Nationalist movements emerge everywhere, but in India, pre-existing ethno-religious tensions between Hindu and Muslim citizens have been amplified by a white-washing of Hitler, Nazis, and the Holocaust.

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When writing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in Hindu extremism, I committed the cardinal sin of not defining a key term: fascism. This was a conscious choice, because I’ve written before on how quickly we mire ourselves in political word games. Better to start with the government figure that Western media keeps centering, as if Modi were singlehandedly responsible for centuries of sectarian strife. He is a catalyst, absolutely. But today, as we explore fascism as it relates to India’s current violence, we focus on the main reactant.

Westerners come to the term “fascism” from different contexts, so we’re often using the word to disparate ends. In the US especially, the rise of far-right groups using dog-whistle rhetoric prompted terms like militant nationalism, fascism, and neo-Nazism. But then, as often happens in these discourses? Savvy right-wing pundits were able to spin the term to accuse the left (and anything done by the state in its hands) of being fascist, too. Thus we lose the deeper content of this language to “both-sides-ism”. Every term becomes mere symbol for one’s cause, and weapon against the Other. Word games.

(Not a new phenomenon, sadly. George Orwell wrote that “fascist” had become meaningless, synonymous with “bully”, as early as 1944.)

Our history around fascism is also deeply impoverished. In the West, it’s seen primarily through a simplistic World War II lens: the righteous Allies versus Hitler, et al. Rarer is the person who can tell you how fascist governance played out across different Axis-power states. Or about General Franco’s fascist rule of Spain. Or precursor subgroups in France and Japan after World War I. And when it comes to Britain’s colonies?

Well, that’s where our historical understanding of fascism might fall shortest of all.

India’s Nazis: The Free India Legion in WWII

Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime PM, was a profoundly racist man, but you might not have learned this in school. Indeed, in my classes, India’s contribution to the war effort was always treated as a footnote. After all, Canada was a British colony once, too. How different could the politics of our roles in the war effort be?

But the Bengal “famine” of 1943 was much like the Irish potato “famine” of 1845 to 1852, in that neither was a natural famine at all. The Irish had been compelled to keep up its shipments of more nourishing crops to Britain, even as its lone subsistence crop suffered blight. Likewise, the British withheld relief supplies of wheat while forcing India to keep delivering rice to the war effort. It also turned down Canada and the US’s offers of food aid, and wouldn’t let India use its own funds to try to secure aid by other means. Estimates for the death toll vary, but around three million died.

Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, was deeply disturbed by this. In a private diary, he admitted to not seeing much difference between Churchill’s outlook and Hitler’s. He also claimed that Churchill had said to him, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”, and that starvation was on them for “breeding like rabbits”.

So, imagine WWII from this colony’s point of view. Many Indians fought and died for the Allied cause, but for others, this war was a perfect opportunity to break from the rule of a people who held them in vile contempt. All the clear moral lines of Western WWII mythology look pretty fuzzy through the lens of a long-oppressed people. If the Third Reich offered aid to Indians who wanted to overthrow the British, why decline?

In 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose, of the Indian National Congress and Indian Liberation Movement, escaped British house arrest to Nazi Germany. In Berlin, he rallied Indian students in residence, along with recently captured Indian POWs, into an collaboration under the Waffen-SS. The Indian Legion went by many names (Tiger Legion, The Free India Legion), and its missions varied. Initially, it was meant to help Germans pathfind through India to reach British targets, but the group was then deployed more widely. Meanwhile, Bose went on in 1942 to transform the Indian National Army, an Axis-Indian group forged with Japanese support. He then presided over the Provisional Government of Free India, in the Japanese-occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Those still with the Free India Legion at the end of WWII were of course seized by the Allied powers, and set to face trial for treason. However, Indian outcry was so great that authorities quietly put such proceedings to bed instead.

This marked an uneasy end to a complex colonial history of WWII—but not to India’s freshly emboldened nationalist cause.

An Aryan interlude

It bears noting, too, that while the Third Reich treated its Japanese collaborators as honorary Aryans, the binding thread between the Nazi regime and its Indian Waffen-SS troops was their shared belief in Aryanism.

In the nineteenth century, genealogy-obsessed European states were highly invested in figuring out where the Aryans lived, to lay claim to being peoples of the purest lands. These Aryans spoke Proto-Indo-European, from whence so many modern tongues descended, and many assumed they represented a racial ideal. (This took off in the 1850s especially, among the French and Germans.) The logical leaps in this nationalist nonsense are legion, but also tragic. If more people had looked at historical documents, they would have found a people with different appearances and names. A people that had come together not based on shared skin or ethnicity, but a shared vision of society.

And that reading was certainly available to the educated of the era, too. As one thorough analysis of the word “Aryan” in an 1881 issue of The Atlantic concluded,

We are so accustomed to consider language a mark of race that it is difficult to avoid using linguistic epithets in an ethnological sense, and a good deal of confused thinking sometimes results from this. We have above alluded to the Aryans as a dominant race, which long since overran Europe and is now spreading over America; yet it is easy to see that we have no means of determining how far the various peoples who speak Aryan languages are of common descent. It is never safe to use language as a direct criterion of race, for speech and blood depend on different sets of circumstances, which do not always vary together.

“Who Are the Aryans?” by John Fiske, The Atlantic, February 1881

Nevertheless, the elision of words for ethnolinguistic communities and words for blood-bound peoples persists. And while Hitler certainly leveraged the racialized component to horrific enough ends in the Holocaust? The Hindutva, a far-right subset of Hindu worshipers, cleave even closer to the source text in their use of toxic Aryanist ideas.

We centrally know about these ancient people, after all, through Vedic texts. Traditional Hindu documents, these Vedas now sometimes serve to advance loaded political histories. For the Hindutva, a theory of indigenous Aryanism identifies India as having belonged to their ancestors for thousands of years in an unbroken chain of ownership. Anyone else is therefore the interloper, interfering with national purity.

Hero worship, and distortion

Today in India, Bose retains historical prominence, but his significance is as messy as our use of the word “fascism”. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sported one of his grandnephews, Chandra Kumar Bose, in the role of West Bengal VP. For this descendant, Adolf Hitler was a “nationalist who never betrayed his nation”. He and Modi now promote the elder Bose’s fight for Indian independence in ways that align him with current Hindu nationalism. Modi inaugurated the opening of a museum for the elder Bose in 2019. Another opened in January, along with a holographic “statue” at the India Gate, for the 125th anniversary of Bose’s birth.

But a great-nephew disagrees with how Bose’s legacy has been co-opted by the BJP. Historian Sugata Bose argues that his great-uncle’s coalition for a free India was for all Indians. It was to be a multicultural effort, and one that refused colonizer-imposed ideas of Hindu and Muslim periodization before the British took control. As this Bose puts it,

I would say that if Netaji [Respected Leader, Subhas Chandra Bose’s honorific] had been around, I think no one would have dared in India to issue those kinds of calls for genocide of India’s most significant religious minority. He believed in what he repeatedly described as the need for cultural intimacy. This went beyond mere tolerance of other religious faiths.

Interview transcript with Karan Thapar, The Wire India

Hitler as a captain of industry

Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler has become a fashionable brand and an exemplar of leadership.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Hitler is ice cream, Hitler is locks, Hitler is on the cover of a “Great Leaders” book for children. And Mein Kampf is self-help for some Indian business students.

In 2012, a menswear store opened in Ahmedabad, Gujarat under the name “Hitler”. It also had the Nazi swastika (tilted) instead of the traditional Indian version. The owners changed the name after public pressure, but their attitude around its use is telling:

“None of the other people are complaining, only a few Jewish families. I have not hurt any sentiments of the majority Hindu community. If he did something in Germany, is that our concern?” Mr. Shah asked.

“In India, Businesses Named After Hitler Defend Their Decision”, India Ink, New York Times

Endorsements of Hitler from Hindu extremists go even further. “Hindutva” was first coined in its political sense by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a nationalist historian who worked for Indian independence from the late nineteenth century well into the twentieth. He spent years in prison, on charges relating to a revolt against a pro-democracy British initiative (which irked Hindu nationalists for giving Muslims a separate electorate along with greater access for all). In prison, he wrote the famed Essentials of Hindutva (later, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?). In it, he defined a Hindu is someone for whom India is both “Fatherland and Holyland”. This makes control of the state vital to the faith.

And this is key for understanding Savarkar’s admiration of Hitler. Researcher Marzia Casolari notes that he once argued, in defense of Hitler’s decisions, “[t]he very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.” But Savarkar also supported the creation of a Jewish state after the war, as a buffer against Islamic encroachment. In all matters he was a nationalist first, a fierce believer that a strong state led by its true inheritors had the right to unite, absorb, and expel all others as it saw fit.

It just so happens that, in the Hindutva view, Hindus are the true inheritors of a strong-state India. Whatever the impact for any minorities still living there.

Every term becomes mere symbol for one’s cause, and weapon against the Other. Word games.

Reclaiming the history that matters

Fascism places loyalty to the nation above all else. Since this doesn’t happen naturally—since human beings tend to diversify their loyalties across interests and identities—enforcement becomes essential. A top-down strongman, dictatorial and bolstered by a military presence and tight control over mediums of dissent, usually does the trick. But a mythology also helps secure power in the first place. Encouraging people to fixate on self-improvement is a good start. Fixated on physical cleanliness, ideological purism follows closely. Immigrants and other outsiders become social infections, poisoning the well. Having traditional family values, a robustly defined domestic sphere, reduces the number of people who might cause trouble in the political realm. Histories of cultural pride, with easy scapegoats to explain the nation’s fall from past grace, solidifies the in-group’s eagerness to restore their ancient entitlement at any cost.

We have been through all of this before.

And yet, we’re far from historically literate enough to do much about it.

That can change, though. We can choose to put aside the word games and focus on the causal chains, the key regional factors underpinning every fascism’s rise.

Whether we will is debatable, though—because India’s fascism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our own countries harbor similarly toxic points of view. And as we’ll see in Part 3? That can either give us more agency over this global nightmare than we might realize… or too many fires on the homefront to prepare us to confront our neighbors’ blaze at all.

Fascism in India

Part 1: Who’s ‘in charge’ of 1.4 billion people?

Part 2: The role of Nazis in Hindu nationalism

Part 3: The global turn toward nationalist politics

Part 4: The weaponization of religious custom

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.