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Musings on the popularity of Mein Kampf

By Satya Sivaraman

What sells on Indian railway platforms is a good indicator of what the average Indian wants in life. When Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a bestseller at railway bookstalls, you could infer that India is full of citizens burning with anger at corruption, pseudo-secularism, indiscipline and ‘polluting’ religious minorities, and looking for a disciplined dictator. Despite this, luckily, there are some important factors that preserve Indian diversity

Browsing through a bookshop on the Bhopal railway platform recently, amidst the slick ‘How to be successful’ manuals and beaming Bollywood glossies, I came across a book in Hindi that got both my eyebrows raised high. It was a full, translated version of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf, a copy of which I promptly procured as a souvenir.

What sells on Indian railway platforms is, I believe, a good indicator of what the average, train-travelling middle classes want in life. The bookshop owner indicated that Mein Kampf was indeed popular enough for him to stock the Nazi bible regularly.

With my train about to depart, I had no time to interview him on the profile of the typical customer he encountered but I can very well imagine the fellow -- a desi version of Wilhelm Reich’s ‘little man’. Clean-shaven, law-abiding, middle class and mild-natured, but burning with righteous anger at the corrupt, unjust world around him.

The fellow would typically put all the blame on ‘wayward’ girls, hippy youth, ‘pseudo-secular’ intellectuals and people of a certain religious group ‘polluting’ Mother India -- that Brahmin-looking woman masquerading as the Motherland! And the solution to India’s various problems would be, in his view, to establish a strong dictatorship, shoot the entire lot of ‘traitors’ and ensure ‘discipline’ among the people.

The popularity in India of Mein Kampf, that bible of social and political intolerance, is not a new phenomenon. From the time Hitler rose to power in Germany in the 1930s there have been strong currents in the Indian mainstream that admired the Fuhrer for all he stood for and indeed even sought transplantation of his perverted philosophy to Indian soil.

That such forces never really succeeded in their evil mission is testimony to the simple and beautiful fact that Indian ‘soil’ has far greater amounts of life-giving and life-regenerating powers than all the poison anyone can pour into it. Historically, there are many factors behind this strength that enables Indian society to live together without breaking apart.

One important factor is India’s much-talked-about diversity of population, the numerous religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups it is made up with, new categories of identification emerging and adding to the hugely confusing but enjoyable mix. The beauty of all this is, of course, the fact that none of these groups are strong enough on their own to dominate national politics in blanket fashion, thus preventing the kind of fascist takeover that was possible in Germany in the 1930s.

Whether one should call this quality ‘tolerance’ or not I am not sure because what seems to be happening at different levels of Indian social life is actually a balancing of various forces. Very often this ‘balance’ is unjust and achieved at the cost of the dignity and wellbeing of marginalised groups such as the dalits, indigenous peoples, women and minorities of different kinds.

However, such oppression operates mainly in the local context and is often subdued at the national level by the various competing forms of intolerance all jockeying for attention and cutting their rivals to size when needed. As a friend once remarked, there can be no Indian Hitler because the moment any fellow attempts to be one, the first question that will pop up is 'Iska jaat kya hai?’ Another way of putting this is to say there are so many Hitlers in India that there can be no one HITLER to lord it over all of them! 

Adding to the human mosaic that India is made up of is, interestingly enough, the diversity of its landscape and ecology -- from the majestic high mountains of the Himalayas to the forests of Bastar, and from the cool, rolling hills of Meghalaya to the balmy shores of Kerala. The different climatic zones, crop patterns, fauna and flora that come along all naturally militate against homogeneity.

A less discussed but very important factor in keeping levels of social acceptance of differences quite high in the Indian context is also the predominantly agricultural and rural population in the country. According to the 2001 Census of India, over 72% of the people still live in villages, though the ratio is quickly changing in favour of greater urbanisation as the economy expands.

As has been well noted in studies of sectarian or communal violence, rural folk -- with a few exceptions -- tend to be relatively immune to such passions as compared with their urban counterparts. The 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat saw considerable violence in rural areas also, but then the average village in the state, which is the most urbanised province in India, would be classified as ‘urban’ in many other parts of the country!

The key ingredient promoting tolerance in rural areas is simply the availability of space -- geographical, cultural, social -- which allows people to be who they are without stepping on the toes of their neighbours. Even the horrific Indian caste system operates within clearly marked spaces that are easier to maintain in the rural setting, and violence occurs only when such boundaries are violated in some way.

In the urban areas, while the more socially tolerant people of poorer localities lack only geographical space, the middle class, despite their bigger homes, lack the social and cultural generosity to accommodate those who are not ‘one of us’. Here violations of space, both real and perceived, are more common and the retaliation swift and nasty.

As urbanisation spreads, industrialisation displaces rural populations to the cities, and spaces of all kinds shrink, intolerance increases. Together there is a hardening of once-diffuse caste, religious or linguistic identities as different groups seek to protect their territory from encroachment by ‘outsiders’.

All this is multiplied manifold in our times by the mass media, particularly 24x7 television with its hysterical reporting style and dumbed-down categories which ignore nuances of every kind that make up complex realities.

In the early- and mid-1980s, for example, at the height of Bhindranwale’s Khalistan movement in Punjab, though mass television was still in its infancy, skewed media reportage played a big role in the identification of every Sikh with ‘terrorism’. While separatist hardliners committed enough heinous crimes of their own, the pogrom against Sikhs that happened in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi was a result of such stereotyping. Suddenly, anyone with a turban and a beard was a ‘terrorist’, to be feared intensely and killed or driven away at first opportunity.

The ’90s, with the opening up of the Indian economy, fast-paced urbanisation and booming mass media took this logic of ‘branding’ people, communities and religious groups further (the limits of which we are still exploring in the late-2000s). Another good example from this period, of the role played by the media in consolidating nascent identities, was the Ramayana soap opera which played over national television repeatedly and helped the Hindutva politicians build a pan-Indian constituency from almost nowhere.

The rise of mass consumption and an advertisement-driven consumerist culture around the country has also had its impact on de-sensitising the Indian middle classes. While in an earlier era many would have tried to explore the historical reasons behind militancy and tried to think of long-term solutions, the attitude now is ‘why are these strange looking blokes disturbing my orgasm?’. The call for tougher anti-terror laws that strike at the heart of the Indian Constitution and democracy finds massive support among the consuming classes precisely because they want all real, potential and imagined ‘disruptors’ out of the way -- forever!

Ironically enough, all this may be about to change because of the global financial crisis that will see its full impact on India in 2009. With the various deities of Mammon toppling like dominoes all around there is bound to be a forced introspection of what the callous, money-first policies starting from the ’80s till now were really all about. Speculation will hopefully become confined to astrologers and not remain the mass phenomenon it has now become, with everyone from journalists and economists to housewives and shopkeepers indulging in it.

The failure of US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan under George Bush Jr will also have a sobering effect on the perception of issues such as terrorism and the politics of hatred, and there may be a call for a change of approach. The elevation of Barack Obama to the US Presidency, an unprecedented signal of hope, is an indication already of the mood transformation underway in the world (whether he delivers or not is yet to be seen).

Issues such as global warming that are gaining popular currency will also call into question the blind and destructive industrialisation promoted by financial ‘wizards’-- who pull fake rabbits out of their hats while making real resources disappear everywhere. As harsh economic conditions begin to bite, people will probably try to be more careful with how they spend and consume.

What I have said in the lines above is, of course, a best-case scenario. If my predicted self-reflection fails to happen book vendors around the country will make merry selling more copies of Mein Kampf!

(Satya Sivaraman is a journalist and videomaker based in New Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009