In Modi’s India, An Ancient Symbol Begins to Look Like Its Germanic Double

Issue 244

Manvi Jalan Mar 7, 2019

Growing up, two swastikas drawn by hand in sandalwood orange were painted on the corridor walls of my aunt’s home — not unusual in a Hindu household. Swastika literally translates to “well-being” in Sanskrit, symbolising prosperity and balance. But the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism in India is beginning to give the swastika the darker connotation it carries throughout the rest of the world.

I have always denied Hitler’s swastika has anything to do with Hinduism. The sacred symbol has been used not just by Hindus but by Buddhists and Jains, and made its way out of the Indian subcontinent and into the Western imagination as an emblem of prosperity and good luck long before it was reappropriated by Hitler. It was used to sell everything from fruit to Coca-Cola in early 20th-century America. The Girl Scout’s magazine was called the Swastika.

In Vedic feng shui, known as vastu shastra, the geometry of the swastika is believed to invite balance, life and prosperity in the home. It is commonly painted on the doors of most Indian homes, whether its inhabitants are deeply religious or not.

Growing up in this context, there has always been a marked difference in the Hindu swastika and Hitler’s warped version. For me, Hitler’s version of the swastika or hakenkreuz (hooked cross) symbolized an atrocious moment in global history when the dormant hatred in humanity rose and nearly conquered the world. In stark contrast, the benign Hindu swastika serves as a reminder to me of the love that lives in us all.

To distract from his disastrous economic policies, Modi has implemented a series of discriminatory laws meant to make the Hindu feel superior and stoke hatred.

This distinction is true even for the Indian Jewish community. Hitler simply reappropriated an Indian symbol. The hakenkreuz has never been a representation of our history or culture. Writer and activist, Jael Silliman’s personal experience is a testament to this. “As an Indian Jew, I separate the two swastikas entirely,” she writes. “I empathize with the European Jewish experience but it is not my trauma.”

It was not until I moved to the United States that I realized the swastika’s power as an emblem of hatred is still very much alive. In Trump’s America, neo-Nazis feel safe enough to come out of hiding and the swastika is their preferred calling card. In one instance, the symbol was spray painted in orange on the walls of a Jewish professor’s office at Columbia University. The act betrayed the ignorance of the perpetrators in more ways than one. In Hinduism, orange or saffron — the color of fire — represents purity. The vandals unintentionally blessed the professor if we go by Hindu philosophy.

Meanwhile, Modi’s ascent has forced me to reconsider the swastika’s meaning in my home country. His virulent religious nationalism has deepened the divide between Hindu and Muslim communities, with rates of violence and hate crimes against minorities rising after he came into power in 2014.

It is convenient for the Hindu elite to ignore the chain reaction of systemic hate because it affects the poor the most. Their defense for Modi is based on the argument that his policies are designed to strengthen the Indian economy. But the plight of the poor has far from improved under his reign, particularly that of the rural poor.

To distract from his disastrous economic policies, Modi has implemented a series of discriminatory laws meant to make the Hindu feel superior and stoke hatred, such as a nationwide beef ban enforced in 2017. The government claimed that the consumption of beef is ‘against India’ as cows are considered holy to Hindus. Meat smuggling has now become a profitable but dangerous trade. Muslim smugglers crossing conservative borders were being attacked by Hindu mobs, beaten and slaughtered like the meat in their trucks.

In another instance of violence, an 8-year-old Muslim Kashmiri girl, Asifa Bano, was found strangled to death with her skull bashed in last year. She had been tied up in a Hindu temple and gang-raped for days, police — who only began looking for the missing child after public protests — have said. A government minister and four police officers are among those who were eventually charged in the case. The child’s family were forced to bury her on non-Hindu occupied land, miles away from their home, as right-wing Hindus cried out in defense of the perpetrators.

India may have gained its freedom from British colonial rule in 1947 but it has never truly been free. The British manipulated our people, pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other just as Modi’s government is doing now.

Mainstream Indian media is wrought with propaganda. Journalists who have actively spoken out against Modi have found themselves targeted by the government, living in fear. More than one has shown up dead.

Extremists have been emboldened to act in Modi’s India, just as white supremacists here in the United States have been emboldened by his ally, President Trump. Critics have drawn comparisons between Hitler’s fascism and Modi and Trump’s policies. While it is highly improbable that either Modi or Trump are capable of mass genocide, their brand of politics instills fear and hate of the ‘other’ in the popular mind, just as Hitler’s did.

Hinduism has historically been a peaceful religion. But Modi’s nationalism and its adherents have cast our religious symbols, including the Indian swastika, as props in a game of hate. Hindu extremists are rising and are out for blood.

Modi and Trump will one day leave office and Hitler is long dead. But the people who so deeply buy into their narratives of hate seem to be increasing in number and that’s what I’m afraid of. I am afraid of how far fear will drive us to madness, to war. Where once the bells and chants of temples were a peaceful sound to my ears, they now serve as a reminder of the terror the so-called righteous are capable of.

The swastika is no longer an innocent symbol to me and if other Hindus are honest with themselves they will agree our sacred emblem is coming closer to overlapping Hitler’s.

Photo credit: Adam Cohn.

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