Past Continuous: Remembering That Opposing a Government Is No Crime

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

A US Marine tank launches flamethrower in action near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965. Credit: REUTERS/Courtesy US Army

The turbulence in West Bengal in the late 1960s and early 1970s inspired leading filmmakers to weave visual narratives around the events. Both Satyajit Ray, not known for political posturing, and Mrinal Sen, who contrastingly wore politics on his sleeves, made trilogies bound by a central theme: Calcutta through those tumultuous years. Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) were the Ray immortals, while Sen’s unforgettables were Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik (The Guerilla Fighter).

With the release of Pratidwandi in October 1970, Ray provided the glimpse that his creative persona too was reactive to West Bengal’s two biggest concerns of the time: rising joblessness and youth turning to Naxalism or radical politics. The film that went on to win three Indian national film awards, including the national film award for best direction in 1971, made an immense political statement: Indian youth even when not engaged in political activism and trapped in the rut of finding ways to make a living, were internationalists, in the sense that they empathised with struggles of people in other parts of the world. There was no better way to underscore the political nature of the urban middle-class Indian youth than the tactic Ray chose.

The film introduced Dhritiman Chatterjee as a typical youth of the period – forced to discontinue studies after his father’s demise, unable to find a job and eventually left with no option but to forsake dreams and aspirations. Eventually, he ‘accepts’ what comes his way. And, job hunting is what this character, Siddhartha, does.

In one interview, conducted in English by three gentlemen, after the generalities are over and several questions that test little but general awareness are done with, he is asked what the most significant and outstanding event over the past decade was. After exactly a 10 second pause, during which only the rustle of a probable fan in the room breaks the silence, the interviewee hesitatingly replies: “The war in Vietnam.”

“More significant than man landing on moon?” asks the one who is obviously the boss, clearly establishing events depicted in the film as being after July 1969.

Siddhartha, by then, has gathered confidence and consequently, does not bat an eyelid. “I think so,” he replied, and when asked to explain, he elaborated: “You see, we were not exactly unprepared for moon landing. We knew it has to come about sometime, the advances in space technology… I won’t say it wasn’t a remarkable achievement but it wasn’t unpredictable…”

When the second interviewer asked if the Vietnam war itself was unpredictable, the protagonist argued what while the war itself was not so, what was not expected was what the war revealed about the Vietnamese people. “About their extraordinary power of resistance, ordinary people, peasants and no one knew they had it in them…not technology but just plan human courage…and it takes your breath away…”

A long pause, and the chief interviewer slides back into the comfort of the backrest on his chair and asks disdainfully: “Are you a communist?”

When Siddhartha retorts that one doesn’t have to be a communist to admire Vietnam and its people, the man on the opposite side counters, “that does not answer my question.” A moment later, a terse dismissal: “However you may go.” Needles to say that the job does not come his way.

Unlike his younger brother who joined Naxalite rebels, Siddhartha was not part of the movement but with this classic interview scene, Ray made his character empathise with the cause and made his sympathy obvious in favour of the courageous. In the course of the interview and through his postures, the young man, in search of a job, stuck to his position, despite a better chance of securing the job if he moderated his position. In that moment, the employers symbolised the state every bit.

The interview scene from Pratidwandi required retelling because of the centrality of the Vietnam war and the protests it spawned, among its people and among Americans, to illustrate Siddhartha’s stance. In the protracted events of the Vietnam war spanning almost three decades, several epochal events took place exactly half a century ago in 1967. Because the Vietnam war and American involvement in it, was a residue of the Second World War and the resultant scare of the Cold War in western democracies which muted sentiment of citizens against their nations, protest to it began hesitatingly but in time its escalation matched that of the war itself.

Without a doubt, 1967 began with urgency on the part of American President Lyndon B. Johnson. Operation Cedar Falls in January, set the tone, when the US forces launched the largest combined offensive till that time involving 16,000 American and 14,000 South Vietnamese soldiers to evict the Viet Cong from the region termed ‘Iron Triangle’ 25 miles away from Saigon. Thereafter, the year ended up becoming a critical year for America’s war in Vietnam with the March to Pentagon in October and then the siege of Khe Sanh that spilled over into 1968, being the most dominant events politically and militarily.

President Lyndon B. Johnson listens to a tape sent by Captain Charles Robb, LBJ’s son-in-law, from Vietnam, while sitting in the White House Cabinet Room, July 31, 1968. Credit: REUTERS/Courtesy LBJ Library

By the middle of 1967 a crisis was looming for Johnson after he pursued the war that his predecessors had committed America to. The number of Americans in the battlefields was burgeoning to close to 500,000 and redoubling draft efforts was a priority of the administration. The list of Americans dying in the killing fields was also becoming longer. But what was more worrisome for Johnson was that, for the first time, a majority of American were of the belief that the nation had been led into a wrong war, that its leaders had erred. In a nation for long guided by periodic personal ratings, Johnson’s approval score – just 28% – was plain bad news.

But more importantly, from the standpoint of contemporary India, 1967 stands out as the year the Vietnam War and protests against it surged to the forefront of American life. Though American involvement in the war had its supporters, the movement against it kept finding new adherents and the pace and intensity of protests too intensified. The year is so significant that several media organisations including the New York Times are running special sections listing opinion pieces and memoirs from January 2017 to March 2018 to mark fifty years since public consciousness precipitated global awareness against the war and catalysed a new wave of global dissent.

While a few eyebrows were raised when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the protestors – because of the same reasons that Siddhartha advanced in the interview – it surely was surprising when newspapers reported in June 1967, that a judge had sentenced Mohammed Ali, the greatest boxer on earth, to up to five years in prison and he been stripped of his world heavyweight title for refusing the draft.

The story of Ali and the American government’s efforts to enlist him makes for compelling retelling if only for his dogged refusal for his patriotism to be judged solely on his willingness to join army and fight the Vietnamese. He was first disqualified because he failed – it’s not known whether this was deliberate or not – writing and spelling tests. When the bar was lowered as the government fell short of enlisters, the man who ceased being Cassius Clay weeks ago declared that he would not serve the army for being a “conscientious objector”.

War, Ali argued, was against Islamic tenets and went on to add his famous war line: “I Ain’t Got No Quarrel With Them Vietcong”. He was without a doubt the most important – and famous – person to refuse to join the army. Ali chose those whose numbers were swelling despite being accused by jingoistic supporters of the government as traitors. But the apolitical man that the boxer was, his opposition to war was no support to internationalism and the peace movement. His stance was derived solely from a disconcerting reality: America treated its black people as second-class citizens and because “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

Ali paid dearly for his stance. His boxing license was revoked and he was forced off the ring for several years. He used this period to widen social engagement. He became a popular anti-war speaker at colleges and universities. He spoke against the war though unlike several American opponents of the war, Ali didn’t lend support to the opponent camp. As one war veteran has written “we had mixed feelings, in the end – we didn’t like that he refused to join us… We didn’t like his antiwar speeches, but we weren’t sure he was wrong, either.”

Neither was the boxing star denounced through those years nor has anyone questioned countless veterans, including the writer cited above, who turned sceptics even while in service. Eventually in 1971, the American Supreme Court overturned his conviction. and Ali resumed his boxing career. It did not prevent him from the reaching the pinnacle of his sport once again. When he died in June last year, after boxing for 32 years with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, Ali was revered as a martyr without fighting a ‘national’ war but for battling for only those causes he believed in.

If almost 50 years ago, a fictional character from a Ray film could have been lauded by the filmmakers – and audiences – for his uncompromising posture, in these neo-jingoistic times, it is worth recalling that in mature nations, even when it is at war, people – ordinary and superstars – have the liberty to disagree with official ‘line’. Ali’s protest at 50 also serves to remind that mature nations and its leadership can accept those who do not verbalise patriotism or enact the script written by government.

Ali’s memory should enable us to place those sportsperson in perspective who smear people for being on the other side of government. Fifty years on, this tale tell us that opposing a government is no crime.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.

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  • Anjan Basu

    The article’s caption, ‘ Calcutta’s tumultuous years through the eyes of Satyajit Ray’, promised something quite different from what the piece eventually delivered. One wishes the writer would have been somewhat more focussed on his theme. Nevertheless, we are grateful to Nilanjan for reminding us that the year ‘Naxalbari’ broke on the Indian scene also was when the US stepped up on its murderous assault on Vietnam.

  • Amitabha Basu

    The point that the author makes — opposing a government is no crime — is well illustrated by the example of the legendary Muhammad Ali. But the long description of the hero of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pratidwandi’ opposing the war in Vietnam, and the mention of Mrinal Sen’s movies in the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s but subsequently no further commentary on them, makes the reading of the article somewhat disjointed and incoherent. Overall, the points the author makes about the right to dissent and oppose the ruling circles are well taken.