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Italy Diary-III: Politics of Recognition, How Italy bought its Peace

By Pradip Phanjoubam

(This is the third of four articles the author wrote 11 years ago after a 10-day visit to Italy to study conflict resolution mechanisms in practice in the country`™s north where ethnic Germans had once raised the banner of revolt against the State of Italy)

Most European nations are not mono ethnic as those of us who know of these nations from a distance believe. There are minority nationalities forming what are referred to as `national minorities` in almost all of them and this facet of nations in Europe became an open book after the savage ethnic clashes in the former Yugoslavia and its subsequent balkanization.

`National minorities` are distinct from `immigrant minorities`, as the nomenclatures suggest. The law in most European nations acknowledges the existence of both, with the exception perhaps of France, which acknowledges immigrants, but not national minorities. It constitutional philosophy is, all citizens are equal regardless of ethnicity, and since the law levels all, there are no national minorities or majority, an idealistic position which many proponents of the politics of minority recognition view with skepticism when it comes to its capacity for dispensing justice to all.

Of those nations that face ethnic unrest in Europe, Italy has been the one of the most successful in tackling its own. Of immediate interest and relevance, especially to a conflict torn state like ours, was the core subject of the workshop I attended at Bolzano/Bozen, the capital city of the northern Itailan province of South Tyrol `“ `Politics of Recognition` and the interesting case of South Tyrol. Those who have been following the discourses in India on the issue of autonomy and political recognition of ethnic aspirations, thrown up especially by the conflicts in Kashmir and the Northeast, will recall how with increasing frequency, the autonomy models of South Tyrol, Aland Island and the Sami Council are being cited as possible prescriptions for settlement of problems of ethnic nationalism in India.

Prof BK Roy Burman, the man who was in Imphal recently to lend his solidarity to the agitation for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, was, it may be recalled, the first to propose the Sami model of non-territorial nationalism, for the Nagas. In more recent writings appearing in the media, well known columnists Prem Shankar Jha, have been toying with the idea of autonomy modeled on South Tyrol and Aland Island for the Kashmiris.

What then exactly is the nature of the problem of Italy`™s South Tyrol which in the 1960s had threatened to become a violent internal ethnic insurrection of the kind we are so familiar with in this part of India.

Very briefly, South Tyrol is an ethnic German dominated province in Italian majority Italy. United Tyrol was, before the First World War, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After the fall of the Empire at the end of the war, Tyrol territory falling south of the Brennero/Brenner pass on the southern range of the Alps was annexed by Italy on the claim that the watershed ridge of the range should be its natural boundary with Austria from the position of the defensibility of the nation.

Further into history the territory was the homeland of the Ladins, but they were conquered and subdued by the more powerful and aggressive German principalities up north.

Today, the Ladins in South Tyrol speak German as their first language, Italian as second, and as for their own ancestral language and literature, they are now trying to revive.

Much like the Sami people, and also many South Asian communities, they today live in three different nations. But the spirit of what Benedict Anderson, calls an `imagined community` is common to them. This despite the fact that languages that the Ladins in these different countries profess as their original, are mutually unintelligible.

To the question what makes them feel they are one people, director of the Ladin cultural center in Selva village said `culture`. As to what the core of that culture is, he was ambiguous, for it was, like much of their history, a distant memory and not a living tradition anymore.

When Italy annexed South Tyrol in 1919, much against the wishes of the German/Ladin speaking population, it was with the promise of maximum autonomy and non interference from the Italian state, then under King Vittorio Emanuelle III.

Guarantees were given that their schools, institutions and associations would be given protection. But things changed drastically with the advent of Fascism in Italy under the dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Italy`™s policy towards national minorities henceforth reversed, and a systematic homogenization by relentless Italianisation swept the land, often through very repressive methods.

All special status given to minorities were withdrawn, German schools were prohibited, German culture and language excluded from official spheres, German names of places as well as German surnames of the ethnic German population, Italianized. Bolzano, the name for the capital of South Tyrol province is for instance the Italian name for the German, Bozen.

To offset the demographic pattern, Mussolini introduced a policy of industrialization of the region whereby Italian workers by necessity were driven to migrate to the region. Germans by and large avoided working in Italian factories. Immigration of Italian into Bolzano was also actively encouraged through housing schemes etc.

Because of the discriminatory policy of making only Italian the language for all official transactions, institutional jobs became exclusively the reserve of Italians. The fallout of this policy is seen even today in the settlement pattern in the province. While most townships are Italian majority, the rural hinterlands are overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Germans.

When Adolf Hitler`™s Third Reich rose towards the end of the third decade of the 20th Century, South Tyrol German speakers saw hope for a reunification with its German speaking kin state, Austria, and an overwhelming majority of them aligned with Hitler.

Unfortunately, history again did not favour them as Hitler aligned himself with Mussolini. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the two leaders arrived at a compromise on the issue and gave the South Tyrol Germans two option. They could retain their language and culture by migrating to German speaking North Tyrol, or else stay in Italy and give up their ethnic identity.

A majority of South Tyrolean chose to migrate and preserve their ethnic identity at the cost of giving up their homeland.

The war however delayed the migration process and at the end of it, only a fraction of the number that chose to migrate had actually managed to do so. Of these, most returned to South Tyrol after the war.

History yet again came against South Tyrol aspiration when Hitler`™s Germany lost the war. The South Tyrol issue became a `pawn` in international politics and the winners of the war ratified Italy`™s position and awarded it the right to keep South Tyrol.

But the South Tyrol issue remained in the international discourse and even reached the United Nations, particularly with active assistance of Austria. Italy in keeping with international pressures committed itself to work out a comprehensive autonomy model for South Tyrol.

However when it spelled out its commitment, it was with a hidden agenda which was at once sensed by the South Tyrolean Germans. The autonomous region formulated constituted not just German majority South Tyrol, but it was clubbed with the adjacent Italian dominated Trento, upsetting the demographic constitution of the entire autonomous region heavily in favour of Italians giving them an overall majority of 71 percent. Administrative decision making process remain in Italian hands giving cause for resentments amongst the ethnic Germans.

The legacy of the policy of ruthless Italianization process introduced by Mussolini proved counter productive, and in the 1960s, tempers flared up and radical elements amongst ethnic Germans began a campaign of sabotage by blowing up institutional symbols that represented the Italian government. The chief targets were electricity pylons. The Italian state`™s response was what was expected of any nation state. It militarized South Tyrol. But this only accentuated the problem rather than bring it under control.

The conflict situation was finally defused successfully in the 1970s. Under international pressure, and because of Italy`™s own need to buy peace, it set about working out an autonomy model that would be able to meet the aspirations of the South Tyrolean ethnic Germans without any compromise on its own sovereignty.

As a first step, although the autonomous provinces of South Tyrol and Trento remained as a single Autonomous Region, the constituent autonomous provinces were vested with independent powers so that they rather than the region became the centre of administrative power.

The Autonomous Region remained merely as the `territorial roof structure` but most of the executive powers were transferred to the Autonomous Provinces.

Another momentous factor in recent history had turned out in favour of South Tyrol has been the formation of the European Union, EU. In 1992 Austria too joined the EU.

The concept of nationalism was already beginning to recede in Europe ever since the end of the First World War, and the Second World War hastened this fading process. Supra national bodies such as the League of Nations first and then the United Nations, were the index of this process of melting down of national boundaries.

The emergence of the EU is a logical consequence of this trend. In such a scenario, conflicts engendered by the 19th Century concept of nationalism also must have to recede.

In this regard, the Treaty of Schengen in 1998 has been a landmark in Western Europe`™s march towards a boundary less supra-nation. A lot many boundaries are disappearing, although some new ones, it must be said, have emerged.

The EU is very much such a post nationalism supra-nation and today, South Tyrol`™s fight does not any longer have to be the classical `centre versus periphery` antagonism visa vis Rome, for it can also equate with the EU, thus diluting the very basis of its conflict with Rome.

In our context too, there is every reason to be optimistic that in the event of the SAARC, ASEAN etc, strengthening, one of the inevitable consequences would likely be the diluting of ultra-nationalistic sentiments, which is at the roots of most of the conflicts in the region.

South Tyrol definitely is a success story, but can the model be applied unaltered to our situation? We are definitely doubtful.

When the size of the cake available to be distributed to the conflicting parties is big, and each party can gets adequately big slices from the whole, conflict resolution can be a lot easier than in a situation where the cake is small and each party gets less than their expectations. In the latter case, as in our situation, mutual suspicion and feelings of discrimination not only have persisted but often actually assumed hallucinatory proportions. Besides everything else, ours conflicts are also a problem of poverty.

But even in the case of South Tyrol, although the fact remains that it is one of those rare success stories in ethnic conflict resolution in history, there are acknowledged loopholes. Skeptics even refused to call it a success as they say it is a matter of `living side by side` and not `living together.`

The German speakers and Italian speakers are still very much segregated although there are no overt conflicts.

`If there is a German tennis club, there will be an Italian tennis club nearby, just there would be German football clubs and Italian football clubs.` Said an NGO worker we interacted with.

From our short stay in Bolzano, we could gather that as of now it was a conflict resolution by shutting doors, not so much physically but psychologically. The ideal conflict resolution situation in which everybody opens doors and still each retains and respects each other`™s private space remains a far cry. Only time will tell if the internal contradictions arising out of these are healed in the course of history. It will be interesting to watch if the `purchased peace` in the long run transforms into true peace through the establishment of genuine fraternal bonds and bridges.

South Tyrol is an extremely prosperous region, in fact, we were informed, one of the most prosperous regions in the whole of Europe. The per capita annual income is a stupendous 36,000 Euros, (Rs 20 lakhs) per annum, the annual budget of this province of about four and half lakh population, is 4 billion Euros, (Rs 23,200 crore), unemployment rate is 0.2 percent, and this too consisting mostly of students looking for summer jobs and who do not really need to be working. The few actually unemployed are taken good care of by the social security system and although unemployed still have an income. In such a situation, it is not surprising that the crime rate is next to zero.

So prosperous is the province and so comprehensive the autonomy given to it in recent times, that it even has an independent, even if circumscribed, foreign policy. The provincial government is allowed to maintain a level of diplomatic relations with other countries, basically in areas of extending humanitarian help.

As for instance it was a generous donor during the rescue operations in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake. Its foreign office also funds NGOs working in the areas of development, peace initiative building etc.

Some of the other salient features of the extent of its autonomy are:

The South Tyrol provincial government gets to keep 90 percent tax revenue collected from South Tyrol.

While South Tyrol was to give up its demand for external self-determination, it was to be given comprehensive internal self-determination.

Italian and German languages were to be treated at a par. Qualification for government jobs entails fluency in both the languages.

Government jobs were to be made proportional to ethnic population ratio…



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