Column | The flag fiasco on Capitol Hill

'Poll fraud shouldn't be new norm in US,' says Tricolour-waving Keralite at Capitol storming

This is the story of a young man, who was born near Kochi and completed his schooling at St Thomas High School and Sacred Heart High School in Thevara. After his graduation as an engineer from Thrissur, he worked as a project engineer at the Kerala Industrial and Technical Consultancy Organisation in Kochi and another year as a site engineer in Saudi Arabia. Then he moved to the United States after securing admission for a Master's in Civil Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. He went on to work with the Maryland State Highway Administration, Metro Washington Council of Governments and Fannie Mae. In 1998, he started "Amaram" Technology, providing IT support to businesses and government bodies.

Having established himself as a prosperous businessman, he began to work in the Indian community and also started a political think tank, the Indo-American Centre. He became a committed Republican and staunch supporter of Donald Trump in 2016, campaigned for him and rejoiced over his victory. He worked on a number of projects for Kerala under the auspices of the Federation of Malayalee Associations of Americas or FOMAA. On Indian politics, though he describes himself as "neutral" on social media, he has been extremely critical of the Left Front in Kerala.

He is Vinson (Vincent) Xavier Palathingal, who was spotted with an Indian national flag in one hand and an American flag in the other among the thousands of Trump supporters who went to the Capitol Hill to protest against what they called was a fraudulent election. But it was clear from the beginning that Trump had kept his boys on standby to prevent the Congress from confirming the election results by invading the Capitol. "I think the violence robbed from us any chances of a serious objection and a rational discussion in the Congress," he wrote on his Facebook profile. He said that he protested outside and didn't go inside the Capitol as "it was illegal". There were other Indian Americans with the tricolour, but Vinson was the only one who admitted on social media that he carried the Indian flag to show that Indians were also among the Trump supporters.

Rebuked widely

Today, Vinson stands criticised and even condemned by the Indian public and the media on two counts. First, for joining the protests, which were clearly aimed at stopping the US Congress from certifying the elections. He should have known that it was a motley crowd of white supremacists and other goons, who were ready to kill. Second, for carrying the Indian national flag to the Capitol Hill, dragging the Indian nation into the fray. As an American national, he should have carried an American flag or any of the other flags being carried by the Trump’s men. Even after Vinson publicly stated that he has great respect for the Indian flag, no one is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Media has been demanding an apology for his actions. All political parties in India, including the ruling party, which had supported Trump till the elections, are against Vinson's action. Some lawyers have even moved a court in Delhi. But Vinson expects the people of India to understand his harmless intentions and exonerate him.

No offence as such

In fact, Vinson has not violated any law of the US or India. At worst, he is guilty of showing disrespect to the Indian flag, but it is common practice for immigrants to fly their national flags on ceremonial occasions to make their presence felt. The flag code is much more liberal in the United States than in India. Americans make shorts, bikinis and masks with the stars and stripes on them. But the instant negative reaction in India and among Indian Americans, who were Trump supporters, cannot be ignored. He will also get no support from the demonstrators as they would attach no significance to his action. The Indian flag would have been lost in the multitude of flags they were carrying if the Indian media had not picked it up and Vinson had not owned it up.

Flags too are potent weapons

Flags are a portable and potent weapon in American politics. Any piece of cloth of any colour, once a picture, line or lettering is put on it, becomes a symbol even if they are not identified with any party or sect. Many in the mob who stormed the US Capitol came armed with them. There were large election banners, battle colours from the American Civil War, neo-Nazi flare, Christian symbols, and a smattering of national and state flags. Seen as a whole, they serve as a twisted ideological symbol for those who believe that the US election was stolen from incumbent president Donald Trump. Historians point out that, of the various flags paraded around on the Hill, the most incendiary was a battle pennant from the Confederate army. Widely appropriated by white supremacists as a hate symbol, the "Southern Cross" never has been paraded publicly inside the Capitol before. For an Indian flag to be part of this medley was inappropriate, even if the carriers of the flag did it out of “patriotism.”

Insurrection and its aftermath

The flag fiasco was only a footnote to the insurrection ordered by Trump, which could be a devastating tragedy. Many rushed into the chambers with loaded rifles and grenades and the Congressmen and the Vice President had to be taken to safety. If the Vice President had not insisted on staying on to perform his constitutional responsibilities, things would have gone the way Trump wanted. The law enforcement authorities clearly failed to prevent the attack, but it was contained.

The impact of the events was that Trump himself realised how foolish he was to have unleashed his minions into the citadel of democracy and quickly condemned the attack and pledged a peaceful transition. But it was too little too late. In the few days that remain for President Trump, avenues are being explored to remove him either through the 25th Amendment or through the impeachment process. Pence thinks that the 25th Amendment should be used only if Trump becomes more unstable. Impeachment proceedings have been initiated, but time is not enough for impeachment. What Trump desires is a general pardon to escape imprisonment and this must be on the cards in the remaining days until the presidential handover on January 20.

We can expect the dark days in the history of the US to end so that incoming President Joe Biden can deal with the still-raging COVID pandemic in right earnest.

As expected, the US has survived its worst challenge by continuing the democratic process without being overwhelmed by the machinations of an individual. If anything, 2021 will be remembered as the year of the liberation of America from an evil empire.

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