Understanding Hitler in India
Behind the Hitler-themed controversies in India
The Indian Express is reporting a story today involving a men’s garment store in Ahmedabad, India, and Hitler. What do the two have in common? Well, the store is named after Hitler and the Jewish community there is not pleased about it. According to the article, ten or twelve members of the community went to visit the store’s owner to persuade him to change the name.
“It was a friendly meeting. We tried to convince Rajeshbhai (Rajesh Shah) to change the name of his store, but he refused. He, however, said he does not mind changing the Nazi Swastika on the board in front of his store to a Hindu swastika,” said Menasseh Solomon, secretary of the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad’s Khamasa neighbourhood.
“He (Rajesh) said his concept was never to hurt the community, and he feigned ignorance about Hitler… But after we left, we began to believe that he may have been aware about all this and was just pretending to be ignorant,” he added.
The word is that the owner is not willing to change the name because of the expenses incurred while printing business cards and registering the business.
I immediately distrusted my knee-jerk reactions to this story and so to shed some light on this situation, I dropped the writer and documentary filmmaker Sadia Shepard a line. Shepard went to India in the days following September 11th on a Fulbright scholarship and lived among the Bene Israel Jewish community, a community of which her grandmother was a member. She made a film and wrote a fantastic book about her year there. It reveals the practice and culture of a Jewish community that few people seem know about and gives invaluable context to stories like the one we’re hearing about today. (Shepard was also featured on Vox Tablet back in 2008.)
She emphasized the following ideas:
The story of the Jews of India has been almost entirely one of peaceful assimilation. As she points out (and experienced), Jewish populations in India have rarely, if ever, encountered violence at the hands of the state, dating back to British rule. Owing to this history, the 2008 attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai struck a particularly devastating tenor because it was the first attack of its kind on the Jewish population.
Shepard also signaled that the location in question–the state of Gujarat–was particularly relevant to the story because it has recently been a venue for anti-Muslim race riots, including a 2002 conflagration that killed nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. An interesting aside: Gandhi was also from this region.
She suggests that a fascination with Hitler may persist because they are some parts of the population that have found parallels between Hitler’s view of racial purity and the desire of some to have a state that is entirely Hindu, a desire that was nurtured by the British before the partition of India and Pakistan and has relevance to the caste system.
As a parallel to this story, in 2009 there was a controversy centering on the use of Hitler’s infamous anti-Semitic screed Mein Kampf, not only among right-wing nationalist political leaders, but also, bizarrely enough, among Indian business students who dispassionately view the book as the diary of an extremely effective manager (perhaps because both the color of all of Hitler’s parachutes and the person standing accused of moving his cheese were already predetermined).
Even if this story doesn’t have the immediate or conventional timbre of the anti-Semitism to which we’ve grown accused, obviously it’s never a good thing when Hitler’s ideas, name, or managerial imago are invoked by anyone.
Related: The Third Way [Tablet Magazine]
Jewish group urges Hitler owner to change shop’s name [Indian Express]
Divide and Rule [The Economist]
Indian business students snap up copies of ‘Mein Kampf’ [Guardian]
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