The eyes of the world were on Scotland last week, as the Scottish people voted in a historic referendum on independence. The majority of Scots (55%) chose to keep their homeland as part of the United Kingdom with the promise of more devolved powers, turning down the opportunity to secede. Whilst the outcome has, quite rightly, been embraced by all as the collective will of the Scottish people, the process inspired and re-energised nations elsewhere struggling for independence. That the question of independence was freely expressed, debated and decided through a democratic process was observed with a feeling of hope and bittersweet envy by, amongst others, Catalans, Kurds, Kashmiris, Balochs, West Papuans and Eelam Tamils - whose own aspirations are denied, even criminalised and violently suppressed.
The referendum, founded on the resounding electoral mandate of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which ran its last election campaign on the right to self-determination, debunked the widely held negative presumptions regarding national identification and secession, and challenged the routine assertion that nationalism is necessarily exclusivist and should be shunned. Although the Scottish debate was decisive, the divisions between the pro-independence and pro-unionist sides lay not in the degree to which they embraced a Scottish national identity, but on the question of how the Scottish nation - one that is inclusive of other ethnic or religious identities that reside within its borders - could be best safeguarded and nurtured: outside a wider UK identity, or within. (Significantly, this is in contrast to the xenophobic form of English nationalism expressed by far-right groups in response to the Scots’ call for greater autonomy in the referendum’s aftermath over the past few days).
As the Scottish people's verdict illustrates, the assumption that a nation, if granted the opportunity, will always choose secession, is not true. As states increasingly move towards building economic and security cooperation, secession - carrying with it debated questions of the economic and political instability of a fledgling state - is not a decision taken lightly or fueled on ethnonationalist zeal. Instead when a nation’s call for independence is met with recognition and (credible) pledges to devolve power, nations have often chosen to seek a political solution within an existing constitutional framework. Scotland, Quebec and even previous Dravidian secessionist movements in southern India are paradigmatic examples.
The reverse, however, is also equally true. When the demand for self-determination, stemming from marginalisation and disenfranchisement of rights and identity within a multinational state, is met repeatedly with increasingly brutal suppression of peaceful protest, the demand for devolution inevitably develops into that of independence. Indeed the decision to secede is taken when the experience of past and ongoing exclusion, discrimination and persecution, as well as that of ethnic cleansing and genocide, renders the choice of remaining within a slightly modified status quo as no choice at all. The Eelam Tamil struggle is a case in point. The Tamil people’s emphatic call and endorsement of independence through the 1976 Vaddukoddai resolution and electoral victory of the pro-independence Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) the following year, was the cumulative result of the Sri Lankan state’s increasingly brutal and violent response to marches, rallies and hunger strikes opposing Sri Lankan state discrimination and the marginalisation of Tamils in employment and education. Whereas the Scottish demand for a referendum and its result have given rise to serious discussion and debates of increasing devolution to all nations within the United Kingdom, the Sri Lankan state’s response to Tamil demands for, first, powersharing, and then independence, was to deny and then criminalise and ban these.
It is often forgotten that it was only at this stage, alongside the periodic bouts of mass killings of Tamils in state backed riots by Sinhala mobs and security forces, that the Tamil nation took up arms as a means of resisting state persecution. The Sri Lankan state in turn responded with mass annihilation of the Tamil people and the militarised occupation of the crucibles of Tamil nationalist sentiment – first Jaffna and then the Vanni. Tamils were collectively punished through mass incarceration and systematic rights abuses. Even following the military defeat of the LTTE, instead of seeking to resolve the smouldering ethnic crisis through meaningful devolution - let alone a federal structure or two state solution - Sri Lanka is intent on majoritarian hegemony. It is destroying the Tamil national identity and homeland through military occupation and state sponsored Sinhala colonisation aimed at demographic re-engineering of the North-East, that it assumes would permanently foreclose any future democratic resolution of the demand for self-determination.
Scotland's referendum illustrates nationalism does not always lead to a nation choosing secession. The experiences of nations subjected to persecution and systematic annihilation shows that ongoing oppression always does. Indeed, as we said at the time, the resounding endorsement of Tamil national principles at the 2013 Northern Provincial Council election is evidence of the deep-seated will to self-determination amongst the Tamils, despite the hammer blows of the Sinhala state during the armed conflict and its repression since. The Scottish referendum and its result have advanced the stability of the United Kingdom. Conversely, it is precisely the denial of the Tamils’ demand to choose how they are governed that ensures the permanence of Sri Lanka’s instability, which will manifest, as it has in recent years, both within in the island and, especially, in the international arena. In short, the recent events in Scotland will long reverberate far beyond the British Isles’ shores.
|Illustration by Keera Ratnam|