All that remains of the sign above the Hitler clothing store in Ahmedabad, India, is the swastika that used to dot its “i.” Citing cultural insensitivity, the municipality tore it down on Oct. 30 after the store’s owners refused to change it. Rajesh Shah, a co-owner of the shop, which opened in August, is flummoxed. “We are popular because of the name,” he says. “Our customers were not upset about the name. They said, ‘Don’t change it.’ Ahmedabadis like the name because they know Hitler [has not done] anything harmful to India.”
Lacking the sting of anti-Semitism but troubling nonetheless, the Hitler brand is gaining strength in India. Mein Kampf is a bestseller, and bossy people are often nicknamed Hitler on television and in movies.
In 2006 a cafe called Hitler’s Cross opened in Mumbai; in 2011 a pool hall named Hitler’s Den opened nearby in Nagpur. Owners of both say Hitler was a draw; the names were changed in the face of criticism from Jewish groups. (In Ahmedabad, store owner Shah says that only foreigners complained.)
Hero Hitler in Love, a Punjabi comedy about a man with an explosive temper, and the Hindi film Gandhi to Hitler, a sympathetic portrait of the dictator’s last days (Gandhi once wrote to the Führer), came out last year. A soap opera, Hitler Didi—or “big sister Hitler”—is a hit. Bal Thackeray, the leader of a far-right Hindu party who recently died, professed admiration for Hitler.
Unlike in some parts of Europe such as Russia and Austria, where Mein Kampf has been embraced by the extreme right, Hitler’s popularity in India is not the result of anti-Semitism, says Navras Jaat Aafreedi, a professor of social sciences at Gautam Buddha University in New Delhi. He says it stems from a dearth of European history classes in schools. To the extent that German history is taught, he says, it’s in the context of “the view that had Hitler not weakened the British Empire by the Second World War, the British would have never voluntarily left India.” The country’s Jewish community—some 5,300 people—is one of a few in the world to have never been persecuted by their countrymen, he says.
Solomon Sopher, president of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Mumbai, agrees: “We have never been persecuted by any caste or creed. Not even by the Muslims.” He adds that Indians are prone to “hero worship” of strong military leaders. “Lack of examples of strong leadership in India leads the Indian youth to admire Hitler,” explains Aafreedi.
That may explain why Mein Kampf, the dictator’s memoir, sells briskly in Mumbai and is printed by at least 13 publishers in India, according to Economic & Political Weekly. Mein Kampf is also becoming a must-read for some business schools applicants. “Each year, when I sit for admission interviews, there [are] books that are mentioned as favorite reads” by applicants, says Uma Narain, a professor at S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research. “This year, many referred to Mein Kampf.” While Narain says she wouldn’t dream of teaching Mein Kampf, she can understand the lure of “the autobiographical account and political ideology of a charismatic man who supposedly got things done.”
Although Shah says the Hitler clothing store’s name was apolitical, he says the controversy has been good for business. He is petitioning the courts to reverse the decision to take the name down. “We’re going to fight for the name ‘Hitler,’ ” he says.