The Long Shadow of the Nazi 'Kristallnacht' Fell on the 2002 Violence in Gujarat

The demonisation of the Jews in Nazi Germany and that of Muslims in India are startlingly similar.

The Gujarat riots (February 28–March 1, 2002) have been compared to anti-Jewish pogroms that took place in 1941 in Jedwabne and Radzilow, in Nazi-occupied Poland. I would argue that the Gujarat pogrom, in which the then chief minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist (BJP) government stand accused of being complicit, has more in common with the anti-Jewish pogrom that took place in Nazi Germany on November 9–10, 1938. This incident was popularly called “Kristallnacht” (“Night of Broken Glass”) at the time, referring to the shards of glass from the vandalised Jewish homes, shops and synagogues with which streets in German cities and towns were bestrewn. Later, it came to be called the November Pogrom.

It is well known that proponents of Hindu nationalism openly admire ideas of racial purity and homogeneity that characterised European fascism and Nazism. A central ideal of the latter was the national community or Volksgemeinschaft, based on a perceived racial kinship of the so-called Aryans. In order to maintain the “racial purity” of this “Aryan” community, the Semites, who supposedly represented an “impure” racial type, needed to be “cleansed” from its body politic. In Gujarat, the pogrom of 2002 represented a concerted effort by the Hindu nationalists to establish a shuddh (pure) Gujarat, for which “sacrificing” elements which were perceived to be “polluting” and “impure” was considered necessary.

It is also common knowledge that demonisation of Muslims in India predates the rise of Hindu nationalism. British colonisers, pursuing a divide and rule policy, encouraged tensions between the communities. The Partition of 1947 has also left unhealed scars in the collective psyche of both communities. A legacy of this history is that many Hindus continue to perceive Indian Muslims as the “other” who threatens Indian society “from within”.

Jews were singled out by the Nazi propaganda machine as “the enemy within”. Though most of the half a million Jews of Germany had lived in the country for generations and considered themselves to be Germans, they were seen as the “other” by many, a prejudice that the Nazis could exploit. The November Pogrom was the culmination of the systematic persecution of Jews from 1933 onwards, accompanied by rabid anti-Semitic propaganda.

The pogrom in Gujarat represented a high point in the systematic discrimination against the Muslims, which intensified with the BJP coming to power in the state in 1995. The socio-economic and -political spheres in Gujarat are controlled by a large community of upper caste Hindu and Jain traders. This nexus is particularly susceptible to Hindu nationalist politics, with its upper-caste and pro-business agenda.

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The unfettered capitalist policies of the state government, along with the decline of the Gandhian ideals of social justice and tolerance, have resulted in widening the communal chasm. Marginalised workers belonging to Hindu lower castes, with precarious or no jobs, have increasingly turned to Hindu religious politics since it gives them a sense of solidarity.

The shooting down of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by 17-year-old Polish Jew Hershel Grynszpan on the morning of November 7, 1938 served the same function as the burning of a train coach containing Hindu nationalist cadres at the station of Godhra on February 27, 2002. Fifty-seven Hindus perished in the fire, which was never satisfactorily explained.

In both cases, politicians in power aggravated the situations. As news of the attempt on Ernst vom Rath’s life reached Germany on the evening of November 7, anti-Semitic violence broke out in Kurhessen in south Germany, mostly at the instigation of regional Nazi leaders. On the evening of November 9, news of the death of Ernst vom Rath reached the Nazi ruling coterie. Hitler decided that the police was to be withdrawn so that the “spontaneous demonstrations” could continue and the Jews could feel the rage of the people.

Fast forward to Gujarat, February 27, 2002: Though the administrative officer of Godhra, Jayanti Ravi, collector of Panchamahal, to which Godhra belonged, gave a public statement that the Godhra train burning was an accident, chief minister Narendra Modi gave a televised address that it was a pre-planned attack.

On February 28, Narendra Modi publicly claimed that the Godhra incident was a “one-sided collective violent act of terrorism from one community”. This implied the involvement of Islamic terrorists, whom many Hindus associate with Pakistan. Modi’s insinuation thus hinted that the loyalty of Indian Muslims lay with Pakistan. This is reminiscent of the German propaganda that sparked off the November Pogrom. As vom Rath succumbed to his injuries on November 9, Goebbelsian propaganda was quick to affirm that the international Jewry was behind it.

The co-ordinated violence in Gujarat started after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, supported by the BJP government, called for a total shutdown of Ahmedabad on February 28 in protest against the Godhra incident. On that day, a large mob, comprising young men wearing the Hindu nationalist “uniform” – khaki pants and saffron headbands – went on rampage against Muslim lives and properties, depending on official documents like voter lists to identify Muslim homes.

The role of these squads is comparable to that of the Stoßtruppen (assault detachments) of the notorious Nazi paramilitary, the SA (Sturmabteilung), which carried out most of the violence during the November Pogrom.

In both cases, the police were either absent from the scenes of carnage or were mute spectators. The pattern of complicity and inaction of the police and state administration is not unprecedented in India. It was manifest, for example, in the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984. This behavioural pattern is due to an inherent anti-minority bias and to the practice of police taking orders from politicians in power rather than from their own superiors. This attitude appears to be a factor common to a police force which swore allegiance to the dictator Adolf Hitler in 1933 and that which swears its loyalty to the secular and democratic constitution of contemporary India.

During the November Pogrom, a few policemen and firefighters intervened to prevent the worst excesses. Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt and his superior Wilhelm Krützfeld actually prevented the burning of the synagogue on Oranienburgerstraße in Berlin. Instances of police officers acting with professional integrity occurred in some places in Gujarat, like Surat, which remained peaceful due to the efforts of the local police commissioner, V.K. Gupta.

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What makes the Gujarat pogrom particularly evocative of the Kristallnacht is the purported role of the politicians. IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt (who is languishing in jail) had testified against Modi, claiming that he had been present at a meeting on February 27 in which the chief minister allegedly told top police officials to let the Hindus vent their anger against the Muslims. Whether Modi instructed the police not to stand in the way of Hindu backlash remains disputed, but his public legitimisation of the pogrom as a “spontaneous reaction of the Hindus” is on record. It is an eerie reminder of Goebbels ascribing the November Pogrom to the “healthy instincts of the German people”.

The 57 dead in the Godhra incident were projected as Hindu martyrs, whose tragic death was used by the ruling party for political gains in the upcoming state elections. Ernst vom Rath was given a state funeral on November 17 in the presence of Hitler himself, making the deceased a martyr to the cause.

How much did citizens know about these incidents and to what extent did they participate in them? Their response to the November Pogrom was variegated. During the Gujarat riots, the blurring of boundaries between the state, the dominant political ideology and the people, which is a characteristic of fascist mobilisations, was more noticeable as a relatively large number of ordinary citizens participated in the violence.

The number and percentage of ordinary people participating in the events under discussion remain controversial, but it is clear that the everyday codes of law-abiding bourgeois conduct remained wilfully suspended during both the episodes.

The part played by the media in inciting hatred against minorities show surprising parallels in both cases. The story of the attack on vom Rath dominated the front pages of German newspapers, particularly the Nazi mouthpieces, Völkischer Beobachter and Der Angriff, which spewed venom against the Jews. After the Godhra incident, popular Gujarati language newspapers like Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar carried unfounded write-ups directed against Muslims in inflammatory language. In both cases, violence was not only justified by the perpetrators on the ground of a supposed victimisation of the majority community through an inimical minority community; violence against the minorities was projected as patriotic duty.

Here, one must note, however, that in Nazi Germany, the press and the media were completely controlled by Goebbelsian propaganda machinery. After the Gujarat riots, there were fearless critical voices raised by local English language newspapers as well as the national media.

Another trait common to both episodes was the targeting of religious establishments of the minorities. Just as more than a thousand synagogues were burnt down during the Kristallnacht, in Gujarat at least 527 mosques, madrasas, cemeteries and dargah were vandalised.

The November Pogrom was not the first instance of destruction of synagogues in Germany. Novel were the nationwide, systematic and ritualistic aspects of it. The Pogrom of 1938 seemed to fulfil Martin Luther’s exhortation from 1543, that the synagogues of the Jews should be set on fire. Luther’s statements about Jews and Judaism were used by a number of influential theologians and pastors to reinforce cultural anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

Burning of mosques during the Gujarat pogrom also has a historical dimension: revenge. Colonial history writing and post-colonial popular narratives have portrayed the demolition of Hindu temples by Muslim rulers as events creating a perpetual trauma in Hindu memorial consciousness. Such popular perceptions continue, even though historians have pointed out that motives for such destructions were complex and that the trope of “Hindu trauma” was created by the British colonisers. Hindu nationalism has made this purported historical trauma an instrument to mobilise Hindu sentiments (and votes).

What the Jewish community in Germany faced during the November Pogrom was a monstrous amount of hate and spite, with which the Nazi regime and a part of the German society declared open war on the so-called “internal enemies”. With this declaration of war, Jewish neighbours, colleagues and co-citizens were depersonalised and stigmatised as “Jews”. A similar case of depersonalisation of Muslims was evident during the Gujarat riots, in which Muslim neighbours or acquaintances were turned into impersonal stereotypes.

Notably, the role of sexual violence in both instances is different. Though there were some instances of molestation and rape of Jewish women during the Kristallnacht, these were either not very widespread or not widely reported, since they carried the stigma of Rassenschande or racial disgrace for “Aryans” who had sexual contact with Jews. Widespread sexual violence against Muslim women was a singular feature of the Gujarat pogrom.

Most of those indicted in the Gujarat riots, including Modi, have managed to evade legal consequences, while the victims continue to wait for justice. Relative impunity of perpetrators and inadequate justice for victims also marked the November Pogrom trials in Nazi Germany as well as in the judicial process of 1947-49.

Kristallnacht signified the beginning of a new, ominous phase of Nazi politics. The Gujarat pogrom is an indicator of the predicament of minorities struggling to survive in an ambience of bigotry, fostered by majoritarian politics that strives to form an organic national community based on one religion. In this respect, it echoes the Kristallnacht.

Adapted from the author’s article titled ‘The long shadow of the “Kristallnacht” on the “Gujarat Pogrom” in India? A comparative analysis’. Published in: New perspective on Kristallnacht: After 80 years, the Nazi Pogrom in Global Comparisons, (Eds): Wolf Gruner and Steven J.Ross, 2019, published by Purdue University Press for University of Southern California.

Baijayanti Roy is a researcher affiliated to the Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main. She is currently writing a book on knowledge of India and Nazi politics.