The Importance of Teaching about the Holocaust in India in Light of Anti-Muslim Pogroms

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Aug 12, 2020
by Soila Kenya
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The Importance of Teaching about the Holocaust in India in Light of Anti-Muslim Pogroms

Salzburg Global Fellow Navras Aafreedi highlights the significance of teaching about the Holocaust as India grapples with a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment Photo by Rahul Pandit from Pexels

From February 23 to March 1, 53 people, most of whom were Muslims, were shot, beaten and burned to death by Hindu mobs in what is now being referred to as the 2020 Delhi riots.

It is now being classified as a pogrom, a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of a particular ethnic or religious group.

When you hear the word Holocaust or genocide or pogrom, your mind instantly takes you to certain events in history. For most people, that event would be the systematic murder of European Jews during World War II by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.

However, for Navras Aafreedi, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Presidency University in Kolkata, India and Salzburg Fellow, learning about the Holocaust should not be a region- or country-specific requirement.

“I think it is really important to draw lessons from the Holocaust. And it is easier to draw lessons from the Holocaust for Indians than to draw lessons from any episode of mass violence that occurred in India. Because when we talk of the Holocaust, it is a genocide that did not involve any section of India’s own society,” he explains.

Aafreedi is a multi-time Fellow of Salzburg Global’s Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention program, which has been run in partnership with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and supported by the Austrian government since its launch in 2010 and most recently by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The program promotes peace, reconciliation, and pluralist societies by advancing structured dialogue, research, knowledge-sharing and cross-border projects, and engaging educators, practitioners and museum curators from over 50 countries, many with recent experience of mass violence or rising extremism.

When Aafreedi joined Presidency University in 2016, he designed the M.A. course titled “The History of Mass Violence: 20th Century to the Present.” The Master’s degree program – the first of its kind in the region – was developed in part thanks to Aafreedi’s 2014 participation in Salzburg. (Fellows are now creating a similar program in Morocco.)

He structured the course by choosing particular themes and in the course of studying those themes, select one or two events of mass violence and genocides as case studies. The Holocaust stands out in his teachings because of its scale and how well documented it was. Academically speaking, there is a lot to learn from an event that had such an immense impact on humanity.

“When the Holocaust ended, we used the slogan ‘Never Again’. But that slogan proved to be a hollow one. We have miserably failed in preventing mass violence. And there is no point in shying away from facts,” he explains.

With this course, Aafreedi aims to make his students conscious of what they can, must and should do to prevent mass violence and how to recognize and understand the warning signs that they see both in historic accounts – and in modern-day India.

First is tension and polarization. The gulf between Hindus and Muslims has greatly increased since the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government came into power. There is also a proliferation of hate on social media.

Second is the apocalyptic public rhetoric. Hindu nationalists have repeatedly accused the Muslims of indulging in “love jihad” – the alleged trapping and luring of Hindu girls by Muslims for matrimony leading to their religious conversion – and “land jihad” – land grabbing – and of Hindus being in danger because of the rapidly rising numbers of Muslims in the country. Some have even suggested forced sterilization of Muslims.

Labelling civilian groups as the “enemy” is a third warning sign that has permeated Indian society today. Those critical of Hindu nationalists are denounced as “pseudo-liberals” or “pseudo-secularists”. Muslims protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed implementation of the exercise for the production of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) at the pan-India level are equated by Hindu nationalists with anti-nationals. In their discourse Hindu nationalism is equated with nationalism. Rationalists who have been speaking against superstitions have even been killed in a spate of attacks.

A fourth sign is the deployment of irregular armed forces within the country. Aafreedi quotes Christopher Jaffrelot, a French political scientist specializing in South Asia – “Never has the lack of distinction between non-state actors and government authorities been so great,” he says. There are vigilante groups, Gau Rakshaks (Cow Protectors), Police Mitra (volunteers assisting police in its operations during riots) that have been let loose on the public.

A fifth sign is the stockpiling of weapons. There are organizations in the country that are almost always well-equipped with weapons, which may not necessarily be conventional, to perpetrate violence of varying degrees.

When commenting on the waves of nationalism sweeping not only India, but other parts of the world, he identifies the great desire in citizens for strong leadership. “People just seem to be disappointed with how democracies have been functioning and they are craving for something that is stronger in nature; more authoritarian in nature,” he said.

Above all, Aafreedi, who is has both Hindu and Islamic roots in his family, hopes his teachings will ensure humanity shall not repeat its mistakes.

“I would only like my students to be more conscious of how the society can change for us if they turn a blind eye to increasing intolerance and discrimination towards minorities. Any society that is intolerant to certain sections of its population is as bad for the majority as it is for the minority groups. Nobody can be happy in such a society,” he concludes.