What India Learns about Hitler and the Holocaust
By Anubhav Roy
The society that is India possessively prides its vibrant diversity. That diversity, estimably, percolates beyond its social fabric – the multiplex mesh of communities, creeds, and cultures – into the realm of political preferences. There are few federal structures in the world that harmoniously allow hammer-and-sickle ideologues to govern provincially while their blood-and-soil rivals helm the federation centrally. Politically, the Indian democracy is a factional free-market, one that encourages ideological competition and contrast. It is perhaps why the land of Gandhian restraint ironically harbours a brewing current of Naziphilia. As evidence prima facie, the Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s biographical manifesto, dreaded and banned widely for essentially being the incendiary handbook of National Socialism, finds a bit too much fascination in India for the onlooker’s comfort.
In 1988, the most familiar Indian edition of the Mein Kampf was first pushed into circulation by Delhi’s Jaico Publishing House. By 2010, it sold its 100,000th copy. Today, of the eleven country-specific branches of Amazon.com, only India’s sub-portal features the Nazi bible amongst its list of top ten bestselling biographies. The trend, notably, is not exclusively elitist. Translated vernacular renditions of the Mein Kampf command their own readership. The Hindi, Mera Sangharsh (Main Street), the Marathi, Majha Ladha (Rajesh Prakashan), the Bengali, Mein Kampf Onubaad (Dey’s Publication), and the Tamil, Enathu Porattam (Shanti Publications) readily find shelves. Moreover, “t-shirts, key-rings, bags, home furnishings” boldly labelled with Nazi iconography, especially the Hakenkreuz (Swastika to Hindus), are no rarity at India’s street-side bazaars. Sociologist Suman Gupta spots a casual peppering of Hitler references across India’s popular culture, too, often used to allude to the “main and ultimately good protagonists” (2015, Ch. 4, Sec. 2). Worryingly, India’s youth appear to be most smitten by the Nazi stains on history.
A Times of India survey, in December 2002, unveiled that nearly a fifth of the students polled at top colleges in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru “favoured Adolf Hitler as the kind of leader India ought to have” (Joshi 2002). Crossword, the bookstore chain, confirmed that at their Mumbai outlets, about “70 per cent [of the Mein Kampf’s buyers are] male [and in] the age group of 18-35” (NDTV 2010). BBC’s Zubair Ahmed notes that “Hitler, [pictured] as a committed patriot […] who can solve problems,” galvanizes India’s youth, who are “faced with a lot of problems” themselves (Ahmed 2010). Since a simplified reminiscing of the Nazi Fuehrer may well exemplify leadership, Gupta underscores that the most consistent Indian consumers of the Mein Kampf are seen to be business management students (2015, Ch. 4, Sec. 2). For many a speculator, the paradigm has a dubious political pedigree.
As Kris Manjapra shows with painstaking detail, the early strands of Indo-German cultural-intellectual exchanges eventually mutated, by the turn of the 20th century, into an ambitious “collaboration […] to destroy the nineteenth-century world order organized by British power” (Manjapra 2014, 1). Between the Wilhelmine Crown’s liberal aid to diasporic and clandestine Indian revolutionary factions during the First World War and Nazi Berlin’s refuge to Subhash Chandra Bose amidst the Second World War, German nationalism garnered ample Indian patrons. When Nazism began to drive that loyalism, India’s ethno-nationalists – especially the majoritarian Hindus – arose to applaud. Vinayak D. Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha labelled the Jewish minority of Germany ‘communal’, just as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Madhav S. Golwalkar declared the Nazi persecutions “a good lesson for us [Hindus]” (Casolari 2000, 212-28). Likewise, Asit K. Mukherji established the New Mercury outfit in Bengal, which aimed to “champion Aryanism and anti-British sentiment.” He was married to Savitri Devi, the vociferous Nazi apologist (Manjapra 2014, 117-19).
The premise of linking the prevailing fandom towards Nazi figures and facets in India to the majoritarian Hindu Right’s thought may, nonetheless, face certain contestations. First, the Indian National Congress, which remained the most influential political voice of India’s anti-colonial movement, trumpeted a worldview staunchly anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist. Second, the early Hindu nationalists also, and quite craftily, backed the Zionist cause. By 1947, as a case in point, Savarkar was found advocating “the whole of Palestine [as] the National Home of the Jewish people” (Quraiza 2004, 12). Third, after the controversial assassination of Gandhi in 1948, the majoritarian Hindu Right, led by the RSS, slipped to the margins of mainstream electoral politics in India and remained there till their gradual claw back with the reactionary Ram Mandir movement of the 1990s. Thus, while the seeds of sympathy for Nazism in India may be traced to the notorieties of Hindu ethno-nationalism – as done, at length, by Marzia Casolari (2000) – credible evidence to establish that the latter’s hand solely nurtured the former across generations may be lacking or inconclusive at best.
What, then, causes a vast number of Indians to misunderstand and even absolve Hitler? While the bid to isolate a single causality may prove a non-starter, a prime suspect may be more structural in nature. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the electoral mast of India’s Hindu Right – seems wary of the public relations’ perils of favouring Hitler, visibly reluctant to cite him (FP 2014). Those who do possess an informed comprehension about the grotesque extents of the Third Reich and the Nazi ideology are likely to reject Naziphilia for the taboo that it has deservedly become, unless they seek to be tagged as neo-Fascists. Above all, the Holocaust – the industrial genocide of six million European Jews, among others – is the non-negotiable blot on Hitler’s résumé that ought to earn him perennial outrage. Is the commoner in India, however, adequately aware about the mass atrocities engineered by the figure he stands bedazzled by? The answer may lie at the grassroots of India’s historiography.
In his critical examination of the brow-raising phenomenon, Josh Scheinert postulates that “Hitler’s legacy [in India is] removed from the traumas [of] the Holocaust” (Scheinert 2014). How accurate is such an assertion? In India, a paltry chunk of students get to, or choose to, pursue collegiate studies and an even smaller fraction of them gets a degree-level taste of the social sciences. Consequently, the larger part of the educated masses gathers most of its history at school. India, though, continues to botch its schooling priorities, with lacking infrastructure, archaic teaching methods, and curricula dominated by rote-encouraging syllabi still at large. A case of high concern is that of history textbooks, which remain vulnerable to lazy drafting and politicization even at advanced high school levels. The National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) – the central body for textbook designing in the country – does, however, set appreciable benchmarks of Holocaust education.
The standard NCERT textbook for class IX provides an elaborate, critically engaging account of Nazism. In the chapter dedicated to it, the Holocaust commands an entire sub-section, titled, ‘Knowledge about the Holocaust’, which is explicit in its definition of the Holocaust as the extermination of “six million Jews, 200,000 gypsies, one million Polish civilians […],” amongst other victims. The chapter, on the whole, prods its adolescent, impressionable reader to keep revisiting the tragedy through provoking prompts such as an image from the Warsaw ghetto or the moving testimony of an Auschwitz survivor. It also harps on vital chords of Holocaust studies, like Martin Niemoeller’s ‘First They Came’, Charlotte Beradt’s diary, the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitic propaganda, supremacist theories about Aryanism, the horrors of the concentration camps (KZs) and the Nuremburg trials (NCERT 2014, 61-72). Quite sadly, however, the NCERT’s textbooks are mandated by the federal state for only those institutions affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), which are largely urban and form a mere 15% (CBSE n.d.) of the 130,000 schools recognized nationwide (Dhawan and TNN 2013). Provincial schooling boards, unlike those of Assam, Mizoram, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan, do not usually replicate or reissue NCERT-made study material.
It is at the provincial tier that textbook quality falls to the barrel’s bottom. The narratives constituting the provincially-produced history textbooks often end up in the rut of political omissions and commissions, slipshod contextualization, and messy factual errors. The history textbook for class IX sponsored by the Punjab School Education Board, for instance, claims the ‘Nazis were atheists’ and the “Nazi Party […] agreed on the equality of citizens,” while extolling Nazi industry and agriculture without countervailing reprimand. The textbook hazardously foregoes mentioning the Holocaust, proposing that the Nazis merely ‘wanted to exterminate’ the Jews (Singh and Bhatia 2016, 91-93). The counterpart availed to the state-schooled adolescents of class X across Maharashtra similarly advocates that Hitler “taught [German] citizens a lesson of sacrifice for the sake of the nation” in an uncritical manner and scandalously tucks a passing reference to ‘lakhs of Jews [being] killed’ within an ironical passage aggrandizing Nazi Germany’s technical prowess (Humpe, et al. 2014, 26-27). Unlike Punjab’s, notably, Maharashtra’s edition was drafted in 2014, while the province was under the liberal Centrist Congress Party’s rule.
Tamil Nadu’s secondary education board devotes two entire chapters, in its most advanced reference material for history, to the rise of Fascism and the Second World War. Yet, neither spares space for the Holocaust, with the latter only stating that the Nazis utilized “repressive measures for the economic and cultural boycott of the Jews” (TNTESC 2015, 321). Kerala – one of India’s few remaining provincial bastions of the Left – lets its schooling board issue a history textbook that contains a unified chapter on the Second World War and the Cold War, which strangely conceals a thrifty mention of the ‘annihilation of the Jews’ within a dialogue-box on Operation Barbarossa (Kerala 2011, 80). In contrast, high school-goers in Gujarat – a familiar fortress of the Hindu Right – are allowed to learn the term ‘Holocaust’ as the “genocide [of] innumerable European Jews.” Its textbooks also submit that Nazi “policies were targeted at exterminating Jews […] in the name of purification of the German race” (Qureshi, et al. 2016, 15). Gujarat, though, is no stranger to textbook controversies – ones often ascribed to politicization – a piercing assessment of which can be found in Nirantar’s Textbook Regimes (Manjrekar, et al. 2010). An ancestor of Gujarat’s class X history textbook had drawn flak for painting a “frighteningly uncritical picture of Fascism and Nazism.” It had to be revised in 2004 after a human rights activist litigated against it (Mehtal 2004).
Evidently, even in Internet-age India, the very roots of historiography appear to be rotting away, despite schools being the only vestiges of learning history for many an Indian. In non-NCERT textbooks, especially those provincially drafted for locally suited consumption, the often flawed narratives of the past serve glaring specimens of the historian’s bias at work. To add to the holes in them, the quality of teachers and teaching in India remains pitiable, as absenteeism and mediocrity still plague the nation’s educator class. A noted 2016 survey of 425,000 school teachers in Karnataka revealed that nearly half of them were not even graduates (Murali 2016). Thus, those entasked to help students read between the lines and grasp the gravity of the evil that men do may get caught napping. When the nation’s youngest minds are fed dangerously defective versions of the Nazi shadow over Europe, their oblivion towards the Holocaust and the atrocities attributed to Hitler’s regime persists unchallenged as they mature. Hitler’s legacy sans the Holocaust is an invitation to the reimagining of him as a masterful manager than a marauding malefactor.
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Anubhav Roy is a Research Analyst for Hardeep S. Puri, India’s former Permanent Representative to the UN. Alongside, he assists the India chapter of ‘JudgingHistories’, a joint WWII historiography project of the European Research Council and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also edits for the online journal, E-International Relations.
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