The vigour and success of a free society covered up an undercurrent of flaws like racism from the start
How does one compare a 400-year saga of racism in America with India’s endemic inequality? Is the latter a function of neo-economic policies, feudalism, colonial tinkering with social structures or a mix of it all? Though inquiry is taboo, it is vitally needed.
In America, Jim Mattis, a respected Marine general and former defence secretary, is enjoying what Andy Warhol called “five minutes of fame”. He chastised a President whom everybody chastises except Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Never in his life had Gen. Mattis known a US President so dedicated to dividing Americans. He was particularly severe on Mr Trump’s call to “dominate” the rioters by using troops, in violation of the military’s rules of engagement. Incumbent defence secretary Mark Esper also did himself proud by opposing Mr Trump’s inclination to bring in troops.
I wonder if it shames us there is neither a Mattis nor an Esper to provide relief in our arid wasteland, bereft of dissenters. Journalist Aakar Patel faces an FIR for having asked the dispossessed in his homeland to voice sympathy for African Americans. Rex Tillerson, a former US secretary of state, had while in office called Mr Trump a “moron”. Texas police chief Art Acevedo was comparatively mild: he asked the President to keep his “mouth shut” if he has no constructive ideas to offer.
The vigour and success of a free society covered up an undercurrent of flaws like racism from the start. Extraordinary success in many fields was able to induce a national amnesia about some harsh realities: the United States was founded on genocide and slavery. Unreliable records of Christopher Columbus combined with modern anthropology point to anywhere between 2.5 million and eight million natives killed by disease or other means of extermination. This was a matter of envy for Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. He lamented that the Brazilian cavalry had not been as effective as its US counterpart in exterminating natives.
I haven’t seen anything as disturbing as the brutality of pre-abolition slave lives portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. A gruesome image shows a petrified slave, tied to a tree. A pack of hungry dogs, the size of full-grown wolves, is let loose upon him by way of canine supper. Don’t dismiss it as cinematic exaggeration. I have just been sent a clip from current disturbances – a police dog set upon a black woman, screaming for dear life, even as three white policemen watch with scant interest, a sort of mechanical operation.
To flavour the past, let’s rewind at fast speed. In 1919, a black teenager, swimming in Lake Michigan, drifts involuntarily towards a whites-only beach. He is stoned until he drowns. Record riots follow in Chicago.
This when President Woodrow Wilson was busy persuading senators to ratify the Versailles Treaty. What flourished simultaneously were called “lynch laws”. Bodies of “niggers” hanging from tall, shady trees were occasions for family outings, yielding photographs for albums kept for posterity.
Everyone talks reverentially about Martin Luther King Jr having brought to fruition the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. But this reporter saw “busing” an issue in Boston even in the mid-1970s. Was an attitude ingrained over centuries going to be disbanded simply by legislation?
Communalism in India has recent, deliberate beginnings, but caste beats western racism by millennia. Is its erasure possible by legislative means? The recent walk home by the impoverished, was laden with images of caste-class overlap.
There have been a surfeit of newspaper writing on America’s riots. But a friend placed in my hand an editorial from New Democracy, which touches the nub of the matter. The piece contrasts Dr King’s failed quest for salvation within the American Dream with Malcolm X’s search for revolutionary change.
Look farther afield, and even Nelson Mandela’s adjustment with white South Africa’s last leader F.W. De Klerk looks like a bargain struck in a hurry. I was in South Africa weeks before Mandela walked free. That he was free of rancour or bitterness against whites, despite being in their jails for 27 years, did further elevate his charisma. De Klerk, on the other hand, came out smelling or roses for having renounced power. In truth, what decided their fate was the global situation. At the Cold War’s end, a nasty, nuclear-armed white outpost in the face of rising black anger had become unnecessary. The odium of apartheid could now be shed.
In the high-voltage emotionalism of Mandela’s release, reporters didn’t seek out what Mandela’s colleagues were thinking. How could they have been happy when Mandela’s first finance minister, Trevor Manuel, had to be cleared by Gavin Riley, chairman of South Africa’s largest firm. No two situations are absolutely similar, but memory ferrets out a small detail from Independent India’s first Cabinet. When V. Shankar, ICS, was inducted into Sardar Patel’s secretariat, he had to go through a ritual interview with veteran industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla.
Capitalism, in other words, kept a wary eye on all transitions away from its stranglehold. Then capitalism overreached itself by mismanaging the post-Soviet globalisation. The 2008 financial crisis, and the huge slump after the Covid-19 mayhem, have induced some rethink. Comprehensive healthcare for all, universal basic income, a review of the Scandinavian model, are all part of a vigorous discourse in the West. There is, on the other hand, a deafening silence on these issues in India, where millions of the hungry and destitute sent on a trek may well return to plague us.