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Mainstream, VOL LV No 43 New Delhi October 14, 2017

Catalans’ Rationale for Referendum

Saturday 14 October 2017

by Sankar Ray

“There was something of the evil atmosphere of war. The town had a gaunt untidy look, roads and buildings were in poor repair, the streets at night were dimly lit for fear of air-raids, the shops were mostly shabby and half-empty. Meat was scarce and milk practically unobtainable, there was a shortage of coal, sugar, and petrol, and a really serious shortage of bread. Even at this period the bread-queues were often hundreds of yards long. Yet so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilisation of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution. At that time revolutionary ballads of the naivest kind, all about proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.”

One need not be told that a randomly chosen segment of a narrative could only be picked up from George Orwell’s memorable Homage to Catalonia, his classic memoirs as a member of militia, adorning the legendary Republican Revolution in Spain, penned and published in 1938.

Seventynine years thereafter, Catalonia is in turmoil around the recently held referendum, wherein 90 per cent of 2.3 million Catalans, who could exercise their voting rights, opted for independence braving the recalcitrant Rightist party of the alliance in power, the Partido Popular (PP), accommodating a spectrum of thought from neoliberalists to the hard-line Right. About 58 per cent of the Catalan electorate could not turn up at polling stations due to intimidation by the ruling authority. The repressive role of Madrid has thrown the European Union brass into a tizzy as Members of the European Parliament (MEP) are split. The Catalan Government representative to the EU, Amadeu Altafaj, told reporters in Brussels: “We are disappointed as a government. It is also disappointing that during the midday briefing there was not a single word on the 893 people who were injured. These are EU citizens. We are not talking about any country at the end of the world. These are 893 Catalan and EU citizens that were injured.” People in Catalonia “are between saddened by this statement and upset. We are talking about a very pro-European region. The credibility and reputation of the EU is being eroded by these kinds of statements. Neutrality is not neutral anymore,” Altafaj added.

But the Spanish President, Mariano Rajoy Brey, is adamantly defending the repressive policing, stating that the civil and military guard would remain in action in Barcelona and major places of Catalonia. In a 4500-plus word interview in La Pais he defended the unfairly behaviour of Mossos d’Esquadra, the autonomous police force: “I believe that the political authorities of the Generalitat of Catalonia have done a very important damage to the prestige of the Mossos d’Esquadra. I believe it with absolute frankness. From there, do we trust or not trust?” He argues, “Mossos d’Esquadra, the National Police and the Civil Guard, were in Catalonia under the orders of the judges. They were not under the orders of the Government.” But Rajoy is hell-bent on going beyond the judicial direction. His party, Partido Popular, issued its most severe warnings to the Catalan Prime Minister, Carles Puigde-mont, stating the consequences of declaration of independence. A PP spokesman, Deputy Secretary for Communication, Pablo Casado, threatened that Puigdemont might end up like the historic Catalan leader Lluís Companys—in jail. Anybody promulgating independence might be thrown behind bars. Anybody promulgating independence of Catalonia ‘could end up like the one who tried it 83 years ago’, he said, referring to the Republican President of Catalonia’s abortive bid for independence and subsequent imprisonment for years from 1934.

Peter Bush, ex-Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation and a translator of Catalan and Spanish literature, whose wife is a Catalan, in a commentary in the Times Literary Supplement, about a fortnight before the referendum, lamented: ‘Fifty years ago, as a graduate student, I was involved in the underground Spanish opposition to Franco’s dictatorship. It is a disgrace that in modern democratic Europe the Catalans are being forced to organise their referendum in a clandestine fashion.’ He accused both the ruling PP and its ally, the Socialist Party (PSOE), of instigating a wave of ‘Catalanophobia’. The two parties ‘resorted to stoking resentment against Catalonia, in order to win votes in the rest of Spain’. The result was indignation among Catalans, who were “unjustly accused of ‘lacking solidarity’ and ‘retrograde nationalism’, and ultimately triggered the movement that has now culminated in this referendum,” Bush wrote.

There is no denying that Catalonia has a distinctly different language and culture, which Catalans have been defending ‘tooth and nail over the centuries’. Neither the Decreto de Nueva Planta issued by Philip V in 1716, abolishing the institutions of Catalonia, nor successive waves of repression, including the forty years of the Franco dictatorship, ‘could destroy Catalans, yearning for regaining self-government along with their language and rich literary tradition’.

The Communist Party of Spain (PCPE) expressed its concern over the unabated escalation of repression in the Catalan conflict and trend towards dictatorial nature of the state ‘an element that we Communists have always denounced and for which we have especially warned in recent weeks’ but is equivocal on the issue of the referendum. The political basis of the Catalan conflict and the proposals that the working class needs are tied in ‘false dichotomies in which nationalism seeks to trap it’. The PCPE, yet to rid itself of the Stalinist hangover, characterises the referendum as a ‘road of independentism’ which cannot lead towards achievement of self-determination in Catalonia. The CP of Greece (KKE) has condemned the barbaric state violence and repression exercised by the Spanish Government, but is cynical towards the referendum. The KKE is of the view that it ‘hardens nationalist and divisive viewpoints from both sides, while it feeds the intra-bourgeois-strangle to workers-people’s rights-antagonisms within Spain’.

Stalinist parties are obsessed against the leadership of the non-working class party in the struggle for self-determination. The leader of the referendum battle is the 35-year-old member of the Spanish Congress, Gabriel Rufián, whose identification mark is issuance of tough tweets and viral headlines that have made him a key voice in the campaign. ‘I’m the son and grandson of Andalusians who moved to Catalonia from Jaen and Granada 55 years ago ... and I’m pro-independence,’ he stated in his maiden speech as a law-maker in March 2016. He represents the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), one of the two leading pro-independence forces. He is for an independent Catalonia to rid the Catalans of Spain’s fascist heritage in order to protect social rights and trigger positive reform across the whole country. Which is why a major section of the Catalan bourgeoisie sides with the referendum.

Rufián’s words— “Francoism didn’t die on a bed in Madrid on November 20, 1975; it will die in a ballot box in Catalonia on October 1, 2017”—inspire the libertarians of Catalonia. Unidos Podemos chief Pablo Iglesius backs the referendum at the Spanish Congress. On the same side of the barricade are Portuguese Socialists too. But it is now-or-never moment for Rajoy and the Rightwing nationalists of Spain. ‘The independence challenge also worries our neighbours. In Europe these days are heard tremendous words in the media. They speak of explosion in Spain,’ quipped Rajoy as Catalonia has now become the battle of Europe. It’s a litmus test for the official Leftists too.

The author, a senior journalist based in Kolkata, specialises in Left politics and history.

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