Why do countries exist? Why should they? And what is their definition? Are they subject to change? Why do countries not hold referendums to decide the future of disputed regions around the world? Did not India promise a plebiscite at the time Kashmir was acceded to India in 1948? Why can’t Kashmiris vote like the Scots did in 2014? What about Tamil Nadu? Why is it part of India? It wasn’t ever part of India until the British came in, was it? Aren’t many of the states in India similar to Scotland? These are some of the questions that keep popping in one’s head as one reads through TM Devine’s Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present.
Sir Tom Devine, yes he was knighted, is a professor of History at the University of Edinburgh. So he does give us a much needed lesson in Scotland’s history. The Union of Scotland with England, we are made to understand, was complex, complicated and a result of multiple competing interests in the late 17th and early 18th Century. The English wanted a buffer in the north against the scheming French. Presbyterian Scots feared the return of Stuart Kings and their Catholicism more than they hated the English. The Staurt Kings were preparing to take over Scotland with French help. The result of all this was that in 1707, the ancient Kingdom of Scotland merged with England to form Britain.
At the time of Union, Scotland was impoverished by successive droughts in the 1690s and owing to disastrous wars. It was, Devine argues, the poorest country in Europe at the time. But the Union made it possible for Scotland to find a market for its produce, primarily linen and agricultural produce, in England. With the last of the Jacobite rising being crushed in 1745, Scotland became truly prosperous shortly thereafter. Devine again points to how Scotland moved from being the poorest to being one of the richest in Europe in the 18th Century, culminating in the Scottish Enlightenment. Scots, with their long and storied martial lineage, formed the backbone of British military forces in the 19th Century, strengthening bonds with England. Devine presents data to point to how the Scots were overrepresented compared to their population in the military and as staff of East India Company. The small country also built most of the world’s ships in this period.
But questions of Scottish identity, Edinburgh’s friction with Westminster and a long declining economy in the second half of 20th Century seem to have found a perfect target in Margret Thatcher. She was the embodiment of everything the Scots hated about the English. It’s at this point one wonders if commentators aligned with the BJP who now compare Narendra Modi with Margret Thatcher may be more right than they wish to be. Aggressively Hindu Delhi functionaries of the BJP sound eerily similar (and far worse) than the Tories in Westmister that Devine describes.
Kashmir, however, did not benefit from its union with India the way Scotland did in the first 250 years. So perhaps that’s a bad comparison. But a state that did is Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu was comparable to rest of India in most aspects at the time of independence. However, it now ranks alongside Kerala as one of India’s best governed states in terms of various indicators in health, education and economic growth. It also happens to be a region that always stood distinct from India both in terms of a territory and in terms of cultural identity.
That brings us to the question of: why should unions of regions into a nation state be treated as inviolable? Shouldn’t they be a question that the populace gets to vote on at least once every generation? At this point, it’s clear Tamil Nadu has little to gain from India. It generates more revenue than it gets back from Delhi, it has much better health and education indices than India and the Lok Sabha is likely to end Tamil Nadu’s honeymoon of higher per capita representation through frozen delimitation in the next decade. The last factor will be an ugly flashpoint when it happens; it is an irreversible demographic trend that’s going to put Tamil Nadu at significant odds with north India. Shouldn’t political parties in the state therefore have an SNP equivalent? Even the Tamil Nationalist parties in the fray for 2016 Assembly Elections, Naam Tamilar or MDMK for instance, don’t seem to be approaching this question at all. The DMK, which was the SNP in India before the SNP got to be itself in the UK, has now walked a long way back from its Dravida Nadu demand.
The solution, one thinks, is that people should be allowed to hold a referendum if enough of them agree to hold a referendum in the first place. And that should include options of everything including independence. Maybe this could result in a problem when it’s used frequently; simple safeguards like limiting the number of votes per person in a lifetime for such referendums could be added to it. A simple rule of a modern Democracy ought to be that it doesn’t rule over a people who don’t wish to be ruled over. It’s about time mankind moved there. Be it Kashmir today or Tamil Nadu 10 years from now.