Hitler is considered historically heinous by most of humanity, but in the last few years India has been witness to the advent in his popularity.
Last month, Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, an Assistant Professor at the Department of History & Civilization at Gautam Buddha University in India, and scholar of the history of the Jewish communities in India, concluded a lecture tour in Israel. During the trip, he gave a talk titled “The Rise of Hitler’s Popularity in India” at Tel Aviv University. He notes that “India is the only country in the world where Jews have lived with their non-Jewish neighbours in complete harmony for more than two millennia. Jews are India’s smallest religious minority and Muslims its biggest, and the two have produced beautiful examples of amity, unlike anywhere else in the world.”
The phenomenon of Hitler’s growing popularity in India is a paradox because of the absence of Anti-Semitism in India. Yet, though the country has hardly known Jew hatred, sales of Hitler’s Mein Kampf have risen over 15% in the last decade. The name “Aryan” is becoming a popular first name in India, and “Hitler” is the name of the protagonist in many a Bollywood production.
Dr. Aafreedi offered a few explanations. Unlike modern-day neo-Nazis who idealize Hitler for the racist ideology he espoused and for his persecution of the Jews, Indians who respect Hitler do so as a result of misinformation. “It can be ascribed to the absence of Jewish Studies in India, where Islamic Studies are available at almost all major Indian universities. The level of ignorance among Indians about Jews is hysterical and the state has been unwilling to introduce Jewish Studies in India, whereas in the neighboring country China, Jewish Studies are available at ten of its universities,” he says. He explains that Indians are largely ignorant of the Holocaust, and therefore “tend to see it as a justified collateral damage for the greater good of Germany, influenced as they are by the way Hitler is often projected as a hero by the Hindu right wing.”
He observes that “Most of the Indians do not even know about the Jews, let alone the Holocaust. Among the section of the Indian population that is aware of the Holocaust, there are many who have fallen into the trap of the Holocaust deniers and have started either doubting it as a whole or just its scale.” Also as a result of this misinformation, many Indians believe that the Axis powers of World War II were partially responsible for the establishment of India’s independence from the British in 1947. It is believed that Hitler’s battle with the Allies forced Britain to focus their resources in Europe and Britain was unable to maintain control over a territory as large as India, which left room for an Indian independence movement. Subhas Chandra Rose, a key figure of the Indian independence movement, collaborated with Axis powers to raise an army to fight the British.
Another reason says Aafreedi is the younger generation’s great desire for strong leadership and the lack of good examples.
Dr. Aafreedi believes that the key to combating this situation is in education. “I promote Jewish Studies in India, the study of Jewish history, culture and religion. It is just not possible to understand the two most widely practiced religions, Christianity and Islam, without a study of Judaism, the oldest of the three Semitic monotheistic religions. It is important for any nation to appreciate and recognize the contributions made to it by its religious minorities. If this does not happen, the society becomes intolerant towards minorities which has grave consequences not just for the minorities but also for the majority community. In India, Jews happen to be the smallest religious minority and the Muslims, the biggest. As a result of their small numbers, most of the Indians know them only through secondary sources, which are mostly unreliable, and not as a result of any direct contact with them. Ignorance gives birth to stereotypes and misconceptions, and hatred thrives on falsehood. Hence, it becomes very important to promote Jewish Studies in India. If this is not done, we would neglect one-sixth of mankind.”
Hitler’s Mein Kampf is available in almost all Indian dialects, but the only book on the Holocaust in India’s national language, Hindi, is a FAQ collection about the Holocaust published by Yad Vashem. Dr. Aafreedi has worked and continues to work to spread accurate information about Judaism and the Holocaust in India. He has organized cross-cultural and international student dialogues at the University of Lucknow. There he also invited Jewish authors and filmmakers to speak about their works and brought a number of Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism. “I believe that if awareness is created through the spread of information,” he says, “it can help in eliminating many misconceptions that people have.”
However, he has met resistance in his work. “Since I started working as an Assistant Professor, I have designed a number of courses with Jewish themes embedded in them in a camouflaged manner, as I failed to get approval for my proposed courses focused on Jewish themes and on the Shoah. It is hard to get approval for such courses in Indian academia as the administration fears that it might lose the goodwill of its political masters if any action of theirs has a detrimental effect on their political masters’ Muslim votes.” Muslims in India do not know that Arabs enjoy equality and high standards of living in Israel, and believe that the mosques on the Mount are closed to Muslims as a result of Israeli control. Because of such misinformation, Indian political parties limit expressions of support for Israel likely because of their fear that the large Muslim population will turn against them.
Yet Aafreedi still finds ways to inform his students of the truth. In a History of Science and Technology class he once taught to engineering students, for example, he assigned a paper asking students to analyze the misuse of technology during the Holocaust. He also introduced a series of weekly film screenings at the university, where he shows movies on the Holocaust and other Jewish themes.
“I made a serious effort to eliminate misconceptions and to bring into sharp focus the Jewish contributions to the world,” he says of his work. He concluded, stating: “I ask the world to help me in my endeavour to remove hatred and to promote peace through the spread of knowledge.”