Secularist discourse resumes its Modi scare mongering
Since May 2014, when Narendra Modi won the popular elections and BJP assumed power in New Delhi, various media outlets and specific social organizations, who vehemently oppose what they refer to as Saffronization, have begun once again their over-‐the-‐top anti Hindu diatribes and denouncements that were the standard fare from 1998 to 2004, when BJP first held power at the center.
Under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP led the only non-‐Congress government to last a full term in office since independence. During that period, particular politicized voices in India’s press corps produced an avalanche of newspaper articles hysterically critiquing all proposed governmental influence in education. They vehemently opposed each and every decision or appointment made by the BJP, generating unbridled fear of dreaded “Saffronization” leading to the destruction of a free and democratic India.
Antagonistic, very public debates and exclusivist, one-‐sided pronouncements were generated by multiple conferences and conclaves designed to warn the country of the dangers of Hindutva,
without actually examining BJP policies. Alarmist publications abounded regarding this controversial topic and the BJP’s perceived manipulation of historiography in India’s educational institutions. Certain members of the press amped up the anti-‐Hindu frenzy, warning of the supposed dire deleterious impact of all BJP policies.
Each decision, proposal, or appointment made by the BJP coalition government was met with immediate condemnation. Ten years later, with the advent of Narendra Modi, this anti-‐Hindu bias has been reborn with passion in particular media outlets. The same hysteria that characterized the narratives in the earlier BJP period has reincarnated in 2014. [This anti-‐BJP absolutism and hysteria is reminiscent of the unthinking Republican autopilot FOX News response to each and every one of Barak Obama’s ideas. The negative diatribes against Modi, as found in certain elements of the mainstream media in India, is a reflection of the automatic negative anti-‐Obama rhetoric inherent in the very nature of the news found on FOX.]
During the summer of 2000, amid the anti-saffron media mêlée, I was in India on an educational visa to continue my research into the politics of history in South Asia. Though, since my first visit in 1970, I had been to India several times over thirty years, I had come as a tourist and a pilgrim. I had even brought my children to India.
This was the first time that I had come on an “official” visit. In the nineties, I had had several opportunities for academic research in Pakistan and Bangladesh. I’d collected Social Studies textbooks and curriculum materials in order to compare differing interpretations of the vast historical record of the subcontinent, as narrated in these three nations of the Subcontinent. In this context, in 2000, I spent several weeks in Delhi interviewing officials at NCERT and ICHR, and historians, archeologists, educators, and other intellectuals interested in comparative historiography.
An investigation of narratives found in history textbooks can help illuminate political, social, and ideological imperatives that have impacted the evolution of a nation’s self image. These constructs and resulting mandates influence the narration of history and the writing of Social Studies curriculum. Through the medium of history textbooks, meant to educate future citizens, the development of a nation’s ideology can be seen unfolding through the decades-as political and social pressures change society and the nation’s self image evolves.
These readjustments in historical narratives, intended to correct perceived inadequacies or promote a particular perspective, are not unique to post-‐colonial nations that may feel additional pressures to reinvent themselves. The “rewriting of history” is common to all countries as they reevaluate international relations and redefine internal social structures in a world of changing identities, or simply to include new historical data arising from on-‐going research. In 2000, I was in India researching the contestations and contradictions found in different historical narratives, and to put various historical perspectives into ideological and political context.
[pullquote]The Hindu Nationalist = Nazism equation has been used without question for seventy years to blacken the face of the Sangh Parivar.[/pullquote]
Fourteen years ago, during the hot humid days of July and August, I crisscrossed Delhi in autorickshaws and taxis, interviewing intellectuals theoretically grounded in their own points of view: Leftists, Marxists, neo-Marxists, former Marxists-now called Progressives, secular nationalists, socialists, Indian nationalists, Hindu nationalists, internationalists, and “Saffron” scholars.
Many historians said to be writing from a Marxist perspective, deny they are Marxists, preferring to say they are social progressives, fighting adamantly against, what they label, an obscurantist, right-wing communal slant to the interpretation of Indian history. Others, branded as representatives of the Sangh Parivar, often did not consider themselves to be in the Hindutva camp, but were colored Saffron simply because they were not Red.
Ironically, they were vilified for harboring “Hindu sympathies” in a predominantly Hindu country. The so-called Saffron scholars were accused of writing distorted Hindu-centric history while they themselves claim that they wrote non‐ideological history, correcting narratives whitewashed by the jargon of what they saw as pseudo-‐secularism, or inherited colonial paradigms. The Hindu-centric scholars claimed that a moralistic enforcement of dialectic materialism had dominated the field of history, denigrating Hindu culture and projecting an anti- nationalist discourse.
In fact, this anti-patriotic orientation was so institutionalized that until 2002, the common Indian citizen was not allowed to fly the tri-‐colors. (For me, having grown up around flag-‐waving patriotic Americans, this fact was astonishing, that a nation would actually prohibit the citizens from proudly flying the national flag! It was certainly an intriguing detail of governmental policies revealing the interface of ideology and politics.)
During the monsoon of 2000, I was in India in hopes of understanding and unraveling the acrimonious debates between contesting groups of scholars. In the heated academic atmosphere competing perspectives of India’s historiography was not just an issue of importance to octogenarian academicians. This topic was widely debated not only in the popular media, but debated profusely in academia.
When I visited the JNU campus the walls of the buildings were plastered with propaganda posters from different ideologically oriented student political organizations. One poster said, “Down with Marxism and Anti-‐Nationalist Rhetoric.” On the same wall, a bigger poster read, “Ban Communal Politics-Down with Fascism-Down with the BJP.” Hopefully the students at JNU had time left over from promoting political propaganda to study history.
Needless to say, during this hey-day of historical dispute, in Delhi in 2000, I had numerous stimulating conversations. I spoke with intellectuals who were as fascinated as I was by the highly inharmonious theoretical debates on the uses and abuses of history. It was an intellectually interesting moment to be studying polarized perspectives of the politicization of historiography.
A few days before I was scheduled to fly home in August, I was astounded when two respected scholars informed me, in all seriousness, that the vast “majority of elite students in India consider Hitler to be the greatest historical figure of the twentieth century.” This was reported to me as fact, sealing the indictment of the Sangh Parivar’s “negative influence on the youth of India“. I was told that “80% of the students” who have “recently graduated from schools such as St. Stephens” think “Hitler is the greatest person [or most important person, or most influential person] of the twentieth century”. This information was based on data collected by an eminent scholar, cited definitively as incontrovertible proof of the “Saffronization of Education”.
The Hindu Nationalist = Nazism equation has been used without question for seventy years to blacken the face of the Sangh Parivar. Regardless of its nominal inapplicability or historical accuracy, accusations of fascism are inevitably used against the RSS/VHP/BJP combine. References to fascism have long formed the core of the criticism against the Sangh Parivar. Objective analyses delineating how Hindutva is fascistic rarely surface, though there are countless publications based on those claims that simply use the phrase in an assumptive fashion, without real study of its applicability. Much as the term “Hindu Fundamentalism” continues to be in general use in the popular media, even though there is no agreement regarding a dogma that comprises the “fundamentals” of the diverse and vast scope of Hindu beliefs.
Opponents of the Sangh Parivar equate Saffron and Shakhas with Brown Shirts and SS Troops (SS = RSS, a convenient equation). In 2000 as in 2014, in their zealousness to discredit Hindutva, many scholars and journalists often knowingly perpetuate the misapplication of Hitler’s unfortunate misappropriation of Hindu symbols, such as the inverted swastika and his misconstrued use of the word “Aryan”.
In such a virulent environment, it still came as a surprise when two highly respected professors told me that as a consequence of saffron education, 80% of New Delhi’s brightest students admired Hitler. I roundly questioned the actuality of their claim. However, I was sincerely assured with absolute conviction that this statistic was true, leading to the assumption that need not be questioned—the Manu-vadis are winning the ideological war. . . secularism and democracy are in danger in a rapidly Nazifying, saffronizing India.
In retrospect, perhaps since I am a non-‐Indian scholar, those making this claim thought I would uncritically accept their indisputable “fact” that 80% of the youth of India, under the pall of the BJP, had developed a great admiration for Hitler. Perhaps I would go home to the USA after my trip to India in 2000, and warn my countrymen about the danger or the BJP.
The supposed Nazi scare in Delhi reminded me of a conversation I’d had with two college students when I was at the Amber Fort with my daughter in the summer of 1992. We were standing out of the sun on the windy balcony of the castle, overlooking the hills and river below, when two boys struck up a conversation. There was also a man and woman from Germany, taking refuge from the sun and enjoying the view. We were all surprised when these college boys told us that they liked Adolf Hitler; and this was years before the BJP’s electoral successes.
The German couple seemed offended and walked away. I told those young men that, had they lived in Hitler’s Germany, their bronze complexions and dark black hair would have doomed them to the gas chambers. I have always assumed that, among Indian college students, those two boys in Rajasthan were the exception, not the rule. I have had literally dozens of conversations with young Indians and those are the only two who have ever mentioned Hitler, much less expressed admiration for him.
A few days before leaving India, I met Professor Kumar in his office at Delhi University, which was buzzing with eager students exchanging photocopied materials.
A few years earlier, before I came to India to do my doctoral research, when I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I had written to Professor Krishna Kumar because I had read his work about textbooks, such as his insightful, almost antiestablishment educational analysis, Origins of India’s Textbook Culture.
We share an interest in textbooks and over the years had had several conversations about historiography in South Asia. The students soon departed and Professor Kumar and I discussed his family, whom I came to know during a previous visit to India, when I met his mother, who in 1947 had been a refugee from Pakistani Punjab.
I explained the focus of my current trip to India: to examine and distinguish the controversies raging in intellectual circles between the leftist camp, including scholars such as Krishna Kumar, Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, Bipin Chandra, Sumit Sarkar and other well known professors at JNU and Delhi University, versus intellectuals lumped into the Sangh Parivar or so-‐called saffron camp, such as the prolific medievalist K.S. Lal, the archeologist S.P. Gupta, the historian Meenakshi Jain, and of course, the infamous Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup, and other vocal critics of post colonial historiography, such as Devendra Swarup, a retired history professor and avid archivist.
Interestingly, this targeted group of scholars included secular stalwarts such as Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan, who were many shades away from saffron yet were somehow reclassified somewhere on the borders of that category because their ideas are slightly out of sync with the politically correct expectations of their leftist colleagues. Collecting data in this climate was intriguing.
During our conversation in his sparse but comfortable DU office, Prof. Krishna Kumar informed me that he had evidence indicating that, “80% of Indian youth idolize Adolph Hitler“. He offered this as a clear example of the negative impact of the “saffronization of education”. Frankly, I was a bit shocked by his statement. I knew quite a few Indians teenagers in Delhi and I would be surprised if any of them would consider Hitler anything more than a European curiosity. They would probably be more likely to cite their father or grandfather, especially if their parents were within earshot, or Mahatma Gandhi or Nehru, or Netaji, perhaps Einstein, but not Hitler. Professor Kumar assured me that a reputable colleague had verified this information; there was scholarly documentation that “80% of the students graduating from schools such as St. Stephen’s held Hitler in very high regard”.
Not only did this statistic seem extremely exaggerated but I wondered how a political party and its affiliates could have had such a pronounced and pandemic impact on the minds of the young since ascending to power just two years earlier in 1998. I questioned his claim that this near unanimous admiration for Hitler among recently graduated students in New Delhi could be singularly due to the sinister influence of the Sangh Parivar.
Through the many years I have spent in India, I have met numerous RSS members, young and old, and in the course of intense conversations, not one has ever expressed admiration for Hitler; if anything they have consciously distanced themselves from some of the early, pre-‐WWII ideas of their founder. This distancing from Hitler is also prevalent among those who hail Subhas Chandra Bose as a great Indian, when three years earlier the whole nation celebrated his centennial. In 1997, Netaji’s missions to Berlin were rarely mentioned; in fact such critiques were almost taboo.
Not to dismiss a thorough analysis of the perspectives found in Hedgewar’s early writings, and their contemporary relevance, what is important in this context is that the Sangh Parivar (represented by BJP led coalition) had simply not been in power long enough to have exerted such a dramatic influence on the ideological perspectives of the vast majority of New Delhi students.
In fact, after the BJP came to power at the center in 1998, most of their suggested policy changes were attacked and labeled saffron, their implementation not fully realized. In response to very articulate secular, socialist anti-saffron critics, the BJP consistently backed off their proposals generally not entirely implemented, but rather reviewed, reevaluated, and diluted. It is obvious that the Sangh’s opportunity to brainwash the youth of India through the educational system in 2000 was rather limited. In particular, their influence on the curriculum of private schools such as St. Stephen’s must have been quite minimal.
Official education policies of the BJP government could not have indoctrinated the students at St. Stephen’s, especially not on the vast scale indicated by Professor Kumar because they were tentatively implemented. Though I protested this 80% statistic, Prof. Kumar stuck by it, insisting it was true. He assured me that the information was genuine and documented: “80% of Indian youth, attending schools such as St. Stephens, think that Hitler is the greatest man of the twentieth century the result of saffron education”.
[pullquote]Numerous RSS members, young and old have never expressed admiration for Hitler; if anything they have consciously distanced themselves from some of the early, pre-‐WWII ideas of their founder. This distancing from Hitler is also prevalent among those who hail Subhas Chandra Bose as a great Indian, when three years earlier the whole nation celebrated his centennial.[/pullquote]
I couldn’t leave India without finding the source of that incredible statistic. So, the next morning I telephoned Professor Kumar at home to confirm what he had said. When he repeated it, I was again skeptical. I asked him the source of this statistical information. He said that Professor Tanika Sarkar had told him. I had interviewed Professor Sarkar a few days earlier so I immediately rang her up, reaching her just as she was leaving her home to drive to JNU.
I documented our conversation at that time, writing this original narrative. I told her what Prof. Kumar had said and asked her to clarify his statement since she was the source of the information. She said it was true. She had been conducting university entrance interviews with potential students from schools such as St. Stephens and “80% of the students thought that Hitler was the greatest man of the twentieth century.” I argued with her. It seemed an impossibly huge number. She explained that actually, it was 80% of the “thinking students” , those who could “articulate the reasons for their answers”. About half of the students interviewed were what she considered “thinking students.” When they were asked who was the most important person of the twentieth century, 80% of New Delhi’s best and brightest responded “Hitler.”
I simply could not believe what I was hearing. I hypothesized that if I were to ask a hundred well- educated Indian nineteen year olds, “Who was the most important person of the twentieth century?” I am certain that most of them would answer “Gandhi”. I suspect that very few would care much at all about Hitler. Tanika Sarkar said that she had conducted the interviews earlier that summer and was herself stunned that 80% of the “thinking” student, she emphasized this, those who could offer “sophisticated reasons for their answers” 80% of New Delhi’s “brightest students admired Hitler” as the “most important historical person of the twentieth century”.
Since these “thinking students” represented 50% of all the students she interviewed, the other 50% were ones who just gave “quick responses” and “couldn’t articulate reasons for their selections”. She said that the majority of these less bright students “automatically chose Gandhi”. I wondered silently why those who selected Mahatma Gandhi were seen as less sophisticated.
I asked Prof. Sarkar if the students actually admired Hitler or perhaps had suggested him as someone who was not the greatest but rather the most notorious person of the past century. She emphasized again that this response had come from the more “sophisticated students who could best express themselves and justify their answers”. Therefore they had been able to explain, that “Hitler brought Germany back from bankruptcy and made it a strong nation. He united the German people towards a common purpose”.
Professor Tanika Sarkar added that none of the students mentioned the fact that “Hitler had ultimately brought about the destruction of his country” and that he is responsible for unspeakable, horrible crimes of genocide. She blamed “Saffron ideology for having indoctrinated these students”.
I asked her about the specific question that had elicited this overwhelming proof of BJP-‐inspired Hitler-‐philia among Indian teenagers. Initially Professor Sarkar had said the students “admired” Hitler, but when I found that hard to believe, she explained that they had mentioned Hitler as the “the greatest” historical figure in the twentieth century. She lamented that in these types of entrance interviews conducted for the university there is very little time and many questions to ask, so she was unable to dwell on this Hitler phenomenon at length with each student.
Since Professor Sarkar is an outspoken critic of the Sangh Parivar and has authored such books as “Khaki Shorts Saffron Flags,” I was surprised when eight out of ten of the most promising young scholars cited Hitler as their hero, she didn’t ask a few more specific questions to locate the source of this unimaginable statistic. Though I was still very skeptical, I asked her why she thought 80% of the “thinking” students whom she interviewed held Hitler in such high esteem. She answered, “They have never been taught the evils of nationalism.” I had delayed enough and she had to get to school, and I thanked her, though flabbergasted by her data and interpretation.
During my meeting with Prof. Krishna Kumar, when discussing the philosophy of the Sangh Parivar, he had informed me that when the Hindi version of “Mein Kampf” was published in New Delhi it sold out immediately. He elaborated, “Most Hindus think Judaism is a sub-sect of Islam” and that is why they support Hitler’s anti-‐Jewish theories. Since he embraced the paradigm that Hindutva = Nazism, he elaborated about the Hindu/Hitler connection based on this assumption, arguing that Saffronites think Jews and Muslims are the same and that “most Hindus, especially those on the Hindu Right, dislike Judaism”. I argued that I had observed just the opposite.
I explained that among the so-‐called Saffronites there is an empathy with Israel, a nation also surrounded by “hostile Muslim states”. Additionally, many Hindu intellectuals compare the Jewish Holocaust, the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis, to the situation in India and the condition of Hindus during and after the eleventh century. They cite the absurdity and immorality of the Negationists, who have tried to deny that there, was ever a Jewish Holocaust. These Hindu-‐centric intellectuals claim that the application of Negationism has been systematically used to deny and obscure the historical evidence of a Hindu Holocaust. Professor Kumar seemed genuinely surprised. He surmised that these ideas are undoubtedly current only among “elite Hindu intellectuals”, asserting that the “common Hindu has very little information about Judaism”.
This may be true. However, “the common Hindu” in a village in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, H.P., or elsewhere often has woefully little information about many topics of international interest including Judaism, the Pope, the UN, Israel, or Hitler. In contrast, the modern young students in Delhi cannot be classified along with this amorphous mass of “common Hindus,” whoever they are, who are woefully uninformed about Judaism.
I returned to America, harboring serious doubts that the majority of the brightest students graduating from elite schools in Delhi, students who are well aware of current issues such as globalization, tensions at the LOC, info-‐technology, economic liberalization, etc. are enamored en mass by Hitler’s legacy.
These students could not have read rave reviews about Hitler in their history books. Textbooks used atsuch schools are certainly not written from a Fascist perspective. It’s unlikely that they learned to admire Hitler from their teachers, who, perhaps, unbeknown to the principal and the parents, are really closet neo-‐Nazis secretly indoctrinating their young students. Highly unlikely! I wondered if 80% of the thinking students whom I had seen in Prof. Kumar’s office also idolized Hitler. Or was it a malady found only in the year 2000 graduating class?
Through the years, Professor Kumar and Professor Sarkar have professionally and personally promoted a very anti-Saffron agenda, they feel passionately about India’s pluralist heritage, and rightly so. Undoubtedly they must have been aware of changing ideas among different batches of their students through the years. I wondered if they had seen a gradual drift towards fascism or if this was a recent trend exponentially encouraged, as they claim, by the BJP’s success at the polls. How was such an overwhelming majority of savvy young urban Hindus suddenly transformed into brigades of Hitler Youth? Was it a serious wake-up call, manufactured political propaganda, a fluke, or just sheer fantasy?
Inevitably in the coming five years of Narendra Modi’s administration, there will be a related propaganda onslaught, an outcry of emerging anti-saffron media events, a gathering tsunami. A veritable extravaganza of stories about fascism has already begun. Invented stories such as the rise of fascism in New Delhi during the 2000 scare of Hitler’s Hindu youth, will be again created with journalistic aplomb.
Many years ago a Jewish-American woman told me, that her boyfriend, while visiting India in the mid-eighties, saw a viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He told her that when the camera panned to a giant red swastika on the roof of the Nazi compound in Vienna, the audience in New Delhi spontaneously applauded. Does this indicate a Saffron inspired admiration for Hitler or perhaps more probably a lack of understanding of the implications of Hitler’s unfortunate misappropriation of the swastika symbol? Was this film going crowd a bunch of Jew-bashing “common Hindus,” the uninformed group postulated by Professor Kumar, or were they sophisticated Hitler-buffs like the “thinking students” Professor Sarkar interviewed from St. Stephens?
That aerial view of the red swastika came before the audience was introduced to Indiana Jones’ enemies, who were Nazis. The sinister meaning of the Third Reich’s abuse of the swastika is not so familiar to non Euro-Americans who have opposite childhood experiences of a red swastika. The audience in Delhi applauded a recognizable Hindu symbol, unaware as of yet, in the movie, of the swastika’s automatic negative appropriation in the Western psyche.
Subsequently, while in graduate school in the nineties, I heard this Raiders of the Lost Ark observation cited as proof of a morbid Hindu penchant for Nazism. I was rather perturbed by this astonishing naïve claim. In New Delhi, the 1985 audience more than likely represented a broad swath of middle class urban Indians, most of whom had not gone to elite schools. Some degree holders, some who had matriculated, and others of working classes; this wide selection of the average Indian was familiar with Hindu symbols, while fairly uninformed about the Third Reich. Devoid of certain civilizational contexts, the sight a bright red swastika early in the film had made them cheer. The crowed at the theater in New Delhi only had a vague knowledge of the Nazi’s ubiquitous capture of the swastika symbol. Many in the theater may have gotten a better understanding of Hitler’s misuse of the
swastika from watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I didn’t worry too much that the graduates of St. Stephen’s were becoming Nazis. I assumed that the dire warning of a BJP inspired neo-‐Nazi scare in New Delhi, was simply a brazen attempt to influence a presumptively gullible American scholar. I wondered ironically, how such an overwhelming majority of savvy young urban Hindus suddenly transformed into brigades of Hitler Youth? Was it a serious wake-‐up call, manufactured political propaganda, a fluke, or just sheer fantasy?
I didn’t feel a pressing need to conduct a scientific survey of college students attending St. Stephens and other elite institutions to determine if 80% of them chose Hitler as their hero, due to the influence of the BJP. I thought it was unfortunate that in the graduating class of 2000, Hindu teenagers, without their knowledge or consent, were conveniently labeled Neo-‐Nazis. What are their actual perspectives about history? Who are their heroes? Are they are a misguided, saffronized generation that idolizes Adolf Hitler? I remained skeptical. I suspected that this statistic was purposefully manufactured to promote and validate a sincerely held agenda, much to the disservice and ridicule of India’s future generation. Now that the dreaded BJP has returned to power, I anticipate that these scare tactics will emerge once again.
When BJP lost power at the center in 2004, Professor Kumar served as the director of NCERT. He did an outstanding, nonpartisan job in a tense environment, bringing forth new books that were not based on the earlier NCERT model, but were centered on learning objectives, with input from a wide variety of scholars. From 2004 to 2010, when Prof Kumar served as the Director of National Council for Educational Research and Training, he prepared learning-‐centered documents pertaining to elementary education. Indicative of his focus on educational mastery and not theory he was instrumental in setting up Reading Cells, to focus on issues of early literacy in Indian classrooms.
I haven’t communicated with Professor Kumar in over a decade. The last time he contacted me, he informed me of the negative fall-out he had due to the publication of the first version of this narrative about Dr. Sarkar’s warning concerning the threat of Hitler’s Hindu youth.
Since, in 2000, I was amazed that Indian schools were accused of producing students who harbor a fascistic worldview, when I returned to the USA, I sent a long email to several friends requesting, almost tongue in cheek that they look into this claim. They passed the story around and it was published and at some point caused Professors Kumar and Sarkar some repercussions. The media hoopla is just beginning this time around.