Thursday, June 16, 2016

Mukul Kesavan - Speaking in tongues - Narendra Modi and the Anglosphere // Garga Chatterjee - Modi salutes US military casualties in the Vietnam War

NB: Two perceptive comments on Modi in America: Kesavan notices his pathetic yearning to be accepted at the high table of the Anglophone powers; Chatterjee sees through to the symbolism of his homage to US soldiers killed during the Vietnam war. For those who may not know it, the RSS referred to the American  intervention as a dharmayuddha, or holy war. For the RSS and Jana Sangh (the ancestor of the BJP) the Americans were fighting unholy communism. For all their nationalistic talk, they did not recognise what even American critics of that war saw clearly - that the National Liberation Front was the most dogged proponent of Vietnamese nationalism. The significance of both of Modi's gestures (his chummy speech and his genuflection at Arlington cemetry) point to the same pathos of inferiority; the same desperation to be One of Them. And they point to Modi's single-minded devotion to the Sangh Parivar's ideological 'line': DS

Mukul Kesavan - Speaking in tongues - Narendra Modi and the Anglosphere
Watching the prime minister in America is unlike watching him elsewhere. Narendra Modi is a different person there. At home or in our neighbourhood, he is very much the Leader: deliberate, unsmiling and over-produced like someone soaked overnight in gravitas. When he makes a stump speech, he is more animated but you have to be on his side to enjoy it because it is a taunting animation. His rhetorical control in Hindi is remarkable, given it isn't his mother tongue. This isn't the routine Hindi-fluency of the RSS pracharak because in campaign mode, Modi's spoken Hindi can be robustly Hindustani. Advani was fluent but it was a stranger's fluency: too shuddh to be rousing, made faintly absurd by the prissy delivery. Even when he was touring UP in his pink chariot whipping up a frenzy over the Babri Masjid, he wasn't formidable, just sinister: the bigotry of his message weirdly at odds with his gentility. Modi's public-speaking manner is variable: he can be colloquial and grandiloquent, masterful (when trolling his enemies) and tiresome (when congratulating himself).

In America, he's different. There is an eagerness to him in the US that's unusual. The self-conscious dignitary turns into a curious visitor, inhaling a brave new world. Stateliness yields to something very like sprightliness. Walking down the aisle before addressing the joint session, he pumped hands, squeezed arms, slipped in a thumbs up, reached out with both hands when one wasn't enough, acknowledged the galleries and just radiated affability and goodwill. When he assumed the lectern, he waved and pointed and waved and basked in the sunshine of their regard. If they had clapped any harder he might have clambered over tiers of seats to shake their hands. Americans don't know it but their Congress is to Narendra Modi what Centre Court was to Pat Cash.

The fact that he spoke in English tells us something. Modi is willing to stumble and forgo his absolute control of Hindi to impress, to persuade, to forge a direct connection. This isn't the first time he has done this; when he addressed a joint session of the British parliament he spoke in English for the first time on a major stage in an English-speaking country. It was a more wintry, buttoned-up affair than the American occasion. Modi was sombre in a darkbandh-gala suit whereas he wore a churidar-pyjama and a waistcoat (black, not one of his pastel specials) to Congress. Also British MPs don't do enthusiasm well; they clapped politely without the standing ovations that fire the blood of a rhetorician like Modi. The main difference, of course, was that Great Britain is an influential offshore island that punches above its weight while the United States, though diminished, is still our only global hegemon. Modi is a connoisseur of power and its concentration, and in Congress he sensed that the Force was with him.

But more important than the differences were the similarities in the two speeches. Take the high-literary references that marked both of them. The speech in Parliament featured T.S. Eliot, the one in Congress ended with Walt Whitman. The Eliot reference in Modi's speech is to "The Hollow Men". With apologies to Eliot, Modi assures the gathered MPs that India is a great place to invest in because he (Modi) won't let a shadow fall between the idea (his vision of India as a business destination) and the reality (the actual ease of doing business on the ground).

Did the speech-writer tell the prime minister that the second of the poem's two epigraphs reads, "A penny for the Old Guy"? It's a reference to Guy Fawkes, a terrorist who tried to blow up England's parliament exactly 410 years before Narendra Modi addressed it. Guy Fawkes is ritually burnt in effigy every November, the same month in which the Indian prime minister addressed parliament. Luckily for Mr Modi he spoke on the 12th; had it been a week earlier it would have been the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot! From the haystack that is English literature, it takes a special kind of genius for the prime minister's brains trust to nobble this needle.

The allusion in the speech to Congress was more appropriate. Once again, one of Modernism's giants, Walt Whitman, was pressed into service to sell India as a place to invest in. "The orchestra," declared the prime minister, "have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton/has given the signal." With senators and congressmen laid out in cheering banks in front of him, Mr Modi must have felt like a virtuoso conductor. And if the quote reminded those assembled Americans of the lines that followed, so much the better: "The guest that was coming, he waited long, he is now housed,/ He is one of those who are beautiful and happy, he is one of those/ that to look upon and be with is enough." Yes!

More seriously, though, the other thing the two speeches had in common was political banter. Both times, Modi made a point of calling out the principal figure in the house by name and joking about the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics. In London, he named David Cameron and observed that he was looking relaxed and relieved because parliament wasn't in session. In Washington, he name checked Paul Ryan, the speaker, and joked about his reputation for being non-partisan. Wit is a good way of warming up an audience, but there was more, I think, to those little sallies than a man working a crowd. The prime minister was working the inside track as a democrat - he could joke about the trials of working with a legislature or an obdurate opposition, because he was one of them.

When commentators talk about how strongly Mr Modi has pushed India westwards, they don't give enough credit to Mr Modi's anglophilia. I mean this in the broadest possible sense. Mr Modi isn't about to turn into Shashi Tharoor or (heaven forbid) Mani Shankar Aiyar. Mr Modi is an anglophile because it isn't the West he has designs on; it is the Anglosphere, that strange transnational entity that consists of the old, white Commonwealth: Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States.

These are Churchill's English-speaking peoples, who together form an invisible and enormously powerful entity. They watch one another's soap operas, and act in one another's movies. They have always fought one another's wars. When an Indian applies for a visa to the United Kingdom, the online form has a special section where the applicant is asked if he has visited Canada, the US, New Zealand and Australia in the last ten years. As the Five Eyes, these countries formally pool their intelligence with each other in a way that excludes even their closest non-anglophone allies. This is the most exclusive club in the world.

Indian leaders are peculiarly susceptible to its charms. Dr Manmohan Singh famously thanked the British empire for the good it had done India and then, in his one flash of political passion, risked his government to sign the Indo-American nuclear deal. Lal Krishna Advani was so taken with the prospect of being a part of the Anglosphere's Coalition of the Willing during the Iraq War, that he pledged Indian soldiers to that disastrous conflict, a pledge that A.B. Vajpayee had the good sense to repudiate. Now it is Narendra Modi's turn.

This is the club Modi wants India to join, if not as a charter member, then at least as an honorary associate, like Israel or Japan. It's why he takes the trouble to court Britain and America in English, it's why he quotes their writers back at them and it is why, even as he flatters them in their legislatures, he is seduced, unknowing, in his turn. To take the Anglosphere by storm is an act of great ambition... and no little pathos.

By visiting the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington, Modi crossed a sacred line
Foreign visits by heads of state are important for their symbolism and the signals they send. Hence, speeches are carefully worded and the sites to visit are chosen tactically, keeping the PR value of such symbolism and signalling in mind. India’s prime minister kicked off his three-day US tour on Monday with a visit to the Arlington National Cemetery, a United States military cemetery in Arlington county, Virginia and laid a wreath at Tomb of the Unknowns. This was no ordinary decision.

The Tomb of the Unknowns is dedicated to, among other US military personnel, those part of the invasion of Vietnam whose remains are yet unidentified. The government of India had staunchly opposed the US invasion of Vietnam, widely regarded as one of the most brutal and technologically superior imperialist campaigns against the Vietnamese forces of national liberation. The war (known in Vietnam as the Resistance War against America) saw the US being politically and morally isolated at home and abroad. By the end of the war, any reputation that the US might have had as a force of intervention on the side of good lay in tatters.

In fact, its later campaigns in Iraq were considered, within the US military-political establishment, as a sign of recovery from the Vietnam shock. Former diplomat and astute external-affairs observer KC Singh pointed out the significance of Modi’s wreath-laying in a series of tweets.

Though Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had also visited the Arlington cemetery during her 1966 US visit, when the US invasion of Vietnam was underway, she had laid a wreath at former US President John F Kennedy’s memorial and crucially, not at the Tomb of the Unknowns. In fact, prior to Modi, no prime minister of the Indian Union has ever acted publicly in a manner that pays respect – in any way, directly or indirectly – to US military personnel involved in the invasion of Vietnam.

A departure: This week in Virginia, Modi crossed a sacred line. Among the other sharp criticisms it invited, the Vietnam War had also brought forth scores of charges of heinous war crimes against US military personnel. Right from the My Lai massacre, the Vietnam War saw the US military and its allies allegedly carry out the mass murder of civilians, organised gang-rapes at a mass scale, aerial bombing of large, densely populated civilian population centres, burning and destruction of whole villages, mass torture, murder of prisoners of war, loot, forced labour and so on.

Thousands of US military combatants who allegedly perpetrated such crimes or were witness to it suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Internal investigation by the Pentagon showed that there was a factual basis to at least 320 such “alleged” incidents of war crimes. The war crimes perpetrated on non-white people typically becomes a statistic, but it is important to list the nature of some such events in which the US military was specifically involved. The present-day US Secretary of State, John Kerry, testified before the US senate in 1971 as follows:

The “country” in question was the US. Using its vastly superior aerial power, its military, during the multi-decade South-East Asian campaign, dropped more than three times the amount of explosives as during the Second World War. I mention the Second World War for a reason. Few foreign heads of state, if any, would publicly pay respect at any memorial that included the German war criminals of the Second World War. To this day, China protests every time Japan’s Prime Minister pays homage to a shrine for fallen Japanese soldiers during that War, because Japan’s military had committed a series of war crimes during its invasion of China.

Why it's a problem: Those engaging in war crimes are war criminals. Paying respects at a tomb that may potentially include many such individuals is an act that may be justified by the emergent US-India strategic alliance optics of the occasion, but not by any stretch of human ethics. Later, in his address to a joint session of the US House of Representatives, Modi proudly declared: “Our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history.”

It is important to examine what those “hesitations” were about and what the stance of the Indian Union’s citizens was towards them. There was huge opposition to the Vietnam War among the citizens of the Indian Union. Robert McNamara, the US secretary of defence under whom America’s invasion and involvement in Vietnam was deepened and escalated, wasn’t allowed to enter the city of Kolkata on November 20, 1968. He was blocked by a huge crowd of protesters surrounding the DumDum airport when McNamara came visiting as the President of the World Bank.

Slogans rang aloud in Bengal’s streets – tomar naam, amar naam, Vietnam, Vietnam (your name, my name, Vietnam, Vietnam). The anger went beyond Calcutta and its students and extended even to the fishermen of rural Murshidabad. Elsewhere in the Indian Union too, there were many Vietnam-solidarity committees.

It is in the shadow of the Vietnam War and Cold War politics that the US strategy towards arming Pakistan was devised during the Bangladesh liberation struggle, resulting in another genocide. It is not accidental that no prime minister post the Vietnam War, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, did what Modi has done. There was a domestic constituency to think of.

A different optics mattered – not the optics of big-table camaraderie of realpolitik without morals but that of how a brown republic’s prime minister would be perceived if seen showing respect to the perpetrators of war crimes on other coloured people resisting a largely white foreign invading army.

At some level, that this hesitation has been overcome is a sad commentary on the sacrifice of the moral compass at the altar of the hunger for global supremacy by a nation-state home to the largest number of hungry people in the world.

Poor reflection: Days before Modi's visit, Mohammad Ali died. At the peak of the Vietnam War, the boxing legend and activist showed the courage of refusing to be enlisted in the US Army, summarising the war as one in which “the white man sent the black man to kill the yellow man”. While his stance has come to be adulated in the wake of his death, those in South Asia might do well to remember some facts.

Many of the regiments of the Indian Army, have historically done exactly this. Before Partition, brown men enlisted in the then British Indian Army gained valour and gallantry by suppressing rebellious anti-British brown people or assisting British imperial expeditions abroad – in other words, the white (British) man sent the brown (British Indian Army) man to kill brown (in the subcontinent and in West Asia), yellow (in China and elsewhere) and black (in Africa) men.

While the Pentagon at least engaged with the war crimes committed by its forces in Vietnam, the British Indian Army or its successor, the Indian Army, has not done so for its colonial-era crimes. One may argue that the present Indian Army was formed on August 15, 1947 (strangely, with all ranks being maintained and those swearing allegiance to British crown a day before suddenly becoming loyal to the government of India overnight) and is not accountable for actions done before that. However, the fact that so many of its regiments and formations to this day proudly celebrate their pre-transfer-of-power Raising Day and boast of the number of Victoria Cross awardees and retain pre-1947 mottos and war cries underlines the structural continuity. The lack of hesitation on the part of Modi while laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns is a sad commentary on the state of human values in the Indian Union.

More posts on Vietnam