The television images beamed live across the world last week looked more like scenes from a film rather than real-life scenes being played out in the heart of a modern European city: Hundreds of thousands of furious citizens, their fists raised in anger, literally taking over Barcelona’s streets, riot police in frightening black gear and helmets, their faces covered with black masks, firing rubber bullets into riotous crowds and mercilessly beating up people with truncheons.

Such gruesome images are unlikely to fade away from memory anytime soon. They remind us of the complex, turbulent and often violent history that one thought Spain has left behind. The Spanish police unleashed this terror on unarmed citizens of the far north-eastern province of Catalonia who were voting in a referendum that the Constitutional Court and the central government had stubbornly refused to recognize.

The referendum was intended to decide whether wealthy Catalonia should proclaim independence from Spain. The government strained every nerve to scuttle the vote. Riot police were sent to polling stations and confiscate ballot boxes.

The Catalans yelled: “Out with the occupying forces!” and sang the anthem of Catalonia. More than 900 people were injured in clashes with the police. King Felipe IV, in a rare TV appearance, accused Catalan leaders of shattering democratic principles and dividing society by disrespecting “the powers of the state”, and putting “at risk the economy of Catalonia and even of Spain”, and for their “unacceptable disloyalty”.

Separatist sentiments and protests are not confined to Jammu & Kashmir alone. Last week, The Independent published a map showing separatist movements with secessionist tendencies all over Europe, from Provence in France to Bavaria in Germany and Corsica in Italy, in Scotland, Crimea, and elsewhere. These upsurges are likely to draw inspiration and momentum from Catalonia. The European Commission is naturally weary, and has called for “unity and stability” in the fourth largest Eurozone country. Spain’s federal model and the right to self-determination have already divided the political parties and given rise to demands for Constitutional reforms to make Spain a “plurinational state”.

The referendum, which has resulted in the worst constitutional crisis in decades, has been rejected by the Federal Government as illegal and unconstitutional. Spain’s Constitutional Court had ordered suspension of the vote, which irrespective of the outcome will have no legality. Though only a minority of 40 per cent of Catalonia’s population were expected to vote, the brutal crackdown has angered Catalonians in general.

They are up in arms as seldom before in Spain’s turbulent history. The regional Prime Minister, Carles Puigdemont, has announced that 90 per cent of almost 2.3 million voters had voted “Yes” to secede from Spain and he might as well proceed to declare independence.

Complex societies are the products of their complex histories, and Spain has one of the most complex societies among European nations, often described as ‘a federation all but in name’, indeed a federation without federalism. Spain was a dictatorship under General Francisco Franco from 1939 till his death in 1975.

The present Constitution of Spain came into force in 1978, when the country became an Autonomic State ~ Estado de las Autonomias ~ comprising 17 Autonomous Communities (AC) that enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy through an extensive decentralization of power and responsibilities which are called ‘competences’. It was a constitutionally-framed ‘shared rule’, based on a concept of a sub-state nacionalidade that was shaped by historical realities as well as identity politics to somehow keep the federation intact. During its long history, Spain has been a dominant colonial power in Europe, along with Britain and France.

Like France, it has experimented with republicanism, dictatorship, democracy and had to contend with anarchy, violence, civil war and bouts of prolonged political instability. It has a multilingual population which is widely divergent in terms of the economy, territory, demography, ethnicity, and culture. There is a strong Castilian majority with a number of minority nationalities ~ Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country ~ each with its distinctive history, culture and language.

The four largest ACs ~ Andulasia, Catalonia, Madrid and Valencia ~ share among themselves about 58 per cent of the national population of 46 million, and nearly 60 per cent of Spain’s GDP. Catalonia and the Basque Country are regions with histories dating back to the Middle Ages. They regard themselves as ‘historical nations’ more than a part of Spain, and demand recognition. In particular, Catalonia has a population of 7.5 million; it accounts for 6.3 per cent of Spain’s territory and 16 per cent of its population.

It is the riches Autonomous Community of Spain, and contributes almost 19 per cent to Spain’s GDP. It is also one of the most indebted regions, with an accumulated debt of 75.4 billion euros, representing 35 per cent of its GDP. Barcelona, the second city of Spain, is the vibrant capital of Catalonia where most of its population live; it is also its major economic hub. Incidentally, Catalonia also contributes a number of players to Spain’s national football team.

The secessionist sentiments have been fuelled in recent times by Catalonia’s resentment that it pays much more to the federal government in Madrid in taxes than it receives from the federal budget through investments and transfers.

In 2014, it paid about 10 billion billions euros ~ about 5 per cent of its GDP ~ more than it received from the federal government. Catalonia’s share in federal investments has also systematically declined from 16 per cent in 2003 to only 9.5 per cent in the 2015 budget. Spain’s economic collapse at the height of the Eurozone crisis and the consequent austerity measures had also stoked separatist sentiments, with many Catalans blaming Madrid for the economic blight. But the underlying reasons for its secessionism go far deeper.

Catalonia’s history dates back to the 9th century to the time of Charlemagne, but it has been part of Spain ever since the Kingdom of Spain had come into existence in the 15th century, when King Ferdinand of Catalonia’s neigbouring kingdom Aragon had married Queen Isabella of Castile and united their territories. But Catalonia never bowed completely to the authority of Madrid; it had revolted repeatedly against the House of Habsburgs. After the discovery of America, Catalonia’s importance increased with the growth of trans-Atlantic navigation and trade.

The 19th century industrialisation of Spain was pioneered by Catalonia, simultaneously with a cultural renaissance that saw the revival of the Catalan language and culture and renewed sense of a national identity leading to demands for the right to self-determination. It was then that the seeds of secession were sown. In 1931, Spain became a republic and Catalonia got a regional government with substantial autonomy, which lasted till the civil war broke out in 1936. The region became a key Republican stronghold, but eventually fell to General Franco’s right-wing forces in 1939. Under his ruthless dictatorship, its autonomy was revoked, and both the Catalan language and nationalism were ruthlessly suppressed.

Thousands of Catalan activists were done to death or forced into exile. The memory of Franco’s repression still ignites the fierce football rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spain’s top football clubs. The autonomy could be restored only after Franco’s death in 1975.

Under the new king, Juan Carlos, a new democratic Constitution was adopted in 1978. It recognized the existence of distinct “national communities” within Spain which showcased remarkable diversity and asymmetry, in terms of history, language, culture and economic development. While asserting the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’, the Constitution recognised multiple nationalities and their right to self-govern. But all the regions were not treated in an identical manner.

Spain became an asymmetric federation based on an uneven distribution of power and autonomy between different regions, some ‘with common historic, cultural and economic characteristics’, some ‘insular territories’ and some ‘provinces with a historical regional status’. For the sake autonomy, a region first needed to become an Autonomous Community (Comunidades Autónomas) and adopt a “Statute of Autonomy” that defined the contours of its autonomy, following a prescribed procedure that includes a referendum.

In 1979, Catalonia was given a Statute of Autonomy and was recognised as a ‘nationality’, with Catalan as its official language along with Spanish (Castilian). Catalonia and Basque Country were deemed as ‘historical nationalities’, and described as such in their respective Statutes of Autonomy. (To be concluded)

(The writer is a commentator. Opinions expressed are personal)