(Artwork by spunkybong. Images from Wikimedia)
Secessionist movements are as old as humanity itself. No matter how just a society is, there will be disgruntled cribbers in it who will feel marginalized. Most societies are basically unjust, in various degrees of severity, spawning dissent and efforts to secede and emerge as separate nations. The larger has been the empire, the more frenetic have been the separatist movements within them.
Separatism destroyed and rebuilt Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley, no less than twenty times, back in the 2500BC. Ionian sovereigntists fought the mighty Persian King Darius for control of their lands 500 years before Christ. Great empires suppressed dissent and crushed separatism ruthlessly, in a desperate attempt to retain the lands they annexed. But ultimately over centuries, even they lost out to the zeal of separatism.
For a while, the world even had great civilizations like the Romans, the Greeks and the Persians who found a novel way to retain their far-flung territories within their fold. They didn’t pillage indiscriminately the lands that they subjugated, but instead, let the local cultures flourish, albeit within the framework of laws that they enforced.
These empires were enlightened in the context of the times. They still had slaves but, as long as those slaves knew their place, they were treated humanely. Human rights in a most basic form were upheld, as long as you didn’t get on their nerves. Crude forms of law and justice were promulgated so that a wrongdoer got what was coming to him. Perhaps for this reason, these empires also lasted the longest.
Britain’s Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution may spring to mind as great fountains of enlightened government, but an artifact much older has been considered by many scholars as the very first declaration of human rights.
After he annexed Babylon in 539BC, Khuroush, ruler of the First Persian Empire (the Achaemenids), known in the west as Cyrus the Great, issued an unprecedented decree. His words were inscribed on a baked clay cylinder that was unearthed in 1879, near Baghdad. It was named the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ and is now on display at the world’s biggest repository of artifacts snatched from colonies – the British Museum.
The Khuroush Cylinder, on display at the British Museum (Photo source: Wikimedia)
During the days of Khuroush the Great, invasions had certain set patterns. Go in, pillage, raze every structure to the ground, rape their women and while you’re at it, top up your harem. Then enslave the sturdy men for construction work on your megalomaniacal dreams, end of story. No one batted an eyelid to plunders, not even the conquered sods themselves. There was no PTSD those days. If you were working in network news and reported on a mass slaughter, you’d be fired for fooling around on the job. There was nothing sensational about invasion news.
But all that changed when Khuroush recorded his decree on a convex clay barrel 9 inches long and 4 inches in diameter in its middle – The Cyrus Cylinder. Oh yes, those days, they wrote on wet clay and waited for it to dry and set. Persia was no place for fickle-minded writers. You always had a guy breathing down your neck as you wrote, screaming, “Hurry up ars…le or the clay will set. You don’t want to be without balls, do ya?”
Most of the inscription on the cylinder, deciphered as Babylonian cuneiform, hails Khuroush’s victory over the Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus, and sings paeans to his glory. In graphic detail, it tells you how Khurry had Nabo’s head on a stake. The text praises Khuroush, sets out his genealogy and portrays him as a great king from a line of great kings. It goes on and on for most of the text, about how he was the only sane guy in the world and everyone else was a prick, yada, yada, yada.
The text on the cylinder might been penned by one of his minions, expecting a promotion and a raise. Those days, if you wanted to live to get old and have grandchildren, you had to fawn and grovel. Old Khurry might have been great, but he was mighty vain too. Maybe the minion was hoping that the great king would slip him a couple of busty Nubian slaves (I would try anything myself for such a career advancement).
In this text, Khuroush went on to state that he recognized the religious freedom and rights of the people in conquered lands. He decreed that those people who had been captured and enslaved by his predecessors should be set free and allowed to go back to their homes and the statues of their different gods returned to their original shrines, to be freely worshiped.
(I’m sure there were some aides who must have exclaimed at Khuroush’s largesse toward the subjugated,” What the f—k you doon, boss, are you nuts or sumpn?” There is however no mention of these individuals on the Khuroush Cylinder. Must have lost their heads right after, the poor dears).
The urge to secede was neutralized very effectively by rulers like Khuroush. If you are allowed to go about your business the way you like, why the f—k would you want to secede? But in spite of enlightened government, the reshaping of borders through secession has gone on through the centuries, unchecked. I suppose it has something to do with the way humans crave change.
More recently, through the late 19th century and the two world wars of the 20th century, the world witnessed the creation of many new nation states, after breaking away from their colonial masters. Even today, separatists are at it all over, presiding over a Balkanisation process fracturing the world into tiny bits, along mainly ethnic lines. At the moment we are watching this play out in Crimea and Donetsk.
Separatism is alive in Canada too, in case you hadn’t noticed. You haven’t heard the word ‘shmovereignty’, have you? I made it up. It means sovereignty, but only when shmucks want it. Sovereignty for shmucks is shmovereignty. That’s how I feel about the Quebec secessionist sovereignty movement. Quebecers are a bunch of folks who have absolutely no reason to be unhappy being inside Canada. But yet they are. They want an independent Quebec.
Canada began as a French colony. Of course, native Americans were already there for centuries but I won’t get into that. No one really cares about native Americans. They didn’t then and they don’t now. The natives have been driven into gradually shrinking settlements called ‘reserves’, conjuring up images of one of those ‘natural environment zoos’. They have been given candy-like sops – no income tax and other subsidies, to keep them quiet and then generally ignored. Native American reserves are like ghettos in the open countryside, with drug addiction and serious crimes rampant within them.
By the by, never make the mistake of calling a native American a Red Indian. You won’t get hit, you’ll get shot. They hate it. I once told a hulking native American at a native American handicrafts expo, that we had one thing in common – we were both Indians. He glowered at me and growled,” I am not an Indian.” If you had been around you might have heard a tiny sonic boom – me beating it from there.
Although the Norwegian, Leif Ericsson, first set foot on Canadian soil (in present-day Newfoundland) around 1075, for folk like us Canadian history begins with the first French landings on the Atlantic coast as well as up the St Lawrence, at Montreal. A Frenchman named Jacques Cartier landed here and simply claimed it for France in 1534. A permanent French settlement started in 1608. Canada came to be known as ‘New France’.
Cartier and Co began making friends with the native American tribes like the Iroquois, who were spooked a bit by his muskets and tried to appease him by offering him their women. Lucky bastard. (Don’t try any pow-wows now though, their women tote shotguns).
While Jacques and his successors were busy canoodling with squaws, down south of the Great Lakes trouble was brewing. Trouble in the form of a British invasion force who wanted to annex Canada as a part of their overall North America strategy.
And they annex did. The French were roundly defeated in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, a flat piece of land in present-day Quebec City. The Brits then forced the French to sign a Treaty in 1763, abandoning their claims to Canada, in return for obscure Caribbean island nations like Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique. (The French retained just two tiny islands off the coast of Newfoundland, St.Pierre and Miquelon, which remain French till this day).
To ensure a durable peace and dampen any future urge to secede, the victors (the Brits) permitted the continuation of French civil law and the free practice of the Catholic faith in Quebec, drawing from the Khuroush playbook. This allowed French Quebec to retain its distinct French identity, while being hemmed in by English-speaking provinces and the US on all sides.
The PR effort however didn’t appease French resentment. Relations between French and British descendants in Canada have always been thorny, a throwback from the age-old rivalry that has always existed between France and Britain. When someone just doesn’t seem to like you, no sop is going to help.
As Canada prospered and grew into an economic powerhouse, the English language and the British way of life spread through Quebec, smothering the French culture. The French citizens of Quebec realized that they had been short-changed. Who else but a bunch of shmucks would sign Canada away, in exchange for Haiti?
Fast forward to the Montreal Expo67. The French President, Charles De Gaulle, invited to address Montrealers from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall, screamed,” Vive le Quebec libre!” (Long live free Quebec). This is quite apart from the fact that Quebecers never felt the need to be free. Quite literally De Gaulle was inciting secession, a flagrant breach of protocol for which, he was lucky he didn’t get booted out.
When De Gaulle made his outrageous utterance, the sovereignty movement within French-speaking Quebec, had already been around for a while. There had in fact, even been militant strains of sovereigntists like the Front de Libération du Quebec (FLQ), a looney Marxist-Leninist outfit that had, during the 60s, carried out a spate of assassinations and bombings, Naxalite-style. De Gaulle’s speech stoked those fires up a bit.
The question of sovereignty for Quebec was thrown open to a public vote twice in the past, once in 1980 when the sovereignty seekers lost by a 60-40 margin. Again in 1995, Quebecers were asked if they wanted sovereignty and this time, it was 51-49. Close.
The above referendums didn’t consider the aspirations of the native American inhabitants however. No one consulted the natives – the Crees, the Mohawks, the Inuits and the Métis who live here in Quebec. A separate referendum was organized among the Cree in October 1995, where 96% voted to remain in Canada. They didn’t like being yanked out of Canada against their will and made a part of a new nation called Quebec that would be governed essentially by white European immigrants.
Since that referendum in 1995, the world has opened up to globalisation and Quebecers have realized that being on a French island in the midst of a sea of English, won’t be beneficial, economically as well as politically. There is no longer any wind in the sails of Quebec’s nationalistic fervor. Sovereignty has become passé.
An indicator of how much of a non-starter the sovereignty movement is nowadays, can be seen from the recently concluded provincial elections. 70% Quebecers rejected sovereignty by voting for the Federalist Liberal Party of Quebec, drubbing the leading Quebec nationalist party, the Parti Quebecois, whose leader couldn’t retain even her own seat.
Sure, for Quebecers, something does appear to have seceded – their desire for sovereignty.