The Swastika in Charlottesville: the symbol needs to be reclaimed from Nazis

Be it Martin Luther King Jr’s fascination with Satyagraha or Robert Oppenheimer’s recitation from the Bhagavad Gita, any reference to the legacy of his ancestors in a far off land is sure to stir up strong feelings in the heart of an individual of Indian extraction.

The Charlottesville affair, which has been making headlines for quite some time now, does not have any remotely Indian connection whatsoever. Yet, a symbol with an unmistakably Indian name kept surfacing in connection with the events. I am referring to the Swastika here. It was sheer frustration to witness the misuse of our little emblem of “well being”, by white supremacists and enlightened liberals alike.

The Germans did us, Indians, a great favor once upon a time in terms of soft-power propaganda. The obsession of German intellectuals like Friedrich Schlegel, Heinrich Heine, Arthur Schopenhauer and others with India’s Hindu-Buddhist past immensely popularized Classical Indian heritage in the Western world.

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Then in an inauspicious hour Herr Hitler chose to tango with ancient India and adopted the Swastika to represent his worldview and ruined it all. Forgotten was its ancient association with India and many other cultures across the globe and the Swastika was permanently registered as the very token of evil in the collective consciousness of the West.

Of late, euphoria over ancient India is slightly out of fashion, in the erudite circles. Yet, this little icon of ancient India continues to be at the center of a throbbing controversy. The stakeholders in this debate include the contrite Germans, ever ardent to efface all vestiges of the Nazi past of their fatherland, the worldwide Jewish community to whom reference to anything even remotely associated with Nazism is likely to touch a raw nerve, the racist Neo-Nazi gangs who are hell bent on resurrecting Hitler’s ghost and last but not the least, Hindu groups all over the world who wish to prevent an unjust vilification of something they hold dear and sacred.

Two successive German attempts to ban the Swastika across Europe were voted down in the EU Parliament in 2005 and 2007 because of staunch opposition from Hindu groups. In 2015, it came to news that the George Washington University in the US was deliberating upon a ban upon the emblem. Finally in the sequence of events came the Charlottesville protests and counter protests and once again the media is abuzz with vitriolic diatribes against the symbol of evil.

Had the association of Swastika with the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain cultures not been so alive and intimate the debate would not have gained much steam in the first place. It is yet to be seen as to how Americans are going to reconcile these ever pressing demands for bans and anathemas with their vigorous defence of the First Amendment, but in Europe the annihilation of the Swastika would have been over and done with had there been no opposition from the Hindu organizations.

Such opposition was spontaneous, given the fact that the Swastika is a revered symbol today amongst us, the followers of the Indic religions, as it was in hallowed antiquity. This symbol continues to adorn our temples, it is painted on our homes and altars and we continue to name our children after it. Given the free traffic of information and ideas of our times such flat and unqualified demonization of the Swastika cannot be put down to ignorance of facts. Callous indifference to the sentiments of more than one-fifth of the world population is perhaps a more cogent explanation.

The blast of disdain touches a raw nerve on this end as well. After all, by what right did the toothbrush-mustachioed dictator have a greater claim upon this symbol than the followers of three major world religions? How indelible indeed was the stigma attached to the Swastika by the Third Reich that even its five thousand year old civilizational ties could not redeem it?

When was the last time that we heard the world decrying the Finger of Tawheed since that is a favourite gesture of every Jihadi terrorist? How many proposals were made to ban the cross because its association with the unpleasant memories of the Inquisition, especially from the heathen point of view?

Singling out the Swastika to symbolize anti-Semitism represents a myopic perspective of history. The incorporation of the Swastika in Hitler’s warped worldview was a sudden and a disconnected incident, with the symbol having nothing intrinsically anti-Jewish about it. The Holocaust, as a matter of fact was the climax in a long tradition of anti-Semitism in Europe. From Shylock to Dreyfus, the annals of persecuted Jews in Europe are horrible and pitiful.

On the other hand not one Yehudi suffered an iota of persecution because of his faith or race in hands of the idol-worshipping Hindu, the agnostic Buddhist or the atheist Jain. Indeed, ever since their arrival, the children of Abraham did not have one single occasion to weep by the rivers of Hind and the song of their Lord was uninterrupted till the fires of the Inquisition arrived at the shores of the land in 1560.

The process of condensation of the world into a global village is almost at the final stages of its development. As diverse ethnic communities and belief systems come to greater physical proximity and societies grow more multicultural in character it is imperative that matters pertaining to civilizational feelings and sentiments are dealt with an extra dose of caution.

The first necessary step in this enterprise is to be a little less casual in matters of semantics. Thus, every time a vehicle mows down innocent civilians in a busy metropolis we are reminded that that the act had been perpetrated by an Islamist and not an Islamic terrorist, to underscore the difference between a great world religion and a violent political ideology. On the same token, the emblem of the Ku Klux Klan is referred to as the “Burning Cross” and not just “the Cross”, lest the feelings of a devout Christian are injured.

To resolve the controversy, first of all, it is necessary to stop careless and uninformed use of the very term “Swastika”. The Nazi emblem, as a matter of fact, is slightly different from the traditional Indic symbol, the former being a tilted version of the latter.

At times, contrary to the Shakespearean dictum, there is lot in a name. Let us strip the Nazi emblem of this distinctly Indic nomenclature and restore it to the original proprietor and most of the hurt feelings of the Swastika-defenders would be assuaged. By adding a qualifier it can be renamed as the Nazi-Swastika or the tilted-Swastika, to highlight its difference with the Swastika per se before its subjection to Damnatio Memoriae along with other paraphernalia of the Third Reich.

With this, hopefully, no feelings would collide and all this cognitive dissonance over the sacred and the profane would come to a permanent and necessary closure.

The author is a JNU alumnus and is currently employed as an Officer of the Government of West Bengal.

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