M D Nalapat
DURING the period when the East India Company controlled much of the Indian subcontinent, it was permissible to wrest property and riches from a native. However, if a British-born “John Company” official took similar liberties with the assets of another Briton, he was swiftly punished. The natives were fair game for those hunting for treasure, but those who were citizens of the colonial power were out of bounds for thieving carpetbaggers belonging to the colonial authorities. In much the same way, the Supreme Court of Spain has legitimized a separation between the way in which others and those who regard themselves not as Spaniards but as Catalans get treated by a justice system in thrall to Madrid. The European Union claims to be a votary of freedom and self-determination, and is not slow to lecture countries across the globe on such matters. However, the convention has been to carve an exception to such a rule. Member countries of the NATO Alliance are exempt from consideration such as human rights.
The hundreds of thousands of Libyans, Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who have been killed (through bullets or starvation) as a consequence of sanctions and attacks by NATO forces have been ignored by the Human Rights warriors in Europe. As Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright supervised the cruellest of sanctions on Iraq, measures that deprived even the very young of food and medicine, not to mention jobs for their parents. Since then, she has travelled the globe calling for human rights, although not of course for those her actions affected so fatally. What Europeans had done to other civilisations, Hitler did in Europe. He enslaved countries, murdered millions of inhabitants (including most of the Jewish people as well as Gypsies) and acted as though the Europeans were Asians, Africans or indigenous people in the Americas. Now the differential treatment seen in the case of the dealings of the officials of the East India Company has reached the shores of Europe. The Spanish Supreme Court has sought to assist the central police forces of Spain by handing down unjustly long sentences for Catalan leaders who were entirely non-violent and who simply wanted Barcelona to get freedom from Madrid.
During the British era, court after court in India found on behalf of the colonial authorities against the natives, and this was what was on display in Madrid where the Supreme Court sought to stifle the enthusiasm of the growing number of Catalans favouring independence by imposing the sort of sentences that the British imposed during their time on Mahatma Gandhi and his entirely non-violent associates. Unlike the Basques, the Catalans have never deviated from the Gandhian path of non-violence, but the severity of the sentences against 13 Catalan nationalists is likely to make some in the Free Catalonia movement consider whether this has indeed been the best policy. It must be said that non-violence is indeed the best policy, no matter how ferocious the police actions against Catalans.
Ultimately, a free Catalonia within the EU will emerge as a consequence of such self-discipline. Such a transfer of sovereignty from Madrid to Barcelona will make very little difference to the overall situations. Spaniards will continue to have the right to live and work freely in Catalonia, and vice versa. What will change is the money from the Catalonian taxpayer will no longer be available for the Spanish elite to live like royalty, enjoying perquisites such as comfortable sinecures and growing expenditure on mostly avoidable travel. It is because independence for the Catalonians will shrink the money at their disposal (including in maintaining the Spanish Royal Family with its links to former dictator Francisco Franco’s family ) that is providing the motivation for such an outsize reaction to the Catalonian independence movement.
British citizens enjoyed rights from the time of the Magna Carta, but democracy in Spain is barely a few decades old. This may explain the difference in attitude between London and Madrid to the desire of some within a province to break away. Those favouring Scottish independence are not sent to jail for sedition in the United Kingdom, nor are they prevented from entering into government. If only the EU President had urged her Spanish colleagues to follow the example of the UK in such matters. However, Ursula von der Leyen seems to have adopted a vow of silence in the face of the repression let loose by Madrid in Barcelona. This is reminiscent of the manner in which millions of her countrymen and women watched in silence as a former corporal in the Kaiser’s army took office with the support of the President of the Reich, Pual von Hindenburg, who was quickly converted into an admirer of Hitler by the latter’s promise (conveyed through Herman Goering) to gift the Hindenburg family an estate in East Prussia.
Unlike most of the other promises he made, Hitler kept this particular promise, giving away one of the largest estates in Prussia to the President of the nominally democratic German republic. Modern Spaniards are very different from ancestors who killed off entire populations in various parts of the world, and hopefully they will raise their voices in protest against the repression set loose on the Catalans. Just as the atrocities of the British colonial authorities made the handing over of power to the people of the subcontinent inevitable ( with even the military no longer being reliable as a way of putting down the population), the excesses against the Catalans will energize the freedom movement such that another referendum will become inevitable. Not just Catalans living within the boundaries of Catalonia but Catalans living throughout Spain and across the world should have the right to vote in such a referendum, the results of which should be respected by both sides.
Should the verdict go against independence yet again, Catalan nationalists ought to be content with a much higher degree of autonomy than previously. However, should those favouring independence succeed this time around, Catalonia should be given freedom within the EU. Across Europe, there is a strong case for breaking up some countries in order to better reflect cultural and other differences. An example is Bavaria in Germany, which was aghast at Chancellor Merkel’s decision to allow two million from North Africa and the Middle East to settle in the country, surely a move that merits a Nobel Peace Prize much more than has been the case of several winners of that award. Should there be a movement for a referendum in Bavaria, it is unlikely that the protagonists of such a move will be treated in the inhumane manner in which Catalonians are subjected to, most recently by the Madrid Supreme Court. The EU leadership needs to end its silence over the repression in Catalonia and prevail on Madrid to permit a new referendum. That is the only path to stability in Spain, for repression will only breed resentment that could explode into violence. The EU is big enough and flexible enough to accommodate the right of self-determination of the ancient Catalan people. There are moments when silence is shameful, and this is what is happening in the wake of the Madrid Court showing a contempt for the very “European values that Brussels prides itself on.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.