Last December 15, students at Jamia Millia Islamia, a prominent university in New Delhi, were peacefully demonstrating against passage of India’s new citizenship law when the police bludgeoned their way onto the campus, broke furniture and bones — and fired tear gas into the main library. Later that night, thousands of students from across Delhi gathered at the police headquarters to protest. Just outside the building, someone spray-painted the police signpost with a swastika.
The Nazi symbol has made a number of appearances as a mark of dissent In the protests that have spread across India over the past two months, since the law’s passage on December 7. This is not the upright Hindu swastika, a ubiquitous religious symbol in India, but the tilted Nazi version of it, deployed by demonstrators to point out what they see as the fascistic tendencies of the Indian government.
Protesters believe that the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants – specifically, those who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian – who fled persecution from neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh prior to 2015, while denying the same privilege to Muslims, is the most brazen and unequivocal step taken to date to advance realization of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of turning secular democratic India into what opponents call a fascist Hindu state.
Embattled Kashmir has been under lockdown since August, a move that followed Modi’s landslide re-election last May; the increasingly pliant Supreme Court, once seen as a guarantor of minority rights in the country, late last year decided to pave the way for construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a 16th-century mosque demolished by a Hindu mob in the north-Indian city of Ayodhya in 1992; and a long-deferred plan to undertake a citizenship survey in Assam, a large state in northeastern India, was finally undertaken, resulting in 1.9 million out of a total of 30 million residents being declared stateless, nearly half of them Hindus. But Indians on the whole seemed largely apathetic to the developments.
On its own, the exclusion of Muslims injects religious discrimination into Indian law. Added to that is the apprehension caused by the government’s plan to roll out two new databases – the National Population Register and, later, the National Register of Citizens, which will require all Indians to supply documentation of one sort of another to prove their citizenship.
The combination of the new legislation and the two databases is seen by millions of people in India’s major cities as a way to disenfranchise India’s 220 million Muslims and render them stateless, and also to strip the rights of the country’s landless majority, the Dalits (the lowest and most marginalized Hindu caste, though caste divisions are nomially outlawed), members of indigenous tribes and what are called “Other Backward Classes.”
Indians and their bureaucracy are notoriously inept at record-keeping. Identity documents – which many Indians do not have – are often full of errors, and, with institution of the new databases, the large landless and unlettered population is especially at risk, and may not even know it. The new law has safeguards for non-Muslims who lack proper documentation, since it allows them to still be eligible citizenship, but Muslims fear it will leave them vulnerable to being declared illegal.
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Protesters are convinced that these are just the beginning of what they see as a set of measures that will constitute the Indian equivalent to the Nuremberg Laws (by which the Third Reich disenfranchised and segregated Jews and other minorities), which will ultimately deny citizenship to Muslims, and others. In cities around the country, demonstrators have recited the preamble to the Indian Constitution, sung the national anthem, waved the Indian flag. They call for azadi (Hindi for “freedom”), and invoke India’s struggle for independence from the British. They carry portraits of such Indian freedom fighters as Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh – and posters that pair Modi’s image with that of Hitler. The same image has featured in graffiti and been shared on social media. Indians have also been treated to images of Modi in a Nazi uniform, Hitler with Modi’s beard, and the two men being depicted like “Titanic” characters Jack and Rose on the deck of the sinking vessel.
For his part, Dhil Krishna, a 21-year-old fine arts student in Kerala, has depicted Modi and Hitler as the lovers in Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” The idea is not to equate the two men, he says: “Hitler was a monster,” whereas Modi is just a demagogic politician who is being seduced by fascism. The religious division of India under Modi is “like what Hitler did with the Jews,” Krishna tells Haaretz. “I think he’s a fan of Hitler and trying to imitate him.”
There is a long tradition of comparing right-wing Hindu nationalism with Nazism. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an ultra-nationalist, Hindu paramilitary organization, with five million members and 57,000 branches worldwide, is the parent organization of Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party. Founders of the extremist RSS, formed in 1925 to lobby for a Hindu state, had great admiration for European fascism, and specifically for Hitler and Mussolini. This affiliation has often been mentioned by the opposition in attempts to counter the nationalism of the ruling BJP. For example, in the parliament in 2015, communist leader Sitaram Yechury quoted disapprovingly from “We or Our Nationhood Defined,” the 1939 book by M.S. Golwalkar, an early RSS leader: “…To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of Semitic races – the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
A mask removed
“We keep thinking that people will be shocked, no? We keep pointing out the admiration RSS had for Hitler. And not just admiration, there was research showing the links [between Hindu nationalists and European fascism] in the ’30s,” says Sucheta Mahajan, a professor of modern Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the country’s premier liberal arts institution. “Within the RSS, [this admiration] remains – in their books, their schools and curriculum.” Although there were even leftist intellectuals who were sanguine, following his first election, that the BJP would be moderated by the compulsions of democratic politics – but instead the party seems to have been emboldened by Modi’s re-election, says Mahajan, who adds, “it’s like the mask is being taken off.” And because the government no longer feels the need to even appear moderate, its nationalist agenda is there for all to see, and its opponents feel free to express their condemnation.
In Assam, where the National Register for Citizens was put into place last year, 30 people have died in six immigrant-detention centers. Moreover, there have been well-documented reports of the government building additional centers in other states – although Modi denies this. It’s little wonder that such news, along with the furor over the citizenship law and the Nazi rhetoric, make people think of concentration camps. As activist Harsh Mander, who led a mission of the National Human Rights Commission to the detention centers, has put it, “We know that the silence or looking away of most non-Jewish Germans is what enabled the persecution of minorities and finally resulted in the Holocaust. In India we have to do everything to prevent things from going the same way.”
It seems that, with every new action of the authorities, and every speech, demonstrators see parallels with Nazism. Even hours before the police attack on the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi in December, the protest had turned violent in the city. At a state-election rally that day, Modi said that “those creating violence can be identified by their clothes” – seen by demonstrators as a reference to traditional Islamic garb. This was compared to the means of Nazi identification of Jews. On campus, police forced studentsto march out with hands in the air, there were those who compared the scene to the iconic image of a young Jewish boy surrendering in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
At a December protest in Chennai, in southern India, Jakob Lindenthal, a 23-year-old German student on an exchange program at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, carried a poster that warned, “1933 to 1945: We Have Been There.” There were many other references to Nazi at the protest, Lindenthal tells Haaretz. His participation in the protest was seen as violation of his student visa, and he was asked to leave the country immediately.
“I was not drawing a direct line, because the Holocaust must not be treated as a cheap reference point for all kinds of accusations against authoritarian governments,” Lindenthal explains in an email. “I meant the placard as a warning sign because there was a time when also the Nazis appeared like a fairly normal ultra-nationalist group with a dream of national greatness, with rhetoric similar to things BJP and RSS leaders say.”
For his part, for instance, Amit Shah, Modi’s minister of home affairs and president of his ruling party, raised red flags when he spoke of immigrants who “have spread across the country like termites and are eating away at our future.”
During the past month, protesters have regularly compared Shah and Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann.
“The Citizenship Amendment Act, paired with the National Register of Citizens, reeks of the racial purity laws passed by Hitler’s regime which led to the planned extermination of millions of people. We must ask ourselves, is the BJP govt leading us down the same path?” the opposition Congress party tweeted.
The parallels get drawn, according to Ghazala Jamil, an assistant professor of law at Jawaharlal Nehru University, by the students who initiated the movement, and are then picked up by frightened Muslims. Muslim activists also quote historian Hannah Arendt – “when one is attacked like a Jew, one must resist like a Jew” – and stress the importance of asserting their identity.
On December 11, hundreds of women and children pitched a tent In the Muslim neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh, in Delhi, and began a full-time, peaceful sit-in, which continues to this day. On some days, tens of thousands of people pour into the narrow alleyways here from all over the country. The protest, with its speeches and songs and slogans, has inspired similar demonstrations elsewhere.
On January 5, masked members of the student branch of the ultra-nationalist RSS entered the campus where Ghazala Jamil teaches, and attacked student and faculty demonstrators over a period of three hours, while the police stood by and watched; the student body president, among others, was brutally beaten. Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and former diplomat, tweeted, “This is unbelievable. These are tactics from Germany in the 1930s, not India in 2020. I implore the authorities to stop this. They are destroying Indian democracy as well as what remains of our nation’s image in the democratic world.”
Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, a BJP-dominated state (and India’s largest), where the chief minister has promised to exact “revenge” from protesters, more than 20 people have been killed in clashes with the police and thousands arrested since the law’s passage. Sadaf Jafar, a political activist who was arrested while filming a peaceful protest, claims she was tortured in police custody. “I felt like a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,” she said in an interview.
Last month, Suchitra Vijayan, a human rights’ lawyer who worked at the United Nations war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, tweeted a video of an armed RSS march, noting that “RSS is the ideological child of the SS. They are Nazis in Khaki uniforms.” It was retweeted 13,000 times.
Vijayan, who currently runs a policy and journalism nonprofit called the Polis Project in New York, says the Nazi analogy emerges out of the “larger globalization of the memory of the Holocaust.” While she sees the echoes of former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the trajectory of India, Vijayan notes that Indians themselves are famously insular: “We’re not taught much about what happened in those two countries or, for that matter, [about] the history of the Holocaust in any real sense.” In many ways, then, the speeches and art at protests also end up informing the masses about what happened in 1930s’ Germany.
Earlier this week, in parliament, MP Mahua Moitra, referring to recent commemorations internationally of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, argued that “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky.” She then went on to warn her fellow legislators that the crimes of the Holocaust occurred, “not only [because] of those who pressed the switch of the gas chamber but also — of those who sat back and watched when their neighbors were first marked out systematically and then dragged from their homes.” The various governmental measures meant to limit citizenship, she went on, “are all tools in this Machiavellian design to first mark out, then disenfranchise and finally annihilate.”
Some artists, however, refrain from employing such references. “There are a lot of parallels, but [using] just a direct parallel kind of stops us from understanding [the situation] in a more nuanced way,” says artist Orijit Sen. “I don’t think it’s going to be exactly like Nazi Germany, but it’s certainly a fearful situation. It could be worse.”
Some Instagram posts, like those of ArtofResistance, avoid such imagery, because, according to Sen, “the Nazi symbol is so assaulting, so jarring, that it would be hard for us to manage a page full of that kind of artwork – even if there was a reason behind its use.”
Sangeetha Alwar, a 25-year-old assistant literature professor in Bangalore, had begun to use Nazi and BJP symbolism on her Instagram page. She created a GIF image with a swastika that turns into a saffron lotus – the color and symbol of the BJP – and becomes the center of a drawing of Hitler’s face. But then, Alwar says, she heard about Reductio ad Hitlerum, a critical term for mocking the tendency to discredit any opinion just by claiming that it was held by the Fuehrer, and decided to steer away from such references: “Any protest needs to be rooted in the present. I mean, of course, we need to learn lessons from history, but we cannot always afford to delve into it.”
Alwar then created an illustration for Instagram based on Martin Niemöller’s iconic poem “First They Came,” with a series of images depicting the muted protests that ensued after the Indian government cut off Kashmir from the world in August, and in response to the statelessness of Bengalis in Assam and the attacks on students.
Shooting at students
On January 27, Modi’s junior finance minister, Anurag Thakur, led a state election rally in New Delhi chanting, “Shoot the traitors of the country,” a slogan commonly used by Hindu vigilante mobs. In an opinion piece the next day in The Nation, retired supreme court judge Markandey Katju responded that Thakur had “opened a new dimension in Indian politics, which will resemble the last years of the Weimar Republic in Germany when strong-arm thugs like the SA and SS roamed the streets of Berlin, Munich and other cities, winning arguments not by words but by breaking skulls.” As if on cue, on the days that followed, shots were fired three times at protesters in Delhi. In one case, at Jamia Milia Islamia, a 17-year-old Hindu nationalist injured a student in a shooting. The police, like on other occasions, watched. Again, a crowd gathered outside the police headquarters. They haven’t yet bothered to remove the swastika on the signpost.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist and writer based in New Delhi.