The Parallel Paths of Kashmir and South Tyrol

By Dr. Ghulam Nabi Fai

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.”

Consciousness of the roots of war was clearly on the surface and in the minds of many at the time. In May 1917, Leon Dominian wrote in his preface to THE FRONTIERS OF LANGUAGE AND NATIONALITY IN EUROPE, “Never has it been realized better than at the present time that an ill-adjusted boundary is a hatching-oven for war. A scientific boundary, on the other hand, prepares the way for permanent goodwill between peoples.”

Then on January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson published his famous Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points was a visionary document in which Wilson sought to base a resolution to territorial disputes at the end of World War I on the moral prerogatives deeply embedded in notions of self determination rather than self-serving nationalistic and mercantile objectives, on which a just and lasting peace could be found through the will of the people.

These Fourteen Points were widely publicized and became the basis for Germany’s agreement to end hostilities. Wilson had assured Germany, which was losing the First World War,

“We do not wish to fight her either with arms or with hostile arrangements of trade if she is willing to associate herself with us and the other peace-loving nations of the world in covenants of justice and law and fair dealing.

“We wish her only to accept a place of equality among the peoples of the world – the new world in which we now live – instead of a place of mastery.”

These Fourteen Points further proposed a policy of free trade, open agreements, democracy and self-determination, along with a proposal for the formation of an international body that was to become the League of Nations.

In respect to the secret Treaty of London and South Tyrol, Wilson, who was very much aware of the poison involved in this recipe, had declared: “A rectification of Italian borders must be effected in accordance with the principle of nationality.”

Germany surrendered on condition that the promise of the Fourteen Points would be applied to the Fatherland. But that promise, made in the Treaty of Paris, was immediately and subsequently broken with the Treaty of Versailles, which severed the Austrian and German Reich into many small pieces. The failure to honor that agreement and the harsh conditions that were imposed upon Germany and Austria became the very cause of bitterness which resulted in World War II.

In international affairs, the notion of self-determination and the rights inherent was still a dim candle in a world that was accustomed to empires built and ruled for centuries by a narrow elite in their own self-interest. Even today, those rights seem to be only noticed when the flame of resistance is long enough and hot enough to force world leaders to seek solutions that in some small measure make compromises with the demands to put out the fire. However, the old view that a king or emperor owned everything in sight seems now to have been co-opted by the state.

“The First World War was above all an imperialist war,” wrote Leon Degrelle in his historical review. “The objectives were strictly material and territorial. No one was fighting, as in 1940, for ideals or a new concept of world order, but to quench a thirst for more trade, more people and more land. This greed for gain would soon submerge Wilson in Versailles, where his hopes for a better world would be forever dashed. He may have realized then that politics is the graveyard of good intentions.”

Wilson, who had unilaterally advanced his vision without consulting France or Britain beforehand, did not have their enthusiastic backing, and in order to secure support from them for the League of Nations, he caved in to France’s anger over its broken and devastated economy which gained the upper hand, and its will to impose harsh punishment on Germany characterized the settlement.

France and Britain had both wanted to completely crush Germany in the war from the very beginning and were completely ill-disposed to any peace settlements that didn’t serve this purpose. In France it became even treasonable to talk of peace.

Had the spirit of the Fourteen Points prevailed instead, things might have turned out differently for South Tyrol as well. Despite the desires of both Austria and South Tyrol to remain united, despite the revelations of the secret treaty and the glimmer of hope they saw in Wilson’s vision of overcoming it, they were also again ignored.

This transfer of territory from Austria to Italy was then fulfilled after the war ended through the Treaty of St. Germain, the primary purpose of which was to break up the Austro-Hungarian empire, isolate Austria from Germany, and break up large chunks of Austrian territory into separate states, such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

The County of Tyrol, however, was a different matter — not a question of drawing new ethnic borders but one of imperialistic desires, national security and perhaps greed. As lush and breathtaking as this land was, the mountains also served as a natural buffer between Austria to the north and Italy to the south, there being strategic advantages from Italy’s point of view.

To the south of this newly declared border lay a territory now called “Alto Adige,” the Italian name for “South Tyrol,” a land about the size of Kashmir’s district of Kishtwar, or the U.S. State of Delaware, which had been up until then an integral part of the County of Tyrol, a province of German Austria. It had been for many centuries. South Tyrol was physically separated from the old County by Brenner Pass situated in the Alps, which was considered a strategic passageway between north and south to the defense of Italy in the language of turn-of-the-century warfare technology, although historically it had never represented or served such a function. The border between Italy and Austria in the past had always been further south at the Gorge of Salorno. The Gorge of Salorno was the natural border, because it was also the dividing line between Italian and German speaking peoples.

The County of Tyrol has some of the same attractiveness to Italy that Kashmir has to India and Pakistan. It is somewhat magical historical region with tall steep mountain peaks and deep valleys with its own traditions in what was once a portion of Austria from 1140 up to 1919, when sovereign control of the south was turned over to Italy. The Italians had always coveted the South Tyrol region and made possession of it a part of their demands in agreeing with the Allies to join their fight against Germany. Likewise, Kashmir has second highest peak in the world, K2. It has a strategic location, which connects China with Pakistan and India with Central Asia. The major rivers of India and Pakistan originate from Kashmir, like Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi.

However, Austria and South Tyrol were like neighboring households of the same Nordic, or Aryan, clan. They were all German-speaking and had been under the royal domain of the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire for centuries, whose emperors had all been German except for one.

However, within three years of Italy taking title, in 1922, Mussolini seized power and embarked on a mission to Italianize South Tyrol, committing a form of cultural genocide that would never be forgotten or forgiven. “We shall Italianize this territory,” he declared,” because it is Italian, geographically and historically. The frontier of the Brenner has been traced out by Our Lord. The Germans in the Alto-Adige are not a national minority, but an ethnographical relic.”

Looking back, in the April 1927 issue of Foreign Affairs, Josef L. Kunz wrote:

After having lost their provincial and parish autonomy and the use of their language in all public services, after the barring of German teaching either in schools or in private lessons, after the prohibition of the use of the words “Tyrol” and “South-Tyrol,” after the Italianization of all geographical names, the Germans of German South-Tyrol are now deprived of their last German heirloom, their family names.

Such conditions prevailed until a renewed evaluation by the Allies at the end of World War II again left it in the hands of Italy, again gave autonomy to South Tyrol with the right to reclaim their cultural and linguistic heritage, but disingenuously attached the neighboring Italian-speaking province of Trento just to the south, creating a new larger autonomous region, which gave the Italians a majority in deciding the character of local politics and control of commerce. Although German culture was now legally theirs to reclaim, the German-speaking people of South Tyrol were still hampered by the unsympathetic ears of those in power.

In his contribution to Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1982) A. E. Alcock says

Two points need to be made about the De-Gasperi-Gruber Agreement. First, if it restored to the individual South Tyrolese the right to their German cultural identity by providing German-language schools, the use of the German language in public offices, and the restoration of German family names that had been Italianised, there was nothing about the restoration of the German character of their South Tyrol homeland. Second, the Autonomy Statute of 1948 issued in fulfillment of the De Gasperi-Gruber Agreement was designed specifically to ensure that the cultural, economic and social development of the South Tyrolese remained in Italian and not in South Tyrolese hands.

This was achieved in three ways. The first was quite simply not to endow the Province of Bolzano, and a South Tyrolese majority in the population that would presumably be reflected in the Provincial Parliament, with any meaningful powers of self-government, and certainly none regarding the economic development of the Province.

Second, the Province was placed with that of Trento within the framework of a Region Trentino-Alto Adige (the Italian name for South Tyrol). It was the Region that possessed not only more powers but also the most important powers, including those related to agriculture, industrial development and tourism. Control of these sectors lay with the Regional Parliament, but since the Province of Trento was more populous than Bolzano, and since Trento was 99 percent and Bolzano (by now) 33 percent Italian, the Regional Parliament was dominated by an Italian majority in a ratio of 7:3 which could be relied upon to see that the South Tyrolese did not get out of hand.

Third, since Italy was a centralized state, with a devolved system of government, rather than a federal state, central government approval had to be given to Regional and Provincial legislation before these could take effect. This approval might also require the prior issue of so-called ‘Executive Measures’, decrees having the force of law, approved by the Cabinet, whose function was to coordinate the legislative and administrative powers of the Regions and Provinces with those of the State, including defining their respective spheres of interest in regard to the matter in question.

It is understandable then why the German-speaking people of South Tyrol came to hate their oppressors. Such obstacles eventually led to acts of terrorism, with allegations that Austria had a hand in them. The problems became so severe that in 1960 Austria took the matter up with the United Nations, resulting in UN General Assembly resolution 1497 in October of that year urging Austria and Italy to come to the table and work out their differences, based upon the 1946 Paris agreement.

UN efforts were largely considered a failure because acts of terrorism continued. It wasn’t until 1971 that the issue was resolved with a new treaty between Austria and Italy, which stipulated that disputes in South Tyrol would be taken before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Greater autonomy was given to South Tyrol as well. That agreement has survived until today and is believed to be largely successful. Major acts of terror ended, although there remained an undercurrent of resistance through which the people of that province began small efforts, such as changing street signs, to restore a sense of their culture. Perhaps the current effort to bring about self-determination has limited probabilities of success today, but things could change if the Italians become desperate to resolve their economic issues within the Eurozone and attempt to impose additional taxes upon South Tyrol.

South Tyrol’s difficulties with a foreign culture bear many similarities to Kashmir, and Kashmiris must remain alert to efforts by India to impose political, economic and social solutions that encourage and sustain measures that oppose Kashmir’s best interests. As stated, 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. Kashmir has also “enjoyed,” shall we say, a certain fiction called autonomy, which has proven to be an empty shell layed by a dinosaur whose legitimacy as ruler was established by colonial dictates, not the will of the people. The people of Kashmir have made it clear that they intend to be the master of their destiny through self-determination.

Both disputes are clear evidence of how the leaders of great powers invariably plant the seeds to future conflict and war by not doing the right thing in the beginning but instead ignoring the will of certain groups of people and imposing solutions that are contrary to historic cultural and linguistic ties. Through both, the resentment and anger of those affected has lived on and on. It was British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten who awarded the district of Gurdaspur to India without which there was absolutely no connectivity between India and Kashmir. It offered the only viable route to Kashmir for the invading army of India in 1947, thus creating the problem of Kashmir.

Like South Tyrol in respect to Europe, Kashmir is also the largest producer of apples in South Asia. Kashmir has forestry, saffron, paper mâché, untapped minerals and above all the natural beauty that could attract millions of tourists from all over the world and make it sustainable country. Kashmir will only blossom, however, when it is free to choose its own destiny and permitted to develop its great resources on its own terms without interference from any country who would bleed off its wealth to satisfy greed and imperialist desires with no benefit to the Kashmiris themselves. Kashmir has a soul, a sense of individuality, and a long history of a bond among all who live there. It will never be satisfied with less than the opportunity to claim its own identity.

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