Self-Determination Means Different Things in Quebec, Catalonia and Punjab

While the UN Charter provides for the right of self-determination of peoples, not all cases are the same. Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh’s statement on the subject opens a Pandora’s box.

Canadian leader Jagmeet Singh. Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch

Earlier this week, the Canadian leader Jagmeet Singh opened a Pandora’s box with his comment in Quebec that he considered self-determination to be a “basic right” for the people to exercise in places such as Punjab, Catalonia, Basque or Quebec. He was on an introductory tour of Canada after his election as leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP), one of the three leading political parties in the country.

While some Canadian commentators attributed his remarks to his “fuzzy understanding” of the right to self-determination, back home in India, where voices of dissent have few backers, there was an outright condemnation of the NDP chief. The Punjab chief minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, called upon the Canadian government to take serious note of such disruptive elements trying to spread discord in India.

Such a strong reaction to Jagmeet’s statement emanates from the lack of understanding of democratic functioning in a multicultural and pluralistic Canada. Unlike India, in Canadian society, politics or media, a mere statement or a point of view evokes little notice, leave alone cause disruption.

Whether or not Jagmeet is able to swing Canadian voters to the NDP during the federal vote in 2019, on this subject he surely knows what he is talking about. Being a lawyer, his understanding is anything but “fuzzy”.

What lies behind Jagmeet Singh’s statement

With his statement, Jagmeet is trying to achieve many things. Primarily, he is trying to regain NDP’s vote base in Quebec, where the party has been on the decline since its massive breakthrough in 2011 federal polls (in the 2015 federal polls, the vote share of the party fell from more than 30% to about 20%). He is also trying to keep at bay the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), the party advocating independence for the province.

At the provincial level of Quebec, he is trying to be more “liberal” than the liberal government of Philippe Couillard. At the same time, he is trying to counter the appeal of the péquistes, the members of the Parti Quebecois (PQ), which like BQ is also pushing for sovereignty for the province. Besides, the NDP leader – who wears the visible symbols of his belief like the turban and kirpan – is trying to gain greater acceptability in a province which strongly favours religious neutrality.

At the same time, in linking Quebec’s quest for independence with Punjab, he is obviously trying to pander to the minorities in general and the Sikh immigrants in Canada in particular, some of whom harbour notions of Punjabi separatism back in India. Plus, he also has a bone to pick due to the personal affront that India dealt him in 2013 by refusing him a visa for “fomenting contempt” against the country.

Immigrants to Canada, especially Punjabis, are caught in two worlds. While they adopt the liberal democratic traditions of the country of adoption, they continue to reminisce about events and things back home, be it conservative social values or hard political developments. Jagmeet plays to all these notions.

The bracketing of all potential conflict zones in one breath by Jagmeet is simplistic – like one broad sweep of jujutsu, the martial art that he practices. Each of the places that he named has a different history and claim. In the case of Punjab, for example, while India is a “union of states”, there is no constitutional provision for a special status, referendum, plebiscite or the right to the self-determination of provinces.

The only exception to the rule is the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been endowed with a special status by the Indian constitution. In fact, India had agreed to UN Security Council Resolution 47, which calls for a three-step process culminating in “free and impartial plebiscite” for resolving the J&K conflict between India and Pakistan. Inability to implement the first two steps has held up the third step of plebiscite all these years.

However, the important fact is that the UN Charter, to which India was among the original member signatories in 1944, does provide for the right of self-determination. Article 1 of the UN Charter categorically recognises the principle of equal rights and “self-determination of peoples”.  Self-determination acquired a new meaning after the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia – which were both unions of states that had the right to self-determination enshrined in their constitutions – though the right has had contradictory and selective application since then.

Movement for self-determination 

Of late, the only place where the movement for self-determination has met with success is in South Sudan, which acquired independence from Sudan after a UN-supported referendum vote in 2011. But its march to freedom has been marred by ethnic violence that has engulfed the land-locked African state since then.

In the case of Spain, where Catalonia’s parliament declared independence on October 27, the historical background is different from that of most other places, including India. Referendums for the Spanish constitution have been held in 1966 and 1978. This means that though there is a constitutional provision for a referendum, the kind that was held in Catalonia recently is not acceptable.

The case of Basque nationalism is even more complicated. This region consists of people who inhabit the area that straddles parts of north-central Spain and southwestern France. However, this has not prevented the Basque parliament in Spain from asserting the right of self-determination since 1990. The last such resolution was passed in 2014. But now the case rests there. Spain’s ostensible worry is that if Catalonia separates, the Basque country could follow.

There are countries that are not averse to a vote or referendum for a possible parting of ways. The most recent example is of the UK, which consists of four nations, including Scotland. A referendum on Scottish independence from the UK was defeated 55-45 in 2014. The vote was preceded by the passing of an Act to facilitate the referendum by the Scottish Parliament following an agreement with the British government.

The case of Punjab

It can be said that in case of Punjab, like in some other provinces in India, the demand for separatism has often emanated at different times due to political mishandling of situations and the failure of the governments to either own up to mistakes or correct the fault lines.

Jagmeet may have linked Punjab, the Basque country and Catalonia to Quebec with an eye on the substantial minority vote in Canada, which comes from these and other parts of the world. As a politician and a lawyer, Jagmeet, who comes from an immigrant family, would be well aware that the grievances of the people of Quebec, Catalonia and Punjab would resonate among many people in each of these provinces. Like Catalonians, for example, many Punjabis or even the Basques have argued that their history, culture and language make them a distinct people. In Punjab, successive governments have been arguing that what the state has got in terms of public investment, infrastructure and funds was not in consonance with the state’s contribution to the nation. This is exactly what Catalonians say. But there would be many parallels of similar claims the world-over.

In Quebec, there have been two referendums on independence. In the first referendum in May 1980, the separatists polled 40% of the votes. In the October 1995 referendum, Quebec’s vote in favour of separation increased to over 49%. However, on the asking of the Canadian government, the country’s Supreme Court held in 1998 that a simple vote in Quebec is not enough to allow the French-speaking province to legally separate from the rest of Canada.

Even so, the unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court did not declare Canada indivisible. If a clear majority of the people in Quebec want to secede, the justices said, the rest of Canada would be obliged to negotiate the terms of secession as though it were an amendment to the constitution. But the nine justices, three of them from Quebec, made it clear that separation would be difficult, painful and costly. ”The devil would be in the details,” they said.

Separation indeed is difficult, painful and costly and the pangs for seeking it even more so. While each case is different, the common imperative is the onerous responsibility that rests with the parent country. Rather than looking at the right of self-determination purely from the standpoint of law and constitutionalism, it is for each of these countries to take steps that make the breakaway province want to stay on rather than pursue the path of separation.

Kanwar Sandhu is a former journalist and currently a member of the Punjab Legislative Assembly.