On the Right of Nations to Self-determination

Presented by representative of CGPI at All-India Conference on Rights, New Delhi, February 23-24, 2002

The question of the rights of nations is one of the most crucial facing us at the present juncture. A truly incendiary situation prevails in our country, our region and the globe, and it is connected to a large degree with the denial or violation of national rights. Whether we speak of the turbulent situation in Kashmir and much of the North East, or of the beefing up of the armed forces and the introduction of repressive laws and other measures, or of the looming danger of war in our region, or the growing imperialist interference in the affairs of countries, the denial of national rights is very much involved. The situation compels us all to confront squarely but dispassionately what is the core issue here - and that is the right of nations to self-determination. Has the much-quoted principle of the right of nations to self-determination lost its validity? Is it applicable only in some cases but not in others? Or is it still the only possible basis for a just, democratic and peaceful society and world order? How are the problems that we as Indians face connected with the violation of the right of nations to self-determination? What must be done to try and harmonise national rights with the rights of other collectives in a society, and with the rights of society as a whole, as well as with the rights of individuals?

These questions are certainly amenable to informed discussion, and they are by no means incapable of solution. Yet a climate has been created by the official policy of the Indian state, and by the pressure of big powers like the US at the global level, such that it is very difficult for the public at large to discuss these issues freely and in an informed manner. We are being compelled to accept that there is no real issue of national rights, but only of "terrorism", of conspiracy to undermine the country, of religious fanaticism, and soon. It will be a great contribution if this Conference, consisting of activists and others genuinely concerned about the well-being and fate of people, attempts to pierce through the confusion and hype on these questions and to come up with a common understanding and vision of national rights and other rights and of how these can be mutually harmonised and affirmed.

Broadly speaking, there are two aspects of the right of nations to self-determination that are important at this time. One is the right of a nation, already constituted as an independent state, "to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another State". (These are in fact the words of the Resolution passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1965, and it is not dissimilar to other UN resolutions passed on many other occasions.) The other aspect is the right of a nation living under alien rule to constitute itself as a separate, independent state. It is on the basis of this right, explicitly included in the founding Charter of the United Nations, that a huge number of former colonial and dependent territories have become full and equal members of the world system of states over the last few decades.

Both these aspects have come under sustained assault in recent times. A few examples will suffice. The right of nations to live under economic and social systems of their own choosing, for example, has been severely curtailed by the process that goes under the name of globalisation. Particularly after the collapse of the socialist camp and the end of the Cold War, all nations and states have come under enormous pressure from the dominant capitalist and imperialist powers to reorganise their economies and to accept directives from foreign governments and institutions on how to structure their finances, open up their markets, organise production, allocate their revenues, and so on – even when this has proved to be against the wishes and interests of their peoples. The example of Argentina is a painful one at this time. I will not go further into this issue, since it will be dealt with more fully in another session.

Even more blatant has been the operation of the doctrine of "limited sovereignty". Particularly in the last few years the United States, using its status as the sole superpower, has in conjunction with its allies been ruthlessly and arbitrarily interfering in the affairs of other nations and states, to the extent of imposing unilateral punishments or even launching terrorist strikes and invasions against them. This has been done under various pretexts - such as their posing a threat to peace (Iraq, North Korea) or violating human rights (Yugoslavia). Not even lip-service has been paid to the principles of non-interference or the sovereignty of states, and even the pretense of declaring war against these states has not been deemed necessary. Speaking a few days ago about what the US is contemplating with respect to Iraq, its Secretary of State Colin Powell bluntly said: “How to achieve regime change through opposition activity, military activity,other kinds of activity, all of those options are under consideration.” Now, with the even more sweeping "global war against terrorism" launched after last September 11 " the wholesale offensive against national rights and sovereignty has been brought right into our own region. In a matter of weeks, Afghanistan was reduced to a client state of the United States through a ruthless bombing campaign and invasion, while several other countries in the vicinity have been left with no choice but to fall in line with America's every wish.

It does not require much insight to see that the war on Afghanistan under the cover of "war against terrorism" has made huge inroads into the sanctity of the principle of the equality and sovereignty of nations. What is alarming is that the traditional defences against this kind of rampant aggression are no longer operational. The United Nations has moulded itself to accept the new situation. So have various states like India, which are not only playing down the dangers but are trying to make a virtue out of increasing US involvement in their military, intelligence and other internal affairs. In all this, there is more than just a hint of the notion that the principle of the sovereignty and equality of nations and states is a thing of the past, that it belongs to the 19th and 20th centuries, but not to the 21st century. Allegedly, we are now entering a brave new world of "global" concerns and "global" action, in which national barriers and frontiers will not prevent a "coalition" of states (read: the US and its allies) from intervening anywhere and everywhere, be it in the name of countering terrorism, humanitarian action, protecting the environment, or anything else. This is a very dangerous doctrine indeed. Let us be clear that it will take mankind not forward on the road of peace and civilisation, but on the contrary, straight into catastrophe. It is the prelude to a rearrangement of the world system of states, not on the basis of any principles of freedom and justice for the peoples, but on the basis of the interests of the dominant powers in the world at this time.

Let us now take up an example of the denial of the right of nations to self-determination in the other sense of the term, that is the right of a people to free themselves from what they perceive to be alien domination, and to govern themselves. I am referring to the example of Kashmiri, Manipuri, Naga and other peoples, who are being kept within the Indian Union largely through the use of armed force and other repressive means.

For several decades now, the people of Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, etc., have been demanding the right to determine their own destiny, to be free of the control of the Indian State. Depending on various circumstances, including the ferocity of the repression unleashed against them by the Indian State, they have advanced these demands in a sometimes more and sometimes less peaceful fashion. The Indian State has revised to even countenance the possibility of agreeing to these demands, on the grounds that its borders are inviolable. It has advanced the slogan of defending "national unity and territorial integrity" at all costs. This has been the attitude of the Indian State from day one, as manifested in the 1955 Report of the States Reorganisation Commission that was formed in response to the agitations that had broken out all over the country due to dissatisfaction with the configuration of the Indian Union. The Report categorically stated that there could be no question of extending the principle of self-determination to the constituents of the Indian Union no matter what the circumstances. The justification given was that "every linguistic or other minority group might demand a State for itself, and the wishes of the people could be swayed by purely temporary considerations. " This adamant position on self-determination for peoples within the Indian Union was adhered to in spite of the fact that the Indian State has been an outspoken champion in the past of the principle of self-determination on the world stage.

Emanating from the basic democratic concept of the modem epoch that governments must rest upon the consent of the governed, the right of nations to self-determination has been a fundamental principle of international relations since the early part of the 20th century. Explicitly formulated by V.I.Lenin during the period of World War I, and also enunciated by Woodrow Wilson at the peace negotiations at the end of that War, it first received concrete legal expression in the constitution of the Soviet Union. It was incorporated into the 1945 Charter of the United Nations, and has been repeatedly upheld in various international forums since then. The 1952 Commission on Human Rights declared that "All peoples and all nations shall have the right of self-determination, namely, the right freely to determine their political, economic, social and cultural status", and added that "slavery exists where an alien people hold power over the destiny of a people". The Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian states of 1955, in which India was an active participant, also gave full support to the principle of self-determination. This principle was invoked to legitimise the emergence of a number of new states who freed themselves from colonial rule, often through armed struggle. Even after the process of decolonization of the colonial and dependent territories of the former colonial powers had been more or less completed, the United Nations General Assembly as late as 1988 reiterated: "the universal realization of the right of all peoples, including those under colonial, foreign and alien domination, to self-determination is a fundamental condition for the effective guarantee and observance of human rights and for the preservation and promotion of such rights."

The irony was that the post-colonial Indian State, while not opposing the right to self-determination in its application elsewhere, nevertheless relied on an altogether different doctrine when it came to the nations and peoples within its own boundaries. This was the doctrine known as uti possidetis juris, which holds that the territorial boundaries of post-colonial states should be the same as that of the colonial territories that preceded them. As everyone knows, the configuration of British India had been an extremely arbitrary one. It was an arrangement of convenience, a product of the efforts of the British colonisers to extract the maximum loot and plunder from 'its Indian possessions. It took no heed of the fact that India had been the home of distinct nations, nationalities and tribes, which had had their own distinctive political, economic and cultural development over hundreds and even thousands of years. Far from acknowledging this, the 1950 Constitution of India did not even recognise India as a union of distinct peoples, but only as a union of States, of territorial entities. The Union did not derive its powers from its constituent units, but from the Constitution drawn up by the Constituent Assembly constituted under British auspices which was not even based on universal franchise. The colonial-territorial conception of India used by the British was thus taken over lock, stock and barrel. A great opportunity to make a clean break with the colonial legacy and to forge the unity of the peoples of India on a new, voluntary, basis was passed by. Although much was made of the linguistic reorganisation of States later in the 1950s, the key feature - that it is the Centre that has the power to determine the boundaries and the very existence of the States - was not changed. And in the decades since then, the whole thrust of constitutional, legal and political developments has been to erode even what powers resided with the States, and to strengthen the powers of the Central State over alt the peoples of the Union.

Because the rulers of India deliberately chose the cynical doctrine of uti possidetis juris, rather than the vision of voluntary association for mutual benefit, as the basis of the present-day Indian Union, the national question in India has over the years become exacerbated to the extreme. The demand for self-determination on the part of the Kashmiris and other peoples have become more insistent. It is impossible to estimate the harm done to the peoples of India by the denial of national rights. Over the decades, countless people have lost their lives agitating against the Central rule and for the right to rule themselves in some form or the other - not just in the North East and Kashmir, but also in other parts of the country. The perpetual boiling situation thus created has also been a key factor in the steady encroachments on the democratic rights of all the people, as manifested in the huge corpus of repressive legislation on the statute books, and the massive build-up of the army and paramilitary forces. It has been a major factor in precipitating the wars with Pakistan and, in between the wars, in keeping up the war frenzy and sense of insecurity. Equally significant has been the role it has played in the growing communalisation and criminalisation of the polity. To divert attention from the real nature of the problem, the issue of Kashmir has been deliberately communalised by the ruling political parties of different hues, and the consequences of this are being felt throughout the length and breadth of India. The practice of attributing all the problems in the North East and Kashmir to "criminals" and "terrorists" has also been used to such an extent that people in other parts of India are made to believe that there is no use talking about a political solution to the problems there.

Now we can see in the post-September 11 scenario that direct US and foreign intervention in the affairs of India and Pakistan, in the name of “resolving the Kashmir issue”, is an even greater danger that we have to reckon with. We can have no illusion that such intervention, which is a distinct possibility, will either fulfill the long-denied rights of the people of Kashmir or bring about lasting peace in the region. Rather, Kashmir will be used as the thin edge of the wedge by the US and its allies to increase their presence in the region and secure their own interests, and to take the initiative totally out of the hands of the Kashmiris and of concerned people in India and Pakistan. Thus, there is urgent need for us, all concerned people, to try and prevent this from happening, to focus on the real issues at stake in Kashmir, and to try to work out the contours of a just and lasting solution to the national question in not just Kashmir but in the country as a whole.

This means taking an unequivocal stand on the right of nations to self-determination. Specifically this means, first of all, that we must actively oppose the violation of the sovereignty of independent states under all circumstances. All pretexts or false justifications for foreign interference in the affairs of states must be exposed. The problem of defending the human rights of any section of the people in any country, of settling scores with oppressors and tyrants, is first and foremost a matter for the people of that country, and must not be allowed to be a pretext for outside interference. Those ruling elites that actually invite foreign intervention in any form to deal with internal affair must be considered as having lost their right to rule. Secondly, the right of nations to fight if they so desire for freedom from alien rule and for their own state cannot be denied under any excuse, be it under the guise of inviolability of the borders of an existing state, or by branding this or that organisation or movement as "terrorist", etc. It should also not be denied on the grounds that this may be prejudicial to the interests .of national minorities that may be found within such a nation. Just like the rights that accrue to nations, national minorities too have rights wherever they are, which must be held sacrosanct. These include the right to the full enjoyment of their own culture and language, and freedom of conscience and freedom from discrimination of any kind. In the case of India, 'it must be recognised that India consists of many nations, nationalities and tribal peoples. Explicit recognition of this is the first step to removal of the basis for many causes of discontent and animosity.

While we must recognise the right of a nation to self-determination, including the right to form a separate state, we should at the same time actively work for a new arrangement that all the nations, nationalities and tribal peoples of India can enter into of their own free will, and that will allow them to enjoy the benefits of mutual association that they now do not have. The terms and conditions for forming such an arrangement should be worked out through mutual consultation and in a democratic manner, on the basis of the principle of the equality of all nations in the Union, however big or small. Reconstitution of the Indian Union on a voluntary basis should be our goal. Because a unity that is not one-sided, that is not based on force, and whose benefits will be obvious to all, will be a great source of strength for all its constituents, and a major factor for progress and for peace in our region.

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