A century of referendums

Aheli Moitra


The Kurds have done it. So have the Catalans. The Scots did it too.


Starting from the 1950s, the Nagas did it, followed by Guinea, Samoa, Algeria, Rhodesia, Comoros, Djibouti, Slovenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, East Timor, Montenegro and South Sudan to name a few.


The past century has seen referendums become a major tool for people to exercise their self-determination. It has become a platform for reiterating the people’s voice en mass, and proposes a nonviolent method out of a situation of oppression and marginalization.


So, why are existing nation states so annoyed about this?


Because in a world of Bengali-nonBengali, Naga-nonNaga, Arab-Israeli, the people have come to be defined by borders instead of borders being defined by the people.


The Kurds have attempted to redefine this.


The Kurds are a 35 million-strong indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands who inhabit a mountainous region along the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. Peripheral to existing nation states, they have been historically oppressed.


“Every Kurd I know dreams of a peaceful life, and each of us would choose safety and stability over having our own independent state. However, we have realised that the only way to free ourselves from oppression is independence,” wrote Kurdish writer Mohammed Ali in the Independent in September this year.


When Ali pointed out that the Kurds are at the “forefront of progress in the region,” he did not mean it out of vanity.


For instance, Rojava, a Kurdish land to the far North of Syria, has set out a political model so progressive, even the west began to teach its ethics in their universities.


In accordance with a philosophy laid out by revolutionary Abdullah Ocalan, noted the New York Times, Rojavan women had been championed as leaders, defense of the environment enshrined in law and radical direct democracy enacted in the streets.


There are many other progressive policies enshrined in the Rojava constitution—freedom to practice any religion of a person’s choice, right to seek political asylum (Kurdistan has taken in an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and 250,000 Syrian refugees), an education system based on values of reconciliation, dignity, and pluralism, promoting human rights and dignity. The list is long.


Even Iraqi Kurdistan has been described by a British parliamentarian as “one of the most progressive Muslim regions in the Middle East.”


A nation of this capacity to break free from oppression (of more than borders) does not need a referendum but it conducted one anyway in order to peacefully reiterate the point.


A referendum, thus, promotes the institutionalization of new polities that provide a new way forward for people inhabiting an increasingly polarized and violent world. Existing nation states need to tune into this station to break out of the violence and oppression they have promoted thus far.


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