‘There’s a natural law of karma that vindictive people, who go out of their way to hurt others, will end up broke and alone.’, is a quote that is ascribed to Sylvester Stallone. Put simply, it means that Karma is a b*tch and a vindictive b*tch at that. For centuries, Europeans plundered, looted, captured, robbed and enslaved large parts of the world. Ancient civilizations were ravaged, their riches looted and their proud people reduced to a state of penury- both monetary and spiritual. Ancient monuments were labelled as profane and trampled over, ancient texts were burnt, heretics were murdered and so on. The march of Europe into the modern era was on a path laid with the ruins of ancient and glorious civilizations. Spain, France, Netherlands, Portugal, Germany and others emerged as superpowers only after brutally annihilating and conquering other peoples and appropriating their riches.
It now seems that Karma is out to get back at Europe. Everywhere one sees, Europe is on a retreat. It is no longer the center of the world that it used to be for centuries. Added to its many woes is the worrisome Economic situation of the continent, the pitched political battles between the Right wing and the Liberals and the virus of secessionism that has infected the continent. Not long ago, Scotland was emblematic of this secessionist virus. Now it seems, it is Spain that is gravely afflicted with it. Prosperous Catalonia, in the North Eastern part of Spain has almost unanimously decided to part ways with Spain in a recently concluded referendum.
Europe today seems like a near homogeneous continent composed of distinct countries that each have a common language, culture, religion etc. France speaks French, Spain speaks Spanish, Portuguese rules in Portugal and so on. It will be difficult to believe that at the time of the French revolution in 1789, only 50% of French people spoke French and not more than 12-13% spoke it correctly. The advent of the concept of Nation State in Europe was marked by increased homogenization and whittling away of the diversity that had long marked the continent. Spain, for instance was home to several ‘nationalities’, before it emerged as a unified nation-state when the Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469. Some of these ‘nations’ were Castille, Aragon, Catalonia, Asturias, Galicia, Andalusia etc. Afer the emergence of a Unified Spanish state, Catalonia frequently found itself on the losing side of wars that resulted in stronger centralization of Spain. Anger against Castilian military presence in Catalonia resulted in the Catalan revolt in mid 1600s, resulting in the formation of Catalan republic briefly before Spain re-established control over the region. In the Spanish war of succession in early 1700s, Catalonia once again saw itself on the losing side. The victorious Bourbon claimant to the throne punished Catalonia by reducing it to a mere province within the crown of Castille.
By the beginning of the modern era, Catalonia had embraced Industrialization and had emerged as an Industrial center. Catalonia was re-established as a region, first in 1914 and then again in 1931, under the Spanish Republic. During the Spanish Civil war (1936-39), the Catalonians supported the Spanish Republic against the Fascist Franco. George Orwell made Catalonia famous as the site of some of the fiercest battles in his ‘Homage to Catalonia’. As fate would have it, it was Franco who triumphed and Catalonia lost its hard gained autonomy once again. Catalonian institutions were disbanded, prohibitions placed on the use of Catalan language and Catalan culture severely curtailed. In spite of all its vicissitudes, Catalan culture and language survived and continued to thrive. With Franco’s death and resumption of democracy in Spain, a new statute of autonomy was adopted and Catalonia emerged as one of the autonomous communities of Spain.
In 2006, Catalonia approved a new statute of autonomy, further enlarging the powers of Catalan government, a decision, which was stuck down by the Constitutional court of Spain. More than anything else, this decision spurred Catalonians to renew their demands for independence, a sentiment which had been simmering for long. A 2014 referendum, attended by nearly 40% of Catalan electorate voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. In 2015, the Catalan government approved a plan for secession from Spain by 2017. This decision, which was turned down by the Spanish constitutional court, further spurred the pro-Independence activists and the Catalan government to call for a referendum in October 2017. The referendum, which saw disproportionate use of force by the government in Madrid, who tried to confiscate ballot boxes and physically prevent voters from voting, further goaded the Catalans towards independence. 92% of voters opted for independence from Spain, putting the region, firmly on a collision course with Madrid.
Apart from the historical and cultural reasons for Catalan independence, there is the much more prosaic political cause as well. The regional Catalan government is led by a coalition of Secessionist parties, which pits it against the PM Manuel Rajoy’s Popular Party which governs Madrid. Many attritbute the recent spurt in Catalan secessionism to Rajoy’s political manouverings which included denying increased fiscal autonomy to Catalonia way back in 2012. Rajoy’s Popular Party, enjoys minimal support in Catalonia and his gameplan, all along has been to pit the Opposition Socialists and the recently arrived ‘Podemos’ against each other, helping Popular Party’s electoral prospects. Instead of using legislative means to persuade Catalans to return to the negotiating table, Rajoy’s decision to resort to force during the recently concluded referendum have made him deeply unpopular in Catalonia. Recent statements made by the Spanish King, where he appeared to speak more as a government spokesperson rather than a voice of reason have only served to further alienate ordinary Catalans from Spain. Catalan President, Carles Puidgemont has now sworn to go ahead and implement the results of the referendum and has sought mediation from the European Union, which has so far been cautious in its reaction.
An independent Catalonia does not seem unsustainable at all. It is after all one of Spain’s most highly industrialized and economically prosperous region. Its GDP was the highest in Spain in 2014 and given its fame as a tourist destination of international renown, it is likely that Catalonia will be able to stay afloat in today’s highly uncertain global economic environment.
But the question that must be asked is whether Catalonia is right in seeking secession? From a legal point of view, the answer is a firm NO.
The Spanish Constitution unequivocally calls for the ‘indissoluble unity of Spanish nation’. It therefore appears that the Catalans have proceeded on the path of a Unilateral declaration of Independence, similar to what happened in Kosovo, rather than following the more peaceful Scottish model for secession. Unilateral declarations of Independence are fraught with grave risks as they threaten to completely upend the existing world order. While India has nothing to do with Catalan secessionism as it is an internal matter of Spain, India must side with the Spanish government for a constitutional settlement of this issue. If the whole concept of Unilateral Declaration of Independence were to gain currency, it could sound the death knell of large, pluricultural nations such as India and many others riven as they are with secessionist strife. Nothing but bloodshed would ensue if UDIs become the order of the day. India must therefore use its good offices to push for a constitutional settlement of this issue.
As the Catalan anthem, Els Segadors says ‘Catalonia triumphant,shall again be rich and bountiful’, but perhaps its shall do so better within a united Spain.