Inhibitions no more

Garga Chatterjee is concerned about the optics of Modi's visit to Arlington National Cemetery

Inhibitions no more
Foreign visits by heads of state are important for their symbolism and signalling. Hence words of speeches and sites of visit are chosen very carefully and tactically keeping the PR value of such symbolism and signalling in mind. In his recent visit to the USA, the Indian Union’s Prime Minister went to the Arlington National Cemetery, a United States military cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, and chose to lay a wreath at Tomb of the Unknowns. This was no ordinary choice.

The Tomb of the Unknowns is dedicated to, among other US military personnel, those who served in the US invasion of Vietnam and whose remains have not yet been identified. Widely regarded as one of the most brutal technologically superior, imperialist campaigns against Vietnamese forces of national liberation, the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the Resistance War against America) saw the USA being isolated at home and abroad. By the end of the war, any reputation that the USA might have had as a force for 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 ‘Vietnam shock’. During the Vietnam war, the Government of India staunchly opposed the US invasion of Vietnam. Former diplomat and astute external affairs observer K.C.Singh pointed out the significance of the signal Modi gave with his wreath-laying in a series of tweets. While Indira Gandhi did visit the Arlington National Cemetery during her 1966 US visit, when the US invasion of Vietnam was already underway, she laid a wreath at deceased US President John F. Kennedy’s memorial and crucially, not at the Tomb of the Unknowns. In fact, before Narendra Modi, no Prime Minister of the Indian Union since Indira Gandhi has ever engaged in any public act that pays respect in any way, directly or indirectly, to the US military personnel involved in the invasion of Vietnam. Apart from the long-time stance held by India and most of the world that the Vietnam war was a national liberation war of coloured people against a militarily superior military machine, the Vietnam war also brought scores of charges against US military personnel engaging in the most heinous war-crimes. Those engaging in war-crimes are called war criminals. Paying respect to a tomb that may potentially include many such individuals is an act that might be justified by the emergent “big-power” US-India optics of the occassion, but not by any stretch of human ethics.
That this "hesitation" has been overcome is a sad commentary on the loss of a moral compass

Right from the My Lai massacre onwards, the Vietnam war saw a series of alleged war crimes perpetrated by the US military and its allies including mass murder of civilians, rape, 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. Many US military combatants who allegedly perpetrated such crimes (or witnessed them) suffered post-traumatic stress disorder in their thousands. Internal investigation by the Pentagon showed 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 of the war-crime events where the US military was specifically involved. John Kerry testified before the US senate in 1971 as follows :

“They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off the ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”

US soldiers in Vietnam prepare a mass grave for Vietcong insurgents in 1967
US soldiers in Vietnam prepare a mass grave for Vietcong insurgents in 1967

The “this country” in question was the USA. Using its vastly superior aerial power, the US military, during this multi-decade South-East Asian campaign, dropped more than 3 times the amount of explosives compared to the Second World War. I mention the Second World War for a reason. Few foreign heads of state, if any, would publicly pay respect to 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 the Second World War. Japan’s military had committed a series of war crimes during its invasion of China. This week in Virginia, Narendra Modi crossed a sacred line.

Later, in his address to a joint session of the US House of Representatives, Narendra Modi declared proudly, “our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history.” It is important to examine what those hesitations were about and what were the attitudes of the citizens of the Indian Union towards those hesitations. There was huge opposition to the Vietnam war among the citizens of India. Robert McNamara, US secretary of defence under whom the US invasion and involvement in Vietnam was deepened and escalated, wasn’t even allowed to enter the city of Kolkata on 20th November, 1968, 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). In Bengal, it went beyond Kolkata and its students, to even fishermen of rural Murshidabad. Beyond Bengal, there were many Vietnam solidarity committees elsewhere in the Indian Union. It is in the shadow of the Vietnam War and Cold War politics that the US strategy towards arming Pakistan was developed during the 1971 war, resulting in more mass murder. It is not accidental that no post-Indira Prime Minister, including Atal Bihari Vajpeyee, did what Narendra Modi did. There was a domestic constituency to think of.  A different optics mattered - not the optics of big-table camaraderie of realpolitik without morals, but the optics of a brown republics’s Prime Minister seen to be respecting perpetrators of war-crimes on other coloured people resisting a foreign invading army. At some level, that this “hesitation” has been overcome is a sad commentary on the loss of a moral compass at the altar of a hunger for power, fired as it is by world power delusions of the nation-state home to the largest number of hungry people in the world.

Mohammad Ali died last week. At the peak of the Vietnam war, he 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 these stances of his have come to be adulated in the wake of his death, those in the Subcontinent might do well to remember some facts. Many of the regiments of the Indian Army, through its history, have done exactly that. Before Partition, the “valour” and “gallantry” of brown men enlisted in the then British Indian Army were mostly gained in suppressing rebellious anti-British brown people or British imperial expeditions abroad. While the Pentagon at least engaged with the war crimes committed by its forces in Vietnam, the Indian Army did no such thing. One may argue that the present Indian Army was formed on 15th August, 1947, (strangely, with all ranks being maintained and those swearing allegiance to British crown a day ago suddenly becoming loyal to the Government of India overnight!) and it is not accountable for actions done before 15th August, 1947. However, the fact is that so many of its regiments and formations to this day, proudly celebrate their pre-transfer of power “raising” date and brag about their “Victoria Cross” awardees with pride, retaining pre-1947 mottos and war-cries. This underlines the structural continuity. About other aspects of that continuity since the transfer of power - in terms of dealing with civilians, citizens and rebellious brown people - it is a still unfolding tragedy. The lack of hesitation on the part of Narendra Modi in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns is a sad commentary on the state of human values and the value of human life in the Indian Union today.

Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.He blogs at