Two years ago, I awoke to the following tweet, “I hope another Hitler comes back and finishes off your people”, accompanied by a picture from 1945 of the bodies of dead Jews piled outside a liberated concentration camp. Since then, I have been regularly attacked with anti-Semitic language and tropes on social media, especially on Twitter.
I am a target for anti-Semitic insults due to my work: I am a historian of premodern India. My research primarily concerns the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty that ruled much of north and central South Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries and built the Taj Mahal. Most historians – especially those who work on non-Western, premodern topics – find their audience confined to scholars and students. But Indians have a voracious appetite for history, and the historical legacy of Islam in India has become a subject of explosive controversy in recent years. This potent combination has made my scholarship of wide interest among Indian and Indian American readers and has also made me a target of vicious personal attacks on the basis of my perceived race, gender, and religion.
Historically, anti-Semitism was not an Indian problem. Small Jewish communities, often traders, have dotted India’s western coast for more than a millennium. Premodern Indian Jews did not suffer from the persecution and discrimination that often characterised the lives of their European counterparts. In the 20th century, many Indian institutions and independence leaders condemned rising anti-Semitism in Europe. For example, following Kristallnacht in 1938, the Indian National Congress issued a declaration against Hitler’s Germany. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, two of India’s most famous Independence leaders, condemned the Nazi treatment of Jews.
India’s distaste for anti-Semitism began to erode in the early 20th century, however, especially among Hindu nationalists. Hindu nationalists – who believe that India ought to be a Hindu nation in population and character – warmly embraced fascist ideas. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary Hindu nationalist group founded in 1925, modelled itself on contemporary European fascist movements. The Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist organisation founded in 1915, openly supported Nazism, including “Germany’s crusade against the enemies of Aryan culture”, as a spokesman for the group put it in 1939.
Rise of anti-Semitism in India
A key appeal of Nazism for early Hindu nationalists was anti-Semitism, which they saw as a useful model for how to demonise India’s Muslim minority. Muslims constituted 24% of the Indian population in 1941, and they comprise 14% of Indians today (the drop is explained by the Partition of Pakistan and its large Muslim population from India in 1947). Speaking in 1939 in Calcutta, VD Savarkar, the ideological godfather of Hindu nationalism, identified Indian Muslims as a potential traitorous people not to be trusted, “like the Jews in Germany”. In the same year, MS Golwalkar, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader, wrote that Germany’s “purging the country of the semitic Race – the Jews” was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”.
For decades, Hindu nationalists constituted a set of fringe organisations whose extreme ideas were rejected by the wider Indian public. In 1948, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, which sparked a brief ban on the group’s operations. The Sangh experienced a remarkable recovery in subsequent decades, however, transforming itself from an extremist association known for producing Gandhi’s killer into the leaders of independent India. Today, Narendra Modi, who has had a lifelong association with the RSS, leads India as its prime minister.
Independent India has developed a strong appetite for aspects of fascism, including Nazi ideology. Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, has gone through countless editions in India and has been a bestseller in the country for decades. The work is especially popular among businessmen who see it as a self-help guide for how determination and strength can produce success. Indeed, I was once told by a gentleman in Bikaner, “Madam, you are a great leader like Hitler.” This was meant as a compliment.
Growing hate and intolerance
The Indian fascination with Hitler is often explained away as having nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Some argue that Indians hardly learn about the Holocaust in school and that they are historically and emotionally distant from the darker sides of Nazism. Others point out that the Indian state enjoys robust relations with Israel.
In India, however, growing bigotry and close relations with Israel are hardly mutually exclusive. A prejudiced attitude against Muslims has served as a binding glue between Israel and India over the past decade or two. Hate crimes against numerous groups – including Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and anybody who eats beef – are on the rise in Modi’s India. Such trends are unsurprising given the Hindu nationalist propaganda espoused by Modi and his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Anti-Semitic attitudes are not a central storyline in this larger flowering of prejudice, but they are a readymade playbook of virulent hate that can be unleashed against foreign scholars. Academics, such as myself, often contradict Hindu nationalist claims about a pristine Hindu past, in which Muslims are seen as barbarous invaders, by arguing that many Muslims were embedded into the fabric of premodern Indian society. By virtue of our dedication to accuracy, scholars also shed unfavourable light on the origins of groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Hindu nationalists lack the historical evidence to counter academic claims on scholarly grounds, and so they turn to one of their most finely-tuned weapons: identity-based attacks.
I have personally received dozens of anti-Semitic messages over the last few years from Hindu nationalists and those sympathetic to their cause. These ugly attacks use vicious anti-Semitic slurs, frequently invoke the Holocaust, and draw on crude anti-Semitic tropes such as that I am somehow pursuing my academic research for the money. Such language feeds on a wider global rise in anti-Semitism, including violent attacks on Jewish individuals and communities.
One curious aspect of this anti-Semitism directed at me is that I am not, in fact, Jewish. Perhaps my last name suggests a Jewish identity to those unfamiliar with eastern European surnames, but I suspect that darker reasons often lurk behind this mistaken identification. Several of my academic advisors are Jewish and frequently maligned as such by Hindu nationalists. As a result, I am evidently perceived as a Jew by association. More insidiously, the old anti-Semitic trope that Jews control universities still surfaces with alarming regularity. This is a sub-type of the foundational anti-Semitic trope that there is an international Jewish conspiracy to run the world. In other words, anti-Semitism blinds people into assuming that I am Jewish, and then provides them with a remarkably hateful set of tools with which to attack me.
India has a growing problem with hate and intolerance. Alarmingly, in recent years, much of this hate has been sponsored by groups and figures that are close to the Indian government. Within India, Muslims remain the chief targets of mounting bigotry and violent assaults. When attacking non-Indians, however, Hindu nationalists increasingly resort to the virulent anti-Semitic ideas that inspired their early leaders.
This story first appeared here on Nov 13, 2018