Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2017-08-21 07:14:45 Published on Aug 21, 2017
Strident attacks by hardline right wing groups is not a phenomenon restricted just to the United States.
The dilemma that Charlottesville poses for us

Most of us may not know where Charlottesville is in the United States. I have no hesitation in admitting I didn’t till the events of 12 August rocked not just that country, but the rest of the world as well. More than the events themselves, it was the Trump response and the reactions to that, which has lessons for us here at home.

The Charlottesville incident involved an ISIS style attack by a lone 20 year old white nationalist who deliberately mowed down a group of counter protesters with his car. They were confronting neo-Nazi White Supremacists holding a rally objecting to the shifting of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a public park. It resulted in the death of 32 year old woman, Heather D. Heyer, and injuries to nineteen others. That apart, there were fist fights aplenty between both sides as well as against the Police that was attempting to control the outbreak of violence.

General Lee headed the Confederate Armies from June 1861 till his surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865 that resulted in the collapse of the south and end to the Civil War.

Ironically, while he may have now become a rallying point for the ‘Alt Right’ he famously wrote to his wife in 1856, years before the Civil War that “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.”  Though, it must be added that he did, by no means, actively oppose slavery and in fact owned hundreds of slaves on his wife’s plantation, Arlington. Interestingly, he was also opposed to the idea of confederate monuments writing a year before his death in 1870 that “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.” 

Obviously, Trump with little understanding or knowledge of the Civil War and its consequences has been foolish enough to equate the actions of the neo-Nazis to those who opposed them. That his actions have earned him much opprobrium, not just from those politically opposed to him, but also from leaders of his own Republican Party, as well as from members of the international community. Indeed, it appears there has now been a general realisation among vast swathes of American society, including those of Indian origin, they may have voted the wrong guy in. They did this in their earnestness to oppose the perceived ill-effects of globalisation and the actions of the liberal left leaning establishment that appeared to be favouring minorities and others at the cost of Middle America. Little did they realise that they may have voted in an unstable egotistic racist bigot with an extremely narrow world view. He appears to be bent on feathering his own nest with little or no moral qualms and completely uncaring as to the consequences of his actions. While speaking on the unfortunate incident, he even had the temerity to plug his own winery located there!

By his present actions, and even his statements given during campaigning, he has emboldened White Supremacists and other Alt-Right groups, his core electoral base, which has resulted in increasing attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

In the process he has also put his closest aides in the White House and members of his cabinet on the horns of a moral dilemma. Should they continue to work for him in the hope that they would be able to control his most destructive actions or should they adopt a more honest and moral line and resign? The saving grace, however, has been the fact that there have been some in government and from his party who have refused to be bullied and have called him out. We even have had the Armed Forces Chiefs forthrightly condemn the neo-Nazis, though they have taken care not to embarrass their Commander-in-Chief by naming him, something completely unimaginable here.

Strident attacks by hardline right wing groups is not a phenomenon restricted just to the United States, but has impacted most corners of the globe. In our own nation we are witness to rising intolerance on the part of the Hindutva brigade that is reflected in the increasing attacks on minorities and Dalits as well as restrictions on what we can wear, eat or watch. That vigilantism is supported, if not encouraged, by the establishment in some of the states only adds to our problems. Other than ineffectual statements Mr. Modi has done little to control the upsurge of violence. That our politicians lack empathy for the marginalised is clearly seen from the manner in which the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh devoted himself to organising a religious festival at the time his State was reeling from the most terrible of tragedies, the death of seventy children at a Government Hospital in Gorakhpur leaves one speechless.

Even in Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from decades of brutal civil war, the government was prompt in declaring a week of national mourning after mud slides wiped away villages and killed hundreds.

That is how civilised governments react to tragedy, something that seems to have escaped our political leadership here. They seem to be capable of only engaging in verbal jousts with each other over insignificant issues and have no interest in dealing with the difficult business of governance which allowed for this horrendous breach of faith.

If just seven months of a Trump Presidency can tear holes into a 241 year old democracy, just think as to how vulnerable and fragile our democracy is after just seventy years of Independence. Unlike Trump Prime Minister Modi is far more restrained and mature but there are similarities in the manner that they have handled the violent acts indulged in by members of the nationalist far right who seem to revel in the politics of exclusion. The end result of their actions is not difficult to foresee as it can only add to existing fissiparous tendencies and further vitiate an already difficult internal security situation.

Finally, it creates a dilemma for the average liberal voter who may have supported Mr. Modi in the last General Elections. In 2019 he will be faced with a Hobson’s choice, given that the opposition has failed to deal with the twin abominations of dynastic politics and corruption. There also appear to be none within the establishment who would be willing to challenge those who are deliberately supporting forces of hate and pseudo nationalism. That can hardly bode well for either our democratic institutions or our future.

 Freeman, Douglas S; R.E. Lee; A Biography; Charles Scribner’s Sons, USA, 1934; pg 372.

 Fortin, Jacey; What Robert E. Lee Wrote About Racism; New York Times , 18 Aug 2017;

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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