Like Narendra Modi over gau rakshaks and lynchings, Donald Trump said too little too late over rampaging white supremacists in the southern American state of Virginia. His mild initial comments seemed to spread the blame equally, seeing no particular evil in militant nationalists who gathered for a “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville or a 20-year-old white repeatedly ploughing his car into a crowd of demonstrators, killing a 32-year-old woman described as “a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised (who) was often moved to tears by the world’s injustices.” Not only did Mr Trump not condemn the killer but he even mocked the black man who heads Merck pharmaceuticals for quitting the American Manufacturing Council in protest against his silence.
The immediate provocation for the upsurge was a municipal decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, one of the top generals of the Confederate States of America, commonly called the Confederacy, a self-proclaimed nation of 11 secessionist slave-holding US states that fought and lost the American Civil War over the abolition of slavery, from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. That plan had prompted a similar protest in May as well as a Ku Klux Klan rally in July. The removal of Confederate monuments has also stirred up anger in cities like New Orleans, and officials in several states are now making similar efforts. Recently, protesters in Durham, North Carolina, toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier. There’s another Indian parallel here. The liberal forces in American life who oppose Mr Trump and his policies are trying to rewrite history.
As anyone who has read Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel Gone with the Wind, or seen the magnificent film starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable, knows, the Confederacy existed for four years from 1861 to 1865. It can’t be erased. The Civil War happened. The Deep South resented and resisted what it called “Yankee imperialism”. That conflict has left deep wounds and profound loyalties. Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who built his political career on segregation and spent a tormented retirement arguing he was not a racist at heart, displayed the defeated Confederacy’s flag behind his wheelchair when I called on him in the gubernatorial mansion in Montgomery. He had been paralysed from the waist down after being shot in 1972 by a 21-year-old restaurant worker who had originally planned to shoot Richard Nixon to capture world attention and turned to Wallace only when he realized the president was too well protected.
However, the forces behind the rally run much deeper than the removal of statues. Right-wing extremism, including white nationalism and white supremacy, is on the rise, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre. A string of killings in recent months raised the spectre of far-right violence well before the Charlottesville rally which was planned long in advance. Several hundred torch-carrying white nationalists marched there the day before the violent demonstration, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. At least 34 people were wounded, the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency, and two state troopers died when the helicopter in which they were monitoring the demonstrations fell and burst into flames. When a car struck another vehicle near a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman, the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, called the fatal attack “domestic terrorism” and promised “the most serious charges that can be brought.”
Like many Indians, many Americans, too, have noted that these disturbances began to erupt only when the current government took office. No one in India had heard of ghar-wapsi or gau-rakshak until the Bharatiya Janata Party-dominated National Democratic Alliance came to power and Mr Modi became prime minister. The underlying sentiment probably did lurk in the thinking of many Hindus but they didn’t dare give expression to thoughts that not only violated the Constitution but ran contrary to the national commitment to secularism and democracy. Similarly, Americans are grappling with the blatant display of attitudes that many believed had been buried forever when segregation was outlawed. But as two New York Times reporters, Richard Fausset and Alan Feuer, wrote, the Charlottesville events were “perhaps the most visible manifestation to date of the evolution of the American far-right, a coalition of old and new white supremacist groups connected by social media and emboldened by the election of Donald J. Trump.”
Past and present succour each other. Today’s Hindu attitudes are shaped not by contemporary events but by memories of discrimination during centuries of Muslim rule. Many Rajput princes had to submit their women to Mughal emperors. The custodian of Gwalior Fort proudly shows visitors the deep well, infested with man-eating crocodiles at one time, into which the ladies of the Scindia’s household plunged to their doom rather than be dishonoured in a Muslim harem. Aurangzeb imposed the Jaziyah, the protection tax that non-Muslims have to pay in an Islamic state. Lal Krishna Advani and the Sangh Parivar chose to demolish the Babari Masjid because Rama’s is an evocative name that would attract votes. But the BJP itself admits there are some 3,000 other such disputed monuments throughout the country. Benares’s Alamgir Mosque, for instance, built in the 17th century by Aurangzeb, is locally called Beni Madhav ka Darera, the Hindu temple that stood there earlier.
If we were to rectify all the injustices of the past, we would have to turn to the British era as well. On the whole, British rule was beneficial for it guided India’s transition from medievalism to modernity. But there were individual cruelties like the reputed chopping of the thumbs of Dacca weavers who spun such fine muslin that yards of it could be drawn through a ring. British discrimination lay largely in preventing the establishment of industry and compelling Indians to import and use British manufactures. It was so blatant that Keshub Chandra Sen, the 19th century Brahmo Samaj reformer, accused Britain of “holding India for the interest of Manchester.”
The past is always contested, but no one can escape it. American liberals can’t pretend they didn’t force an unwilling Deep South to join the Union or wipe out those grim four years that took toll of 620,000 Union and Confederate lives by removing the statues of Southern heroes. Nor can Southern loyalists undo the surrender that Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi, signed in 1865. It’s a lesson we haven’t learnt in this country. We imagine that removing statues and renaming streets will enable us to pretend the British Raj, with its blessings and punishments, never happened, and that it’s been Hindutva from the dawn of history. Happily, Mr Trump has publicly stated that Blacks, Jews and Hispanics are equal members of American society like White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Mr Modi has yet to acknowledge that Muslims are here to stay as equal citizens entitled to all their cultural and culinary practices.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist