Lessons for Northeast from the Scotland Referendum

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By Pradip Phanjoubam
On Thursday Scotland voted “No” to independence from the United Kingdom. In all, close to 56 percent Scots, nearly 85 percent of whose adult voters came out to vote on the day, voted against the motion. While those who wanted the UK to remain united would be celebrating, let nobody also forget that another nearly 45 percent voted “Yes” to separation, and that among those who voted for independence, was Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. It is unlikely the lesson would be missed by a mature democracy as Britain, and indeed, as the James Cameroon government had pledged before the referendum to persuade Scotland to stay, and then announced after Scotland decided on staying, its intent for the near future professedly would be informed by the new motto “devolution revolution”. Obviously and wisely too, Britain’s polity is set to be further federalised and decentralised in the years ahead.

Astounding is also the fact of the manner in which the issue of secession from an established State was by consensus allowed to be settled non-violently by a referendum of the people, an idea quite unthinkable in so many other conflict theatres around the globe, including our own. The Scotland referendum is not the first of its kind though, another unsuccessful bid by referendum for Quebec to secede from Canada two decades ago in 1995, being the most prominent precedent. In the Quebec referendum, it may be recalled, the “Yes” votes lost by a razor thin margin of about one percent only.

The Scotland development should be a lesson for any multi-lingual, multi-cultural nation or region. The imaginary possibility of India in a similar situation, or on a much smaller canvas, Manipur, would not have been lost to any keen observer of politics here. Indeed, there were many who did ruminate on the issue of Kashmir and to a lesser extent the various insurgencies in the Northeast, against this context, particularly on the absolutely open and free forums provided by the social media. What exactly would happen if Kashmir for instance were allowed to decide its future by a referendum of its people? Would, as in the case of Scotland, the “Pragmatists” who see the benefits of being part of a larger economy, one with the potential of becoming a world power in military terms as well as economy, win the day, or would the “Nationalists” who would rather live by their passions and draw satisfaction from making their own mistakes rather than be under somebody else’s shadow, prevail? What about in other places of
known widespread public dissents such as Nagaland and Manipur? What exactly would be the outcomes of such a referendum?

There were also other interesting terms by which the opposing camps in the Scotland referendum were defined by. For instance, those who preferred to remain with the UK were also referred to as the “Unionists”. For many among the “Unionists” it was not just pragmatism which determined their desire for the UK to remain intact, but a Statist belief that the Union is sanctified by history, and therefore its territory is sacrosanct beyond questioning and must remain indivisible. On the opposing side, there were those who preferred independence, but objected to their being referred to as “Nationalists”, for as they said, they have no enmity with England or harbour any sectarian ethnic passion for Scotland. Scotland of their imagination was and would remain an ethnic mosaic but they just loved to be on their own. Despite the “No” verdict on Thursday, a lot still say if British policies remain unchanged, it would only be time before another referendum on the same issue becomes inevitable.

In India such a situation where the Union of India allows a referendum by which a part of it can secede from it will remain at best in the realm of fantasy. As a former colony and a relatively nascent modern nation, the idea of the indestructibility of the Union as a prerequisite of nationhood is yet too strong in India for anybody to imagine it will compromise its territorial integrity under whatever the pressure or circumstance. Curiously, as some insightful writers have pointed out, before the birth of modern nationalism in India, things could have been very different if the map of India were to be drawn radically different from what it is now. Well known Left intellectual and columnist Ashok Mitra for instance was quick to point out in one of his extremely readable and insightful articles in The Telegraph, Calcutta, that if the British had decided to separate the Northeast region from India even as late as the 1920s or 1930s, it is quite likely the rest of India may not have taken much note.

As an alibi, he pointed out the fact that till as late as 1937, Burma and Ceylon were part of British India, but in that year, the British government decided to put these provinces under separate administrations, although their offices were still to be under the roof of the India Office in London. What is even more interesting is, 1937 was a time when Indian nationalism and consequently the Indian Freedom Struggle were peaking. Yet, few or none of the Nationalists of the time even noticed this change. Such was their attachment to the land in the peripheries. Yet all this would transform at some stage of the Nationalist uprising and crystallise after Independence, and what for the British colonisers were mere territories important for their geopolitical implications, strategic geographical locations and commercial values, would almost overnight metamorphose into “sacred soil of the motherland”. Pondering on this transformation, Gunnar Myrdal wrote of former colonies’ claim to territories thus: “the first and almost instinctive reaction of every new government was to hold fast to the territory bequeathed to it. What the colonial power had ruled, the new state must rule” (quoted in Neville Maxwell’s “India’s China War”).

If this is true, then it would also be reasonable to assume the cognitive endearing image of “Mother India” in popular imagination would have been very different, had for instance the first and second generations of leaders of Independent India drew the Indian map differently. Today, although nearly half of what is shown as Indian Jammu and Kashmir on the Indian map is actually controlled by Pakistan and China, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Indian leaders today to ask the Indian public to re-imagine “Mother India” differently, with a map that shows Jammu and Kashmir truncated and different what it was always imagined to be. This transformation of colonial territories whose previous importance was only strategic and commercial in nature, into holy soil of the motherland of popular imagination, is little short of mystical indeed.

The same would have been quite true of the Northeast, as Mitra implied in the same article, and quite likely the region may never have come to be in the popularly imagined holy soil of India, had the British colonisers decided on a different political future for the region before independence dawned on India. The region could well have been as Myanmar is today, foreign to India, though once in colonial antiquity, a part of it. As Myanmar is today, probably such a Northeast would have also been beset with endless crippling existential problems of its own. But even today, the Northeast is still to a good measure, alien to the rest of the Indian core. The manner in which the Narendra Modi government atrociously chose to hide Northeasterners from the view of the visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, among them one of his own Ministers, Kiren Rijiju, an MP from Arunachal Pradesh, is just the most recent evidence of this.

It must be remembered that the referendum question is also a double edged sword and can cut the user as much as his opponent. In Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland… this would be so devastatingly true. If for instance the question of national destiny by referendum becomes a universally accepted norm, and say Manipur begins to demand as a basic right such a referendum to decide its association with India, it would also mean that Manipur would also have to concede to demands within it by various ethnic groups for such a referendum to decide their own future with Manipur. The centrifugal forces which threaten to tear apart established polities would also be in endless concentric circles, especially in multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic societies, where there are endless groups within groups.

Under these circumstances, the Scotland referendum is a big lesson for everybody, not the least Manipur. This lesson is not just about Scotland’s decision this time that there is virtue in unity and partnership with a powerful and rich established State, but also of Britain’s realisation that it has to deepen its federalism in its own enlightened interest. It acknowledged why Scotland’s regional aspiration must be given not just an ear but also substantive support and encouragement. The lesson is also as much for the Centre-State relationship between the Union of India and dissenting elements in Northeast India, as it for intra-State frictions between various ethnic groups in the States, a shared reality of almost all Northeast States.

Much has been said of the larger canvas in which various insurgent groups fighting the Union of India for secession from the Union, and I will not go any further into it from what I have already said or implied so far. Instead, let me probe a little more into the Manipur canvas, and the frictions within, in particular the Hills-Valley divide, which nobody will doubt have grown to be of grave threat to the State’s peace of mind, and indeed existence. The Scotland answer in this case too, I would argue, is deeper federalism and greater devolution.

For largely geographical reasons, there is a wide disparity in development between the hills and valley, and this problem must be addressed in earnest if justice and peace is the goal. In this disparity, I would stick to the geographical explanation primarily, though there are so many allegations of exploitation of the hills by the valley through history. In history, the only economic surplus that could have fuelled State formation would have happened in the valley after wet agriculture was discovered and began to be practiced widely in the fertile riverine valley (James Scott vouches on the evolution of such Paddy States in Zomia).  What could these Paddy States have exploited from the subsistent sparse hill villages, living on unproductive shift cultivation and hunting-gathering, other than corvee labour (Scott again)? If systematic exploitation did happen as alleged, it would have been only after the onset of modern planned economy after Indian Independence. We also all know, during this period, the levers of State power have not always been with the valley. Otherwise, even today, what is there for the valley to exploit of the hills?

Let history be history. The question is what now? To recall the answer provided by the Scotland lesson, it is further federalisation and decentralisation. The demand for the introduction of the provisions of the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution must be given a more serious thought. But if this provision were to be brought in, let it not be in its unedited version where it would become applicable to only the hill districts. Let it be remodelled so it can become applicable to the whole State. Or else, the hill districts can have the 6th Schedule and the valley districts can have a similar system even if the 6th Schedule itself becomes non-applicable. The Indian Constitution is flexible and can always be amended to ensure this. This is how the Gurkhaland Council or the Bodoland Territorial Council became possible.

The philosophy must be for everybody to prosper. The hill districts which have lagged behind must be given the opportunity to catch up even if this means according them positive discrimination. It must however be remembered the valley also suffers from its own insecurities such as loss of land to settlers, demographic and economic marginalisation, a mentality of being at the losing end of the Indian constitution as demonstrated by demands from sections of the Meiteis for listing of the Meiteis in the 5th Schedule of recognized Indian tribes etc. This growing anxiety of the valley community too needs to be addressed. What must not be forgotten is the saying that a chain is as strong as its weakest link. In other words, felt injustice by any one of the stake holders in the ethnic mosaic of Manipur can derail any peace project.

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