In an op-ed titled “Be strong, not hard”, published in these pages on February 21, Ejaz Haider problematises conflict in Balochistan and offers suggestions to Islamabad on how to tackle the crisis in the troubled province. The premise of his argument is on the assumption that all states are alike when it comes to dealing with people wanting to secede from them.
He puts it unequivocally in following words: “Balochistan is indeed Pakistan’s internal issue. Those who want Balochistan to secede from Pakistan will get the state’s full reply. That too, given how states behave, is a foregone conclusion. Hell, states don’t even let go of disputed territories and care even less about whether or not people in those territories want to live with them.”
Historical and empirical evidence of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, fortunately, does not validate Ejaz Haider’s claim. States do care if people living in their jurisdictions want to stay under existing arrangements or not. Contrary to Ejaz Haider’s claim, states do let go of people and territories through peaceful means.
I will cite three cases where the states in question have behaved peacefully while dealing with political actors who have championed the cause of independence from them. My argument, therefore, is that not all states are alike and the outcomes of independence movements vary significantly.
Let us look at the former Czechoslovakia, a state where leaders peacefully decided in 1992 to split into two countries — Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 1989, Vaclav Havel’s Civic Forum led the peaceful movement against the communist regime. This movement because of its ability to affect political change through nonviolent means got the title of the Velvet Revolution. Viladimir Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia emerged as a leading party in Slovakia demanding greater autonomy for the region. Unable to get along in a federation, the Czech and Slovak leaders passed the law on December 27, 1992 to go their separate ways. Three years into the Velvet Revolution, Czech and Slovakia opted for the velvet divorce.
The Quebec sovereignty movement in Canada is another case where the central government has chosen to deal with the demand for sovereignty through peaceful means. The Parti Quebecois (PQ), pro-sovereignty party in Canada’s second most populous province, was in power in the 1990s. The PQ held a referendum in the province in 1995 asking people if they would like to form an independent country. The PQ lost the referendum by a razor-thin margin of less than one per cent. The Canadian government, at no point, had indicated or implied the use of force to suppress the Quebec separatists.
Lastly, let us look at Scotland where the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) under the leadership of Alex Salmond has decided to hold referendum in the autumn of 2014 on the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom. London has not mobilised forces, conventional or nuclear, to prevent tiny Scotland to get out of mighty United Kingdom.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore says that any referendum held without Westminster — seat of the British power — backing would not be legally binding and can be legal challenged. Mr Moore, however, does recognise the SNP’s right to hold a referendum. David Cameron, the British prime minister has said that ‘Scotland will vote to remain part of the UK.’ Cameron is selling the idea of a unified UK to Scotland on the ground that together they can meet challenges, mainly economic, more effectively than on their own. Mr Cameron recognises that ‘the choice over independence should be for the Scottish people to make.’ The prime minister made it clear that he is ‘not going to stand here and suggest Scotland couldn’t make a go of being on its own, if that’s what people decide.’
Examples of Canada, former Czechoslovakia, and the United Kingdom illustrate that not all states are alike when it comes to keeping or letting go of disenchanted populations and regions within their territories. Thus, the argument that in essence all states are the same is a fallacy that is neither theoretically useful nor empirically sustainable.