Hated and mocked in much of the world, the Nazi leader has developed a strange following among schoolchildren and readers ofMein Kampf in India. Dilip D’Souza on how political leader Bal Thackeray influenced Indians to admire Hitler and despise Gandhi.
My wife teaches French to tenth-grade students at a private school here in Mumbai. During one recent class, she asked these mostly upper-middle-class kids to complete the sentence “J’admire …” with the name of the historical figure they most admired.
To say she was disturbed by the results would be to understate her reaction. Of 25 students in the class, 9 picked Adolf Hitler, making him easily the highest vote-getter in this particular exercise; a certain Mohandas Gandhi was the choice of precisely one student. Discussing the idea of courage with other students once, my wife was startled by the contempt they had for Gandhi. “He was a coward!” they said. And as far back as 2002, the Times of India reported a survey that found that 17 percent of students in elite Indian colleges “favored Adolf Hitler as the kind of leader India ought to have.”
In a place where Gandhi becomes a coward, perhaps Hitler becomes a hero.
Still, why Hitler? “He was a fantastic orator,” said the 10th-grade kids. “He loved his country; he was a great patriot. He gave back to Germany a sense of pride they had lost after the Treaty of Versailles,” they said.
“And what about the millions he murdered?” asked my wife. “Oh, yes, that was bad,” said the kids. “But you know what, some of them were traitors.”
Admiring Hitler for his oratorical skills? Surreal enough. Add to that the easy condemnation of his millions of victims as traitors. Add to that the characterization of this man as a patriot. I mean, in a short dozen years, Hitler led Germany through a scarcely believable orgy of blood to utter shame and wholesale destruction. Even the mere thought of calling such a man a patriot profoundly corrupts—is violently antithetical to—the idea of patriotism.
But these are kids, you think, and kids say the darndest things. Except this is no easily written-off experience. The evidence is that Hitler has plenty of admirers in India, plenty of whom are by no means kids.
Consider Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography. Reviled it might be in the much of the world, but Indians buy thousands of copies of it every month. As a recent paper in the journal EPW tells us (PDF), there are over a dozen Indian publishers who have editions of the book on the market. Jaico, for example, printed its 55th edition in 2010, claiming to have sold 100,000 copies in the previous seven years. (Contrast this to the 3,000 copies my own 2009 book, Roadrunner, has sold). In a country where 10,000 copies sold makes a book a bestseller, these are significant numbers.
And the approval goes beyond just sales. Mein Kampf is available for sale on flipkart.com, India’s Amazon. As I write this, 51 customers have rated the book; 35 of those gave it a five-star rating. What’s more, there’s a steady trickle of reports that say it has become a must-read for business-school students; a management guide much like Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese or Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking. If this undistinguished artist could take an entire country with him, I imagine the reasoning goes, surely his book has some lessons for future captains of industry?
Much of Hitler’s Indian afterlife is the legacy of Bal Thackeray, chief of the Shiv Sena party who died on Nov. 17.
Thackeray freely, openly, and often admitted his admiration for Hitler, his book, the Nazis, and their methods. In 1993, for example, he gave an interview to Timemagazine. “There is nothing wrong,” he said then, “if [Indian] Muslims are treated as Jews were in Nazi Germany.”