Craving For Independence: Significance Of Secessionist Movements In Catalonia, Kashmir, And Xinjiang

By Bhavya Kumar:

I knew about the Basques, thanks to Sidney Sheldon’s “The Sands of Time”, where the secessionist movement in the Basque country formed the backdrop of a typical Sheldon drama, set in the much-romanticized scorching golden landscape of Spain. Parallel to the Basque movement is the Catalan secessionist struggle, which interested me more, as a movement close to success. The Autonomous Community of Catalonia recently surfaced in the news, where a non-binding referendum was postponed by the Spanish Constitutional Court. I needed to go only a little further to find out about the independence movement in Catalonia which had been so well covered in the past, but now, the heat has somewhat reduced, eclipsed by tensions and turmoil elsewhere. Priorities of media, of world polity, have changed. For the Catalan people, however, their struggle remained the same, and even intensified. For Spain, things couldn’t get worse.

kashmir unrest

The Catalan struggle is marked by its active political engagements with other states, and in the 16th-17th century, it even mattered because it was the seat of the Crown of Aragon, which was an influential state then. It started out as a peasants’ rebellion, the hues later changing to dissension against the house of Bourbon — the ruling family in Spain at that time, and then, turning into the grounds where Anarcho-Syndicalists, Communists and Republicans retained stronghold against the forces of General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Catalonia, being at the point where France and Spain border, also stands out because of its distinct culture, suppressed violently as long as Spain was under Franco’s dictatorship. In the same period of time, Catalonia started to assume great economic importance. Barcelona, a Catalan city, becomes one of the major cities in Spain. An affluent region, it has acknowledged its own potential well. Apart from cultural and historical reasons, Catalan people are convinced that an independent Catalan state shall be viable in economic terms.

In 2013, Catalonia’s regional parliament declared itself a sovereign entity, and pushed for a referendum. The most that the Spanish government could do is what it did this month itself – postpone the referendum. Spain is deeply embroiled into the debt crisis, the Basques and their sustained militant tendencies, and with Catalonia so close to secession, it can only try to postpone the impending storm, but not for long.

Stains of violence dot the long, historical Catalan struggle as well, but the stains are old. Violence remains, but only notionally, in the quietened fervour of the people, in the spirit of the struggle; it doesn’t translate into a significant armed strife as compared to Kashmir. Secession in India is an entirely different story. It is demanded by regions not like Catalonia, who are affluent and have a huge, materialized economic leverage. The armed strife in Catalonia that occurred under Phillip the Fifth, where Spain was fighting off the Austrian Hapsburg (Catalonia sought the support of Austria in this war), in the 1700s, is now taking course in Kashmir, but also under slightly different circumstances, for slightly different motivations.

Kashmir’s independence is not only jeopardized by the fact that there’s an undeniable support coming from Pakistan, which seeks to annex the region, but also that the Indian governance is deploying all sorts of measures to secure the region, which was also depicted fairly well in a latest Bollywood release called “Haider”. Violent resistance on the behalf of Kashmir, and a violent counter-reaction by the Indian army, has taken a more complex turn with religion-based identity politics, which was largely missing in Catalonia. It is also because of the same reason that Kashmir’s call for self-determination is weaker than that of Catalonia – because of a clear lack of solidarity among Kashmiri people for the region of Kashmir, which hinders this secessionist movement. Strength mustered on the basis of religion, as recent as in the case of Kashmir, will wither away in the face of the problems caused by lack of self-determination, solidarity, comprehensive political strategy and a self-reliance which is actually constructed largely by Kashmiri solidarity, and not some other entity.

Kashmir receives attention because of all the many interests vested in it. Kashmir too has economic leverage, but it’s anticipated. Desperation on many sides to retain, annex, or liberate Kashmir makes Kashmir important, and while the “Kashmiri Issue” exerts influence on many decision makers (in New Delhi, or Islamabad, or Washington, or even Beijing for that matter), Srinagar does not. What happens with Srinagar is not the same as what Srinagar is trying to say, or what Srinagar is harangued to say by so many internal splits.

On the extreme end to Catalonia, stands Xinjiang. Suffocated, lack of self-determination, no self reliance at all, and with irregular militia its only vent, Xinjiang or Turkestan, twitches painfully under the command of Beijing. Like Catalonia, Xinjiang is solid against China on the basis of cultural distinction and solidarity. It is later followed by religious considerations. The Uyghur people, who inhabit Xinjiang, are majorly Muslims. However, solidarity of people against China fails in front of the brutal truth that it has no resources to put up a good resistance at all. China, on the other hand, is doing everything to break this isolation under which the bitterness against Beijing brews. Highways, roads, development of infrastructure and almost everything else at a fast pace, juxtaposed with constant military action, not only intends to stifle the movement presently, but also to eliminate possibilities of a movement in the future. The mass influx of mainland Chinese (primarily Han by the ethnicity, as compared to the Turkic descent of the Uyghurs) into the region, and their settlement, are long-term strategies to break domination of one community over a territory. Xinjiang is the largest of Chinese provinces, lies in the north-west (close to Central Asia which China is desperate to venture into), and is pregnant with tremendous mineral resources, which China craves for. Hence, the tiniest of voices in Xinjiang that try to claim independence, are rooted out as soon as they sprout up. Like Kashmir, what happens in Xinjiang is more important than what Xinjiang actually wants.

All these three are some of the active secessionist movements across the world with many similarities among themselves. These three, however, are as if they form stages of some sort of evolution. Catalan movement is close to success, and needs only the right moment to finally claim it (Catalan leader, Artur Mas assures that the referendum shall happen on the 9th of November). Kashmir, with its active, ever-growing secessionist tendencies, must reconsider its stances and fundamental support bases in relation to the future. As for Xinjiang, the maintenance of the resistance is the only option that they have; independence is still quite far away.

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