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, (akin to the Home Minister in sub-continental parlance) 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.”

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.