in both internal and external affairs was an absolute necessity and that, without it, no State could survive long.

Whatever merits the doctrine of absolute national sovereignty may have had in the past in building up the State and in arousing the sentiment of national patriotism, it is an anachronism today. It is the breeder of war and the perpetrator of injustice. Whether, for instance, the USA is to build five battleships or 50, 100 aeroplanes or a 1,000, is a matter which concerns the whole world. For battleships and aeroplanes are not built just for the fun of it. What this means is that matters relating to war and peace are not matters which any one State is solely competent to judge. If the future of the world is to be safeguarded, the doctrine of absolute and unlimited sovereignty should be seriously curtailed, if not altogether abandoned.

It is a welcome sign of the times that the question of the limitation of sovereignty is no longer a mere academic question discussed by jurists and professors of political science; nor is it merely a dream of the poets confined to such noble sentiments as the “Parliament of Man and the Federation of the World.” It is fast entering the sphere of practical politics. In a brilliant and forward-looking book, Union Now, Clarence K Streit, an American journalist, has outlined in detail a scheme for a federal union of the democratic countries of the world.

Whatever criticisms may be leveled against the details of Mr Streit’s scheme, there is no gainsaying the fact that the hard realities of economic and political life in the international world today drive us to the realisation of the urgent need there is for an international authority duly elected and controlled by the people of the world. The League of Nations has been for the most part only a “glory in the heavens” because it represented the governments of some fifty or sixty countries of the world. It could take no independent action of its own. The delegates who attended its sessions were ambassadors of their countries, who could not move to the right or to the left without consulting their home governments. What is needed today is an organisation representing the people of the world, and not merely their governments.

In the scheme outlined by Mr Streit, the original members of the Union are to be some fifteen countries which have been at peace with each other for over a century, which are governed by democratic institutions, and which possess a more or less common outlook on the affairs of the world around. These countries are Great Britain and her five self-governing Dominions, the USA, France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland. The door is not closed against outside nations. The minimum conditions for membership are the establishment of democratic institutions within one’s borders and a solemn undertaking to promote the ends of peace.

The organisation of the Federal Union is to consist of a Federal Legislature, a Federal Executive Board of Five jointly fulfilling the functions of a constitutional President, and a Federal Prime Minister and Cabinet. This Federal Government will have complete charge of such questions as war and peace, defence and foreign relations, trade and communications, postage and currency. Within the Federal Union there will be “one citizenship, one defence force, one free trade area, one money, and one stamp.” The colonial possessions of the member-States will be taken away from them and administered conjointly by the Union with a view to fitting them to become members of the Federal Union as speedily as possible.


One glaring defect in Mr Streit’s book is that the Union which he contemplates is a union of European peoples only. India is dismissed in a rather light-hearted manner. It is obvious that if the Union is to be a success it should be a union of both European and Asiatic races. Naturally China in her present state of disorder and militarist Japan cannot be admitted to the Union straightaway. But there is no valid reason for the exclusion of India. It is true that she has her own internal troubles connected with the Minorities, the Princes, and the vested interests in general. But these troubles are as nothing when compared with the great contributions that India is capable of making by virtue of her past history and her recent experiments with non-violence in the political field. To exclude all non-White races from the Union is to start it with a very serious handicap. It is certain to be interpreted as a Machiavellian device for the perpetuation of White dominance in the world, and more particularly of the Anglo-Saxon variety.

As regards the totalitarian States, we are not quite sure that the contemplated Federal Union should wait till they become fully democratic before admitting them to membership. It may be possible to admit them even now, so long as their totalitarianism is confined to their internal policies and is not extended to international relations. It is possible for a ‘limited totalitarianism’ to find a place in “Union Now” and gradually wipe itself out as it sees for itself the merits of the democratic Way of life.

Original membership of India in the Federal Union has its advantages not only to the Union but to India itself. For some years now India has been struggling against both external and internal difficulties in her attempt to come into her own. On the whole her struggle has been peaceful, free from bloodshed. Nothing at this juncture can be more conducive to her self-respect and to a proper sense of her own importance than admission to the Federal Union as an original member.

Such membership is certain to solve many of the vexing questions which have defied a solution for several years. One of the first questions is that of communalism. The chief reason why this question seems difficult of solution is that the entire atmosphere is filled with fear and suspicion, narrow-minded patriotism, and tribal loyalty. One of the surest ways of clearing this vitiated atmosphere is to breathe into it the life-giving spirit of genuine internationalism. Our Communalists are much like the frog in the well which imagined the well to contain the whole universe. Passionate devotion to such an ideal as “Federal Union” is bound to help a great many Indians who are communal-minded and caste-ridden to get out of their narrow grooves and work together for a greater and higher good. A Jinnah or even a Mahatma Gandhi as a member of a Federal Legislature or of a Federal Cabinet is sure to look at national and communal questions from an altogether different angle. The larger loyalty will so captivate the minds of men that the lesser loyalty will naturally find its proper level.

Mr K M.Munshi, an ex-Minister of the Congress Government of Bombay, is perfectly right when he says that the true goal of India is not complete independence but equal membership in a federation of democratic nations.

What the history of the world shows is that the progress of mankind demands larger and larger areas of co-operation. In all the advanced countries of the world, village politics and tribal politics have been successfully replaced by national politics. The next step in the progress of mankind is the extension and transmutation of national politics into world politics. Indian politics is still in the tribal stage; if, benefiting by the experience of other lands, India should at once decide to adopt an enlightened attitude in world politics, in which national politics will find its rightful place, she may overcome her communalism and at the same time avoid the excesses of Western nationalism.

Federal union is a satisfactory solution not only to Indian communalism and exaggerated nationalism, but also to the many thorny problems connected with her position in the British Empire. Although India has been promised Dominion Status of the Statute of Westminster variety on the termination of the present war, a good many Indians look at the promise with a suspicious eye. They are afraid that, in actual practice, British interests will still control the situation, and are, therefore, agitating for complete independence. By such agitation they do not necessarily mean that India should be cut off from Britain entirely–which would be a calamity–but that whatever agreements are concluded should be altogether voluntary and on a self-respecting and equitable basis for both parties. It is possible that by mutual discussion and adjustment India can find an honorable place in the British Commonwealth of Nations. But it seems probable that the same end can be achieved more easily by both Great Britain and India becoming members of a Federal Union. Both of them will be placed on an identical basis as constituent States and there will be no trace or even indirect indication of the subordination of India to Great Britain.

It is more than likely that in the Dominion Status promised to India certain questions will have to be partially excluded from Indian control for some time to come–such questions as defence and foreign relations,–causing much misunderstanding and considerable heart-burning. But if India should become a member of a Federal Union, the immediate consequence will be to place all these vexing questions under the control of the Federal Government which will have complete jurisdiction over war, defence, and colonies. Such federal control is bound to relieve the tense feeling between Great Britain and India inasmuch as India is not in a mood to continue to be under the tutelage of Great Britain.

Another sphere of activity where the scheme of federal union is bound to be of value to India is the field of trade and communications. A common complaint of Indians has been that the foreign trade and commerce of India are arranged in such a manner as to benefit Great Britain at the expense of India. It is claimed that even Indian coastal traffic is subjected to serious discrimination. If, according to the federal scheme our external trade and commerce and communications with the outside world can be brought under federal control, it will undoubtedly be a step in the right direction.

One further field where the federal scheme can help India in her difficulty is the field of citizenship. Everyone knows of the humiliating position to which Indians have been reduced in South Africa, East Africa, the Fiji Islands, West Indies, Ceylon, and even Burma. According to the federal scheme, there is to be one citizenship common to all the members of the Union. This means that, if South Africa and India become members of the Union, they will not be permitted to discriminate against one another’s nationals. So far as Indians in the non-self-governing parts of the British Empire are concerned, relief will be given to them indirectly by bringing all the colonies under federal control.


The scheme under consideration seems to have several advantages in its favour. It acts directly upon the citizens of the member-States, unlike the League of Nations. Every citizen of a member-State will owe a double allegiance. i.e., to his own country as well as to the Federal Union. Certain spheres of governmental activity will be clearly marked off for the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, and in these spheres the federal organisation will exercise direct control over the citizens.

Some thinkers believe that the organisation of the world into regional groupings such as a Federation of Europe, a Federation of the Americas, and a Federation of Southern Asia may be a better scheme. But on careful investigation we find that such unions lack an adequate community of interests and a common ideology, which are very vital to a Federal Union. The only advantage they possess is geographical contiguity, but in these days of rapid transport and communication, that is not as important as common interests and common ideology.

Others have said that, instead of scrapping the present League of Nations, the new Federal Union should be allowed to grow within its framework, eventually displacing it. This does not seem to be a practical proposition inasmuch as the two are based on two different principles altogether. It is difficult to see how confederation and federation could co-exist in the League and function satisfactorily. But a good case could be made out for a Federal Union acting as a single whole within a reformed League of Nations, until it became universal. Such a course demands a profound modification in the constitution of the League as well as in the temper and attitude of the member-States.

What forward-looking statesmanship requires is courage to plump for Federal Union at once or as soon as practicable, without having recourse to half-measures. Even if the ideal of the Union cannot be brought down to earth all at once today or tomorrow, it is the goal towards which all earnest efforts should be directed. The enlightened citizen should be a good nationalist, but a better internationalist.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”


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