India, the world’s largest democracy, is in the midst of state-level legislative elections that may serve as a proxy for the popularity of the ruling Indian Congress Party and the likelihood of fourth-generation scion Rahul Gandhi becoming the next prime minister.
The Congress Party, whose history stretches back to the pre-independence days of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, has dominated Indian politics for the past six decades.
Congress frequently finds itself at odds with India’s second political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the home of right-wing, conservative Indian nationalists.
Roughly speaking, Congress may be considered India’s “Labour Party” and BJP its “Conservative Party” (or, in American terms, Congress are the “Democrats” and BJP are the “Republicans” of India).
The BJP has a very interesting history --- officially formed in 1980, its history can be traced much further back to the pre-1947 era when Hindu nationalists not only demanded an independent India, but one completely dominated by Hindus.
The current BJP is the successor of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) party, which itself was the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that espoused openly militant Hindu activism and the suppression of minorities in India.
The RSS was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a doctor from the central Indian town of Nagpur in Maharashtra, who agitated for both independence from the British crown and the strict segregation of Hindus and Muslims.
What may surprise many in the West is that some of the most prominent figures of RSS deeply admired Fascism and Nazism, the two totalitarian movements that swept through Europe at the time.
As such, RSS was outlawed by the British (and was even periodically banned by the Indian government after independence). Indeed, Naturam Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi in 1948, was himself a former RSS member who felt that the Mahatma made too many generous concessions to the Muslims.
In the decades prior to that momentous event, senior RSS members had direct links to both Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Part of the RSS’ fascination with these totalitarian regimes was their shared opposition to the British Empire -- however, it went far beyond that. The RSS (as well as multitudes of other Hindu nationalists) admired the way Mussolini and Hitler reorganized their respective nations so quickly from the wreckage of war to build a powerful economy and military under the banner of patriotism and nationalism.
With respect to Hitler and Nazism, the links to India and Hinduism were deeper and more profound.
Much of Nazi ideology and imagery came from the symbols and history of ancient India – indeed, the infamous Nazi swastika was based on a Hindu symbol of strength and good fortune. Moreover, the legendary history (some would say, myth) of the invasion of prehistoric India by the mysterious “Aryan” tribes would (centuries later) provide Hitler with his notion of a “super master race” that was destined to dominate the world.
During World War II, some Indian nationalists received explicit support from German Nazis -- in fact, some Indian soldiers even served in Hitler's armies and in the notorious SS.
Marzia Casolari, an Italian scholar who studied Indian politics, once wrote of RSS’ connections with European fascism: The existence of direct contacts between the representatives of the [Italian] Fascist regime, including Mussolini, and Hindu nationalists demonstrates that Hindu nationalism had much more than an abstract interest in the ideology and practice of fascism. The interest of Indian Hindu nationalists in fascism and Mussolini must not be considered as dictated by an occasional curiosity, confined to a few individuals; rather, it should be considered as the culminating result of the attention that Hindu nationalists… focused on Italian dictatorship and its leader. To them, fascism appeared to be an example of conservative revolution.
Perhaps there was no greater admirer of Hitler and Mussolini in India than Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, another leading member of RSS.
In a speech delivered in 1940 (after the Second World War had commenced), Savarkar said: There is no reason to suppose that Hitler must be a human monster because he passes off as a Nazi or Churchill is a demigod because he calls himself a Democrat. Nazism proved undeniably the savior of Germany under the set of circumstances Germany was placed in.
Savarkar criticized Nehru for his staunch opposition to fascism.
Who are we to dictate to Germany… or Italy to choose a particular form of policy of government simply?” Savarkar rhetorically asked.
“Surely Hitler knows better than Pandit Nehru does what suits Germany best. The 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.”
Indeed, many Hindu nationalists also derided Gandhi for opposing Nazism and fascism. In 1939, a spokesman for the Hindu Mahasabha (Hindu Party) intimately connected Germany with Indian culture and people.
Germany’s solemn idea of the revival of the Aryan culture, the glorification of the Swastika, her patronage of Vedic learning and the ardent championship of the tradition of Indo-Germanic civilization are welcomed by the religious and sensible Hindus of India with a jubilant hope,” the spokesman blustered.
“Only a few Socialists headed by… Nehru have created a bubble of resentment against the present government of Germany, but their activities are far from having any significance in India.”
He added: “Germany’s crusade against the enemies of Aryan culture will bring all the Aryan nations of the world to their senses and awaken the Indian Hindus for the restoration of their lost glory.
While the RSS was not explicitly anti-Semitic (largely because India never had a large Jewish population), Savarkar even praised Hitler’s treatment of the Jews (at least before the death camps and ovens became known to the public at large).
In 1938, during the time of accelerating anti-Jewish legislation in Germany, Savarkar suggested a similar fate for India’s Muslims.
A nation is formed by a majority living therein,” he declared. “What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in minority were driven out from Germany.”
Another senior RSS member, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, also praised Nazism and believed the ideology should be applied to India.
German race pride has now become the topic of the day,” he wrote.
“To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races -- the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.
Golwalkar enthusiastically advocated for an India dominated by Hindus.
“There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race,” he wrote.
“That is the only sound view on the minorities problem. That is the only logical and correct solution. That alone keeps the national life healthy and undisturbed… The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.”
If one were to replace “Hindu” with “German,” Golwalkar’s words would match Hitler’s rhetoric almost exactly.
Savarkar also spelled out why Hindus should rule India and others should either be expelled or merged into the Hindu majority.
The Aryans who settled in India at the dawn of history already formed a nation, now embodied in the Hindus,” he wrote.“Hindus are bound together not only by the love they bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through their veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affection warm but also by the of the common homage we pay to our great civilization, our Hindu culture.
During a speech given to Indian military officers and Indian nationalist Subhash Chandra Bose in Dresden, Germany, in 1943, Hitler himself reportedly said: You are fortunate having been born in a country of glorious cultural traditions and a colossal manpower. I am impressed by the burning passion with which you and your Netaji [Bose] seek to liberate your country from foreign domination. Your Netaji's status is even greater than mine. While I am the leader of 80 million Germans, he is the leader of 400 million Indians. In all respects he is a greater leader and a greater general than myself. I salute him, and Germany salutes him. It is the duty of all Indians to accept him as their führer and obey him implicitly. I have no doubt that if you do this, his guidance will lead India very soon to freedom.”
After the defeat of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in World War II, Hindu nationalists distanced themselves from the totalitarian regimes of Europe.
However, their calls for a “Hindu India have only strengthened over the years. In the present climate, the RSS and BJP are both generally opposed to the Muslim presence and express extreme hostility toward India's principal Muslim rival, Pakistan.
Moreover, Nazism, and the mysticism of Adolf Hitler’s warped philosophies, remain an obsession with many Indians, almost 80 years after Der Führer came to power in Germany.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.