A Strange Case of Doppelgangers: Hitler and Gandhi in India
Mein Kampf, which by law cannot be sold in Germany, has much more than a respectable market in India. In a country where the sale of 5,000 copies is enough to warrant a title’s inclusion in the best-seller list, it is notable that a reprint of Mein Kampf by the Indian publisher Jaico had, as of June 2010, sold over 100,000 copies in ten years. When we consider that the book is also sold on the pavement in various pirated editions, the real sales figures are bound to be much higher. London’s Daily Telegraph, in an article published on 20 April 2009, first drew attention to this phenomenon with a striking headline: “Indian business students snap up copies of Mein Kampf”. Notwithstanding anything that Sir William Jones might have said in the late 18th century on the common Aryan links between Indians and Germans, or the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg’s views on India as the ancestral home of the Aryans, Indian students appeared to have eschewed the grand historical narratives that have animated so many intellectuals for something seemingly much more pragmatic. The same articles informs its readers that sales of Mein Kampf have been soaring in India as Hitler is regarded as a “management guru”, an opinion apparently derived from conversations with several booksellers and students. The owner of Mumbai’s Embassy Books, who reprints Mein Kampf “every quarter”, explained that Indians read in the book “a kind of a success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it”. A related BBC article, which appeared a year later, quotes a 19-year old Gujarati student, “I have idolised Hitler ever since I have had a sense of history. I admire his leadership qualities and his discipline.”
Hitler’s popularity in India arises from a conjuncture of circumstances and certainly shows no sign of diminishing; indeed, I wonder if the political ascendancy of Narendra Modi, who is similarly admired, especially by the Indian middle classes, for his “leadership qualities” and authoritarian style of governance, might not make Hitler an even more attractive figure. The evening before last, on a visit to the Om Bookshop at the Ambience Mall on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, where my friend Darius Cooper was launching his collection of short stories, I was struck by the extraordinary proximity of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Gandhi’s Autobiography on the shelves and in the display area. On one shelf, the two books were placed next to each other; closer to the cash counter, the two books were again arrayed next to each other in a display bound to catch the attention of most visitors. The salesman was luckily inclined to answer my queries: in the four years since the bookstore was established, Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s Autobiography had each sold something in the vicinity of around 500 copies at that store alone. I can’t say if I breathed a sigh of relief at being told that Gandhi had just marginally edged out Hitler—as well that he should have, considering Gandhi’s bania origins—though, as the reader shall find out shortly, this is far from being the case all over the country.
In India, and in much of the rest of the world, it has become commonplace to view Hitler as the supreme embodiment of evil in the twentieth century, just as Mohandas Gandhi is likely to be seen as the greatest instantiation of good. There are, of course, some exceedingly enlightened voices, so we are told, who would rather speak of Hitler and Gandhi as representing a strange case of doppelgangers. Slavoj Zizek, we might recall, gave it as his considered opinion that Gandhi was more evil than Hitler, and Gandhi has been much more than a source of irritation to one who extols the Gandhians with guns walking the Indian countryside and apparently creating revolution. But let us turn to the more conventional view: the cover of a fairly recent issue of Time (3 December 2007) sums up this opposition quite well: on the left side of a large sketch of the brain is a hologram showing Gandhi, and on the right side is a hologram featuring Hitler. The cover story is entitled, “What Makes Us Good/Evil”, and the caption accompanying the story states: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures––and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” In the land of his own birth, nevertheless, Gandhi appears to have been eclipsed by Hitler, and the comparative sales of Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, with the former outselling the latter by a margin of nearly two to one at the Crossword chain of bookstores, is only one of the telltale signs of the diminishing place of Gandhi in the country’s public life. The young who idolize Hitler’s life as a model of ‘leadership qualities’ and ‘discipline’ evidently have little knowledge of the manner in which Gandhi left his huge impress upon the anti-colonial struggle, forging a mass movement of nonviolent resistance that at times displayed an extraordinarily high level of discipline, and transforming the principal nationalist organization, the Indian National Congress, from a party of elites into a body of mass politics. Yet, if there were misgivings about Gandhi in his own lifetime, many of those have become aggravated in an India which views Gandhi as a backward-looking luddite who emasculated India and would have set the country hopelessly adrift in a nation-state system where national interest and violence reign supreme. In such a setting, Hitler’s idea of a virile nation set on a course of domination appears as an attractive alternative, even if it left Germany smoldering in ruins.
One might also suppose that it is but natural that Hitler should have a constituency in Mumbai, large chunks of which over the last few decades have been under the control of Shiv Sena, a political party comprised in good part of hoodlums who appear to have learned something about both terror tactics and racial ideologies of hate from the Nazis. However, as empirical and anecdotal experience alike suggest, copies of Mein Kampf have sold well in other parts of India, and as the BBC article noted, the more pertinent fact is perhaps that “the more well-heeled the area, the higher the sales.” The Indian middle class has been strongly inclined to view admirably countries such as Germany and Japan, the success of which, most particularly after the end of World War II left them in ruins, is held up as an example of what discipline, efficiency, and strenuous devotion to work can accomplish. Of Japan’s atrocities in the war very little is known in India, and the middle class gaze has seldom traveled beyond what is signified by the names of Sony, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, and the like; as for Hitler, the same middle class Indians marvel at his ability to command millions, forge an extraordinary war machine, and nearly take a country humiliated at the end of World War I to the brink of victory over India’s own colonial master. I heard from more than one person, in the weeks leading up to the World Cup final, that Germany deserved to win because it had the most “efficient” machinery of football domination. Yes, there is little doubt that Hitler, too, was supremely efficient.
There is, however, an equal measure of truth and falsity in the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of “the mutual influence of India and Hitler’s Nazis on one another. Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with the Fuhrer, pro-Independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army allied with Hitler’s Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and the Nazis drew on Hindu symbolism for their Swastika motif and ideas of Aryan supremacy.” Gandhi addressed two brief letters to Hitler, urging the German leader to renounce war and take advantage of his unparalleled sway over the masses to usher in a new era of nonviolence. But by no means can this be described as a ‘correspondence’ with the Fuhrer: exercising its wartime prerogatives of censorship, the British Government of India ensured that neither letter reached the addressee. Hitler never wrote to Gandhi: under these circumstances, ‘correspondence’ seems an extraordinarily extravagant description of what transpired. On the other hand, the invocation of Subhas Chandra Bose, who commenced his political career in awe of Gandhi but came to a parting of ways with the Mahatma, may perhaps go some ways in explaining the attraction felt for Hitler among India’s youth. Bose is revered nearly as much as Gandhi, and certainly has fewer critics; lionized for his relentless opposition to British rule, which eventually led him to an opportunistic alliance with the fascists, Bose is remembered most of all for the creation of the Indian National Army. In a daring escape while he was under house arrest in Calcutta, Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where he founded the Indian Legion, comprised of Indian POWs captured in North Africa and attached initially to the Wehrmacht. Its members, significantly, were bound to an oath of allegiance which clearly establishes the nexus between Hitler and Bose: “I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose.” It is an equally telling fact that Hitler had little interest in granting Bose an audience, only agreeing to a short meeting more than a year after Bose’s arrival in Berlin—a meeting at which Hitler refused to issue a statement in support of India’s independence. Fooled perhaps by the esteem in which India was held by the supreme figures of the German enlightenment, from F. Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Goethe to W. von Humboldt and Herder, and fooled too perhaps by his own personal affinity to Germans, one curiously shared by other supposed ‘radicals’, Bose seems to have been unable to fathom that, from the standpoint of Nazi ideologues, India was a living testament to the degeneracy to which the eastern branch of the Aryans had fallen when they failed to preserve their purity.
If the troubled relationship of a nationalist hero with the Nazis is insufficient to explain Hitler’s privileged place in the middle class Indian imagination, we may turn with greater success to the writings of Hindutva’s principal ideologues. At the annual session in 1940 of the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party founded to promote the political interests of the Hindus and advance the idea of a Hindu rashtra (nation), Savarkar, in his Presidential Address, described Nazism as “undeniably the saviour of Germany under the circumstances in which Germany was placed”. Though Savarkar’s admirers describe him as a man of great intellectual acumen, it is remarkable that his only riposte to Jawaharlal Nehru, who throughout remained a vigorous critic of both Nazism and fascism, was to argue that “Hitler knows better than Pandit Nehru what suits Germany best”: “The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.” M. S. Golwalkar, who presided over the RSS from 1940 to 1973 and became the chief spokesperson for the idea of a Hindu nation, was similarly moved to argue that “the other nation [besides Italy] most in the eye of the world today is Germany. The nation affords a very striking example.” That spirit which had enabled ancient German tribes to overrun Europe was once again alive in modern Germany which, building on the “traditions left by its depredatory ancestors”, had taken possession of the territory that was its by right but had, “as a result of political disputes’, been “portioned off as different countries under different states.”
Nazism was built, however, on the twin foundations of expansion and contraction: if the idea of lebensraum became the pretext for the bold acquisition of territories, Germany itself was to be purified of its noxious elements, principally the Jews but other undesirables as well, among them gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and mental retards. The treatment meted out to Jews was, from the standpoint of those desirous of forging a glorious Hindu nation, an object lesson on how Hindu India might handle its own Muslims. Much ink has been spilled on just who all were the advocates of the two-nation theory in India, though Savarkar is clearly implicated. “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation,” he told his audience while delivering the Presidential Address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937; rather, “on the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” These two nations, moreover, did not stand on the same footing, as the Hindu alone recognized Hindusthan as his or her pitribhu (fatherland), matribhu (motherland), and punyabhu (holyland); the Muslim, his eyes always looking beyond Hindusthan, was a rank outsider. The fate of Indian Muslims was sealed: as Golwalkar put it unequivocally, “the foreign elements in Hindusthan” had but “two courses” of action open to them, entertaining “no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race,” or they were to live “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.” In all this, Golwalkar held up Germany as a country that might usefully be emulated by India: “Germany has also shown how 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 Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”
How long will we, in India, continue to place Gandhi and Hitler alongside each other?
Copyright: Vinay Lal
Note: This piece was written in 2014 and first published on vinaylal.wordpress.com.
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