Sunday, 22 June 2014

What does Hitler mean in India?

A week before the recently concluded Indian election, I travelled to Varanasi, an ancient and a holly city for Hindus in north India.

The political temperature was peeping in this multi- religious and chaotic city. Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of India was contesting from here, thus making it a ground zero of the world’s largest democratic contest.

I was with my correspondent to gauge the mood of the public in the city.  On the banks of the Ganges on which the ancient city stands providing spiritual solace and mukti (liberation of souls) to millions of pious Hindus, we met two first time voters.

The two young boys, who are students talked freely about their choice of candidates. Modi, they said, was their hero; he was like Hitler and India needs a figure like him!

They knew about Modi’s track record in his home state of Gujarat. They said that the state was prospering under his leadership and hoped that he will replicate the same model of development for the rest of the country. It all sounded great, but I wondered what was actually the connection with Hitler here?!

“Well India needs a strong administrator you see. There is too much corruption and we need a strong leader,” said one of the boys.

I said that’s all fine but Hitler wasn’t a great man. “ Hitler killed millions, are you aware of that?” – I asked.

They looked confused.  Perplexed I asked them if they have studied about Hitler in school. They said they did in brief but the message they had from it was that he was a strong leader.

It was just not the two young school graduates. People attending a Modi’s rally just outside the capital New Delhi echoed similar sentiment. The people we spoke with were mesmerised by Modi, yet they said he will rule the country like Hitler! 

 Really!! “ What do you mean when you say that sir?” I asked. The answer was similar: a strong leader who can fight corruption and put India in its rightful path of growth and development.

It was heartening to see the aspirations of ordinary people: how much they urged for progress and good life and their expectation from charismatic Narendra Modi.

But comparison with Hitler astounded me every time I heard it.

It was not just the people who admired him.  Many who didn’t support him or was wary of him also compared him with Hitler.

Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, and Modi’s main rival in one of his political rallies went on to compare two types of leader: Gandhi and Hitler.  Without naming  Modi directly, he said whilst Gandhi believed in the knowledge of the people, Hitler believed that entire knowledge of the world is in his mind.

Clearly, such statement in the West would have opened a whole new serious debate or the politician  would have been  chided  for invoking the name of Hitler , but in India it such clumsly reference   sounded like an understatement for history's greatest mass murderer.

Anuradha, a teacher of history tells me that Hitler is not really taught in schools. There is a reference to second world war, but due to India’s own political development and fight against the British rule during the rein of Hitler, that part of the world history doesn’t get much attention.

She says:  "socially in India people have heard the name of Hitler and many see him as a short man who took on the world and was a strong leader. Many not so educated people are ignorant that he is  one of the deadliest murders ever to be born in the history of the world." 

 A few years back a cafĂ© in Mumbai was named after Hitler! They changed the name after severe criticism. The owner was quoted telling the media “"We wanted to be different. This is one name that will stay in people's minds ... we want to tell people we are different in the way he was different."

Different indeed…. The history is not the same for everyone after all!