Catalonia’s independence vote on October 01, fraught with violence and a show of authoritarianism, brought into the limelight issues like self-determination and secession. Separatist movements, like the Catalan movement, attempting to seek out their universal right to self-determination and self-governance are prevalent all across the globe.
With just 43% voter turnout, majorly due to pressure-cooker conditions, the results were overwhelmingly (90%) in favor of breaking away from Spain and constituting a sovereign. The gravity of the results was further augmented by the fact that such tilted numbers were despite incidents of forceful shutdown of some polling stations and confiscation of the ballot.
Spain did all it could to attenuate the validity and significance of the referendum – sending in armed police, rendering the vote unconstitutional and illegal, and running the Catalan chieftains out of town. Although the democratic exercise was rendered futile, the will to seek self-determination hasn’t blown over.
After all, this breakaway sentiment isn’t a nou (nuevo) phenomenon. Catalonia’s entry and existence in the Spanish empire, and later Spain, has been tumultuous at best. The Catalan’s are an ethnic group distinct from the Spaniards, with long-standing and unique language, history, traditions, and cuisines.
Despite being under Spanish rule as an autonomous entity, the Catalans faced cultural suppression in the form of official language settings, in addition to being unfairly treated in the arena of economics. In the latter area, Catalans seem to have misunderstood taxation and public spending. Per the popular argument, the ethnic minority comprises less than a fifth of the Spanish population, but end up contributing 20% of the central government’s tax revenues, and receive less than a fifth of the total public spending – which is a matter of grave discontent. Taxation and public spending are redistributionist measures, not investments. Hence, expecting a commensurate return is naive and laughable.
It’s for these very reasons and a will to govern themselves that the Catalans are, and have been, fighting for independence. Their dissatisfaction and lack of trust with the Spanish government is well warranted, especially in the light of the government’s brutal and repressive response to the referendum vote. Such separatist sentiments and sovereignty yearnings have arisen all over the world in the past, but governments have allowed a plebiscite on the issue, as was the case with the Falklands, Gibraltar, and Scotland. The Spanish government’s reactionary stance on the Catalan referendum was shockingly Kafkaesque and bore resemblance to third world dictatorial tendencies. It will only fan the flames of secession.
There is also enough reason to question the real motives behind the Spanish government’s bellicose insistence of retaining Catalonia. Although, the government fat cats cite unity and integrity of the nation as reasons for preventing Catalonia from exiting, there is enough evidence to suspect economic motivation. Catalonia is the richest region in Spain, has a GDP equal to that of Denmark, has a thriving manufacturing industry, and contributes a fifth to Spain’s tax revenues. In essence, it is a cash cow and Spain needs its milk to keep the national economy sputtering along.
Cultural fault lines play a major role in stalling political cohesion, but federalism with maximum autonomy to constituent units coupled with local governance can help ease off the discordance. This was the cornerstone of the American political system, which helped a nation, spanning over three million square miles across the continent, composed of diverse cultures and tastes to function like a well-oiled machine. But in recent decades, a burgeoning federal government levying blanket regulations and increasingly centralized governance has made middle America weary of out-of-touch bureaucrats in D.C. attempting to conduct affairs in the hinterland.
Also, in a weird twist, California, which has skewed far Left and cannot see itself as part of the union, wants to break away and set itself up as a sovereign to realize all its leftist objectives. Check out their marching song here.
On the other hand, India – a bastion of multiculturalism – is barely cohesive as a political unit, with separatist sentiments and cultural clashes being the order of the day. Although conceived as a federal republic, it has evolved into a highly centralized unitary state. Extremely diverse regions like the north-east and the south are beaten into submission by the central government using strong man political tactics, while being placed on the sidelines in most administrative processes.
The case of Kashmir deserves a special mention here, with a bloody conflict resulting in hundreds of thousands of lives lost over the years and no resolution in sight. The Kashmiris feel persecuted and marginalized under Indian rule and don’t wish to remain part of the union. No official referendum has ever been held and any such discussion is met with intense feelings of nationalistic pride and fears over losing Kashmir.
Holding people hostages in a union they are unhappy with just to ensure cohesion or nationalistic pride is akin to a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift it. Besides being unfeasible, the entire exercise is unethical and inhuman, and puts a huge drain on the public purse.
If a people see it fit to leave the larger administrative body and determine their own fate, I say let them be. Nations like the US and member states of the EU should back the Catalonian independence movement, instead of turning their backs on it.