Various groups in different parts of the world have started demanding the right to self-determination. Currently, the Catalans lead the way as the police violence engulfed recent referendum for Catalan independence in Spain and left around 800 people injured. Although the highly decentralised central government of Spain and the highest court are not ready to accept an ‘independent’ Catalonia, the Catalan Parliament recognised the demand.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued a warning to the country’s would-be breakaway region of Catalonia on October 2, saying that Madrid would prevent any move toward independence. In response, Catalonia’s provincial government said that they would soon declare themselves as an independent state. The conflict is not new, but it has got a new dimension in recent times. Even Kurds in Turkey have renewed their old demand of a separate Kurdistan and the Turkish government has refused to accept the separatists’ demand.

It is quite natural that a sovereign state will never tolerate the demand of self-determination and separate territories because such a move will pose a serious threat to the existence of the state and its greatness (will be reduced). Big (or great) is dangerous as it doesn’t want to be small. And the idea of nationalism is always great.

Nobel laureate Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) realised this fact. Almost 100 years ago, he raised the issue of conflict between man and the state in an article, titled ‘Nationalism’. According to Tagore, the modern state is an ‘artificial and territory-centred’ organisation that protects the economic interests of the majority. As a result, the modern state ignores the demand of minority.

Tagore gave a special importance to the concept of society. He was of the opinion that the basic nature of a society is pluralistic. So, the society respects the idea of pluralism and does not allow its members to sacrifice the pluralistic nature (of a society) for the sake of unity. He used to believe that it would be better for India not to follow Europe’s path, as far as the concept of state was concerned. According to Tagore, the European concept of state will ultimately destroy the ‘diverse’ nature of the Indian society.

We can judge the ‘society versus state’ issue from a different angle. Tagore, himself, was critical of a particular concept of state. After visiting many countries in Asia and Europe, he came to the conclusion that an ‘ideal’ state should always accept the cultural diversity and respect public opinion.

Whenever the state tries to promote a particular culture for the sake of unity, ‘other’ people demand the right to self-determination. It is happening in the contemporary world. The existence of ‘powerful’ states encourages the idea of ultra-nationalism. And to counter the ultra-nationalists, the minority community demands the right to self-determination.

Statesmen and political leaders should realise this fact and try to be more flexible while dealing with secessionist movements. Many countries in the modern world are multi-cultural and multi-ethnic in nature. The relation between the state and the people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds should be friendly and cordial. It is important for both the communities – majority and minority – to consider the state as their ‘own’ country. Only this feeling can solve all the problems. It is not possible to abandon the state and we don’t need that. What is required is a qualitative change in the nature of state.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]