The fundamental need and urgency for self determination in South Tyrol, when compared with that of Kashmir today, might raise some questions as to what possible similarities they have. South Tyrol is now Europe’s largest producer of apples, a major exporter of cheese, with world-class ski resorts in the Alps. An Italian province at the very northern edge of Italy where it borders Austria. South Tyrol is the richest district of Italy and enjoys almost full sovereignty as an autonomous state, with only 10% of its taxes being contributed to the national Italian budget.
Yet in January 2014, a tally was taken in an unofficial referendum gathered during the previous year to identify support for self determination in South Tyrol. Although only 15% of the population voted, 92.1% of those who voted, voted in favor.
Why self determination when they seem to be doing so well? It’s an interesting issue, since the dispute over the sovereignty of this small but enormously beautiful land reminiscent of Kashmir, situated squarely in the Alps adjacent to Switzerland, has been debated since 1919, fought over, and was supposedly settled after UN intervention in 1960 and subsequent resolutions that directed the parties to resolve their differences.
South Tyrol’s history might be a logical reference point for understanding the preoccupation with self-determination now, but perhaps the most obvious answer is that, however you structure it or in whatever manner you spin it, autonomy does not equal self-determination. Consciousness of some notion of a “right” to self determination is all that is needed to keep that fire burning, apparently. More than that, South Tyrol shares with Kashmir a long tradition of fighting for self determination, and it has become a default fall-back position whenever there’s trouble. Autonomy is like a child who has grown up but still lives in his parent’s home; self determination is where he has established his own home. While living in his parent’s home, he may feel like an adult and act like an adult, free to come and go as he pleases, but his home is not his. There is a higher authority that has some ultimate say over his life. He can’t change that ugly picture over the fireplace, he can’t park his car in the driveway because it leaks oil, and don’t even think about getting married. The fundamental difference may seem to be largely psychological, but there’s no question that autonomy is defacto the illusion of independence masking the power and authority of the larger encumbering state which retains the option of using whatever whim or alleged emergency to come swooping in with new laws, new regulations, new taxes simply through a shifting political mood and a few “harmless” changes to that country’s constitution. And the truth is that Italy’s economic problems as a member of the EU has in fact caused it to take a hard look at South Tyrol’s prosperity as a means of solving its debt crisis, which is second in the EU only to that of Greece.
The issue of sovereignty, its meaning, and how it is derived, and whether it rests in individual rights or collective rights, or even in a status quo maintenance of some overarching historical or spiritual endowment of power in certain individuals or tribes which preserve order and hierarchy are questions that could easily endanger one’s health and safety if asked inappropriately in the wrong place or at the wrong time, particularly in Kashmir. But in an age in which power is becoming more widely distributed and democratic movements step in to fill in the gaps in ethnic, racial and other forms of social diversity and power sharing, it may be time to come to terms with it constructively that satisfies universal ideals. Sovereignty and who or what possesses it is at the bottom of our urges for self determination. To what extent does any one human being have a right to control his own destiny? Does his land belong to him or does it really belong to the state?
South Tyrol has had autonomy for many years, and was an autonomous region even during the Hapsburg rule. Modern problems over the issue began when, responding to Italian ambitions, through the secret and later invalidated Treaty of London of 1915, the Allies promised this southern portion of Austria’s County of Tyrol as well as Trieste to the Italians if the latter would take the side of the Allies (the Triple Entente) against Germany during the First World War. It was quite noble, however wrong, of the Allies to be giving away such a nice gift, which wasn’t actually theirs to give, and it has had its consequences. The First World War itself had erupted to a great extent as a consequence of Austria’s attempts at annexation of Slavic lands, ignoring the right to self determination of another ethnic group, and the Second World War was a direct consequence of these machinations which occurred in dividing up the spoils of the first. Yet giving people the right to determine their own way of life, their own government, their own language, their own religion, and their own traditions seems yet, after so much spilled blood and tragedy, not to have been understood by leaders whose priorities do not take into account either the past or the future.
A number of these secret treaties came to light when the Bolsheviks began rummaging around in the files of their predecessors, and they immediately condemned them. “All the secret treaties must be immediately published in order to strengthen the confidence of the proletariat,” they announced in October 1917. “Peace without annexations or requisitions” was echoed around the world, reflecting a statement made by President Wilson to the U.S. Senate on January 22, 1917, when he said: “We must reach a peace without victory. Peace must be based on the right of each nation to decide its own destiny without the intervention of a more powerful external enemy.”
Dr. Fai is the Secretary General, World Kashmir Awareness Forum. He can be reached at: 1-202-607-6435 or email@example.com