In a December 22, 2002 poll in the Times of India, four hundred students from India’s most prestigious colleges were asked to select the ideal leader India needs most. Independence leader and spiritual icon, Mahatama Gandhi led with 23%. Current Prime Minister Vajpayee finished second with 20%. In third place, with 17%, was Adolf Hitler.
One respondent, 18-year-old Phalguni Das of the National College in Bombay, said, "(Hitler) may not have been the best of human beings, but he possessed high leadership qualities. He had the unique ability to make people follow him forcibly and nearly conquered the world."
When we look at government issued textbooks in India, these results should not surprise us. In a Standard 9 textbook for the western state of Gujarat, Hitler is cited as a man who gave "race pride" to his people. There is no mention of his ghastly treatment of Jews. In the chapter, "Problems of the Country," the first subsection is entitled "Minorities" in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians are called "foreigners in India."
Given this distressing vilification of Jews, one would expect to see bitter relations between Jews and Indians.
The opposite has occurred. The first-ever joint Capitol Hill forum was held yesterday, July 16, between the US Indian Political Action Committee (USINPAC), the American Jewish Committee, and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The event featured nearly a dozen Congress members from across the US, diplomats from the Indian and Israeli embassies, and political activists from both communities speaking about the "symbiotic," "intrinsic," and "unique" nature of Jewish-Indian relations.
Congressman Wilson (R-South Carolina), co-chair of the Congressional India Caucus, said it was "appropriate to make this bond."
One speaker, Congress Brad Sherman (D-California), began his speech on the importance of respecting India as an ally by telling an offensive Patel joke, which conjured stereotypes of Patels running motels.
What was interesting is how numerous speakers used the words "Muslim" and "terrorist" interchangeably. The problem for these two nations, Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-New York) said, was that Israel was "surrounded by 120 million Muslims" while "India has 120 millions."
While the event purported to speak for all Indians, none of the speakers, however, mentioned issues that concern many Indians: mal-nutrition, employment, education, basic human rights, AIDS, health-care...
Congress Tom Lantos (D-California) seemed to summarize the binding issue of the evening (and perhaps of the alliance): "We are drawn together by mindless, vicious, fanatic, Islamic terrorism." After his comment, the standing room crowd of mostly Indians, erupted in applause.
Indeed establishing relations and engaging in dialogue between Jews and Indians is crucial. But Wednesday’s alliance is not only detrimental for Israel’s interests, it is also insensitive towards Jews.
Over the past few years, the ruling BJP has aggressively pushed its agenda of "Hindutva." The ideology, a distortion of the tolerant ethos of Hinduism, seeks to create a Hindu state in India in which minorities (Jews including) are forced to live as second-class citizens because they believe in a religion that was founded outside of India.
In forming its alliance with India and its diasporic community, many Jewish organizations have, unfortunately, only reached out to unrepresentative, radicalized groups like USINPAC that are too willing to ignore Hindutva’s challenge to Indian democracy.
When India’s Deputy Prime Minister, LK Advani came to the US, for example, the American Jewish Committee hosted a June 10 dinner in his honor. A spokesman for the Israeli embassy, Mark Regev, said his country maintained close ties with Advani because "He is a man of great power."
At a May 8 annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee, Brajesh Mishra, India’s National Security Advisor, boasted "historical affinity" between India and the Jews, saying India is one of the only countries with no history of anti-Semitism.
That Advani has violated international human rights laws and eroded Indian democracy is apparent. Smita Narula, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, noted, "Advani basically represents a group of organizations that have the ultimate aim of turning India into a Hindu state. To achieve those ends they have encouraged extreme violence. It's been harmful not only to Muslims and Christians, but for the population as a whole and for the country's secular, democratic fiber."
What is less obvious, however, is Advani’s track record of endorsing anti-Semitic Indian organizations and leaders. In a July 5, 2002 interview with the Financial Times, Advani admitted, "If you see any virtue in me, I have imbibed it from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—its discipline, patriotism and commitment to integrity of public life. It is absurd to ask me to de-link from the RSS." This group, labeled "totalitarian" and "fascist" by Mahatama Gandhi, serves as recruiting and training ground for proponents of hard-line Hindu nationalism.
Two of the organizations pioneering ideologues, Veer Savarkar and MS Golwarkar—individuals who had choice words about Jews. Speaking of the Nazis, Golwarkar said, "To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by the purging of its Semitic race, the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested there. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures having differences going to the root to be assimilated." In 1938, Savarkar endorsed the persecution of Jews in Germany, noting "Germany has every right to resort to Nazism and Italy to Fascism and events have justified that those isms and forms of governments were imperative and beneficial to them under the conditions that obtained there."
In addition to his anti-Semitism, Savarkar was also, according to the BBC, among others, "suspected of being involved in Gandhi’s assassination." One would imagine that given global awareness and concern over anti-Semitism, Indian leaders like Advani would distance themselves from ideologues like Gowalkar and Savarkar.
But just the opposite has occurred. In February 2003, Savarkar’s portrait was unveiled in the central hall of New Delhi’s parliament, amid shouts of "Long live Savarkar". Defending the incident, Advani noted, "It was a burden on us that we could not install the portrait of Savarkar for all these years but it is good that we could accomplish it during our tenure."
If the Jewish community wishes to establish ties with India, it must first pressure the BJP government in India to abandon its anti-Semitism and vilification of minorities. Israel only stands to exacerbate its credibility, particularly among Muslims, by aligning with a hard-line Indian government that has made little effort to hide its hatred for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
For India, the alliance with pro-Israel groups shows how distant India is from Mahatama Gandhi’s vision. Throughout Wednesday’s Capitol Hill event, numerous Congress members rightfully praised Gandhi’s contribution for a better world.
Such sentiment is ironic, however, given Gandhi’s famous declaration: "Palestine belongs to the Palestinians just as Britain to the British."
Then again in age in which Hitler trails in popularity to Gandhi by only six percentage points, nothing
should surprise us.
Zahir Janmohamed is writing a book about the rising religious violence in South Asia.