July 2008. I was on a cycling expedition, from the southernmost tip of India to its most northern state. Along the way, I took a pit stop at Nagpur, the geographic center of India and the epicenter of Hindu nationalism. There, I saw a building with a bizarre name: "Hitlers Den." A pool parlor, its walls were emblazoned with tacky Nazi insignia, and on its shopfront – a swastika on full public display.
The swastika is not an unusual symbol in India. It’s ubiquitous. Markets, shops, homes, temples, vehicles, notebooks, property documents and even shaved heads are smeared with vermilion or turmeric swastikas, often with the words "Shubh Labh," meaning "good fortune."
But this was most definitely Hitler’s Nazi swastika - a tilted version of the Hindu swastika on a black background. This blatant display of Nazi symbolism was odd. What was "Hitler’s Den" doing in the middle of Nagpur? I wondered. I brushed it off as stupidity and cycled on.
Ironically, Hitler – the genocidal maniac who murdered more than six million Jews, who propagated a Nazi ideology that promoted hatred, Aryan racial puritanism and white supremacy – continues to find many followers in India, a nation of predominantly brown-skinned people.
Here, Hitler’s brand of fascism has taken on a distinctly Indian flavour, authenticated with a combination of ethnic hatred and Hindu nationalism, in stark contrast to the principles of ahimsa (non-violence) that accompanied India's freedom struggle.
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Recently, browsing through Facebook threw up an eerie shock. "Hari Om Heil Hitler," said a post next to an image of a young Hitler, followed by a paean to Aryan values. The cover picture read, "Aum, Hail Aryan, Hail Aryavart," meaning "Hail Aryans, Hail Land of the Aryans." On display is his German screen name – "Kemradschaft Jeet."
His feed is full of Nazi insignia with images of Hitler and graphics of Vishnu, a Hindu god known for several reincarnations. "Adolf Hitler, the ultimate avatar," said one image. "India’s Swastika God," said another. Their posts reflect an oft-repeated theory in neo-Nazi web forums, that Hitler was a reincarnation of Vishnu.
Vile anti-Semitic obloquy accompanied it: "Germany is now a Rabbit under the shelter of Jewish Finance," "With the Hollywood movie industry and the majority of U.S. television networks, newspapers and publishing houses Jewish-owned, for nearly 70 years, the demonization of Adolf Hitler has been almost relentless."
His friends comment in chorus: "Jai Shree Ram, Heil Hitler" ("Hail Shree Ram, Heil Hitler"), "Nazi the great," "Hitler was supporter of Indian Nationalist." Many of them shared a YouTube video with over 100,000 hits, entitled "Adolf Hitler, The Greatest Story Never Told," alongside the salutation "Jai Hind" ("Victory to India," an independence-era slogan.)
These posts are a putrid mix of anti-Semitic racism, misogyny and extreme Hindu nationalism. Evoking the widely held myth of Aryan racial superiority (appropriated to refer to "Aryan" Indians) and the Nazi propaganda of the "sacralization of terror, embodied in the Kshatriya code and the Bhagavad-Gita," these posts reflect the belief that Hitler was born to end Kali Yuga, the dark age of Hindu mythology.
As one post reads: "If we go to North East [of India] we find mixed races of Mongoloids and many more cases where pure Aryan bloodline was lost."
Digging into social media reveals that there is a large and growing community of Indian Hindu Nazis, who are digitally connected to neo-Nazi counterparts across the world.
Other social media sites and online platforms too had their share of strange, yet fanatical admiration for Hitler, reframed with Hindu nationalism. "Hitler was great," said "Hindu Hitler" on rediff.com, a popular Indian web portal. "I too love Hitler and am one of his biggest fans! Hail Hitler!" said one comment on a YouTube channel run by NewsX, a 24-hour English-language news television channel in India. I also found India-based WhatsApp groups discussing Hitler’s "positive contributions." They portrayed him as Germany’s great leader, a "patriotic nationalist," who "punished the "traitors."
This strange adulation for Hitler has already gone beyond social media and entered our educational system. Schools across India have, wittingly or not, propagated Hitler’s "achievements."
In 2004, when now-Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, school textbooks published by the Gujarat State Board portrayed Hitler as a hero, and glorifyied fascism. The tenth-grade social studies textbook had chapters entitled "Hitler, the Supremo," and "Internal Achievements of Nazism." The section on the "Ideology of Nazism" reads:
"Hitler lent dignity and prestige to the German government. He adopted the policy of opposition towards the Jewish people and advocated the supremacy of the German race."
The tenth-grade social studies textbook, published by the state of Tamil Nadu in 2011 (with multiple revised editions until 2017) includes chapters glorifying Hitler, praising his "inspiring leadership," "achievements" and how the Nazis "glorified the German state" so, "to maintain a German race with Nordic elements, [Hitler] ordered the Jews to be persecuted."
In 2012, when tenth-grade students taking French lessons at a private school in Mumbai were asked to complete a sentence starting with “J’admire” followed by the name of the historical figure they admired most, nine out of 25 students picked Hitler. Students in the south Indian city of Madurai justified their admiration for Hitler, without even knowing that he was the leader of Germany.
Mein Kampf has also gone mainstream, becoming a "must-read" management strategy book for India’s business school students. Professors teaching strategy lecture about how a short, depressed man in prison made a goal of taking over the world and built a strategy to achieve it.
This infamous polemic remains a money-spinner for publishers. English-language editions of Mein Kampf are published by a number of reputable Indian publishing houses, such as Jaico, Printline, Indialog, Maple Press, Mastermind, Prakash, Om Books, Rohan, Adarsh, Ajay, Embassy, Lexicon and Wilco. They fill bookshelves at airports, bookstores and online marketplaces, while cheap pirated versions fill pavement stalls in major cities. Crossword, the Indian book-retailing chain, has sold 25,000 copies in three years. Jaico alone sold 100,000 copies in seven years. It has also been translated into multiple Indian languages – Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali and Tamil – and those editions are sold across India.
It is certainly alarming that young people think it’s "cool" to admire a murderous maniac. Is it the result of the naivety of youth, or of a sustained campaign of political patronage by Hindu nationalists?
In casual conversations, a surprising number of well-read, globe-trotting Indians shared a respectful, almost fanatical, admiration for Hitler. "This country needs a dictator like Hitler," is a common trope I have heard from well-educated Indians with degrees from some of the best universities in the world. A poll conducted by the Times of India in 2002 found that 17 percent favored Adolf Hitler as "the kind of leader India ought to have." It is not surprising then, that ice creams, pool parlors, restaurants, clothing stores, home furnishing stores, films and television shows have all chosen to use "Hitler" or "Nazi" as their brand names.
Several Indian politicians have built formidable careers evoking Hitler’s ideology and publicly professing their admiration for him. "It is a Hitler that is needed in India today," said Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Hindu extremist outfit Shiv Sena, in 1967.
Known for his exceptional bigotry, xenophobia and hate-mongering, his fascist ideology is eerily similar to, if not an exact replica of, the genocidal Nazi ideology. He has a track record of inciting tensions among Mumbai’s communities, urging Hindus to form suicide squads to kill Muslims. But he hasn't stopped at "tactical" acts of violence: He has created a distinct brand of Hindu fascism which explicitly seeks inspiration in Nazi genocide.
"There is nothing wrong," he said in a chilling interview in 1993 with Time magazine, "if Muslims are treated as Jews were in Nazi Germany." Citing Hitler’s infamous polemic, he tried to apply fascist ideology in the Indian context. “If you take Mein Kampf and if you remove the word 'Jew' and put in the word 'Muslim', that is what I believe in,” he said.
His nephew and political successor, Raj Thackeray, took the baton. Speaking to journalists in 2009, he made this statement: "When it comes to organizational skills, there are few who can rival Hitler ... there are several other things about Hitler, which any leader would envy."
Nagpur, where I saw "Hitlers Den," the pool parlor, has a unique connection to the Nazi leader. Here, he is a great hero for the leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing Hindu organization headquartered in the city. It’s the group from which current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and also Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi, emerged.
VD Savarkar, an extreme Hindu nationalist and early mentor of the RSS, had a great liking for Hitler’s Nazism and supported Hitler’s anti-Jewish pogroms. "There is no reason to suppose that Hitler must be a human monster because he passes off as a Nazi," he said, addressing a Hindu gathering in 1940, adding, "Nazism proved undeniably the savior of Germany." Seeking to purge Muslims from India, he wrote: "If we Hindus in India grow stronger, in time these Muslim friends of the League type will have to play the part of German-Jews instead."
This fanatical admiration for Hitler and his genocidal agenda is not an aberration. It was, and still is, endemic among the RSS leadership. MS Golwalkar, another early RSS leader, also known as the "Guru of Hate," idolized Hitler’s Nazi cultural nationalism, and wanted to create a Hindu nation by adopting Hitler’s totalitarian and fascist pattern. In his 1939 book, We, Our Nationhood Defined, he wrote:
"German race pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races - the Jews ... a good lesson for us in Hindustan for us to learn and profit by."
This is not a careless, thoughtless evocation, rather a carefully planned political move.
Banned three times and named a terrorist organization, the RSS has now regained political center stage with Modi’s prime ministership. With branches in more than 50,000 villages, there is growing support for a violent, fascist ideology.
A bizarre new strand of Hindu Nazism, particularly among the young, is rearing its ugly head. It’s menacing, to say the least. Its leaders boast of killing India’s minorities and beheading their political opponents, while promoting aggressive Hindu nationalism on narrow religious and ethnic terms.
A growing contempt for India’s minorities manifests itself racist remarks passed with casual insouciance.
It’s not uncommon to hear remarks such as "These bloody Jews/Rothschilds/Soros control the world/financial system/whole of Hollywood." The number of Jews in India is very small. Yet there is, despite a long-held belief to the contrary, anti-Semitism. "These Christian missionaries deserve to be hanged – they are only interested in conversions" is another frequent comment. Only 2.4% of India’s population is Christian. Yet they are constantly attacked. When it comes to India's Muslims, the invective is multiplied exponentially.
How can so many Hindu Indians be convinced that they suffer second-class status in a country where they number almost 82% of the population?
As Khushwanth Singh wrote in 2003, "The juggernaut of Hindu fundamentalism has emerged from the temple of intolerance, and is on its yatra [on the march]. ... The fascist agenda of Hindu fanatics is unlike anything we have experienced in our modern history."
The idea of India is based on the foundations of communal harmony, mutual respect and secular values. Now, it's up to us to ensure our Indian political parties and constituencies don’t hijack Hinduism, a peaceful religion, with a repurposed Nazism that advocates the same genocidal intentions as Hitler, but this time round directed at our own minority communities.
A Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and an alumnus of the London School of Economics, Shrenik Rao is a digital entrepreneur and filmmaker. Rao revived the Madras Courier, a 232-year-old newspaper, as a digital publication of which he is the Editor-in-Chief. Twitter: @ShrenikRao
This article has been co-published with the Madras Courier.