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What Hindus Can Learn About Propaganda and Genocide From Ken Burns’ Documentary ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

What Hindus Can Learn About Propaganda and Genocide From Ken Burns’ Documentary ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

  • Organized lies cannot be fought by disorganized truths that are not backed by investment and are guided by expertise. That is the bottom line Hindus have to deal with now or never.

The acclaimed documentary maker Ken Burns’ new series (with Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick), “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” attempts to address a troubling question in the history of American antisemitism: what exactly was the American response to the rise of anti-Jewish hatred and violence in Nazi Germany before and during World War II?

We learn, with empathy and with critical frustration, about the challenges that President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor faced even when they wanted to help, and about divisions and dilemmas within the U.S. Jewish community as they faced up to the grim reality before them. We see the ways in which the pseudo-science of eugenics intersected with xenophobia and racism in the U.S., leading to a rigid nativist immigration policy that prevented thousands of Jews from escaping the Holocaust by coming to the United States. Finally, we are warned about racism and xenophobia in America today not only against Jews but also against Blacks, Muslims, and immigrants, in general.

Attacks on U.K. Hindus

As I was watching “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” I could not help thinking about that other grim news showing up on my news feeds the last few days – the attacks on Hindu temples, homes, and cars in Leicester. Amidst the dark footage, there were also several direct video monologues from provocative Islamist activists who were issuing open threats against Hindus. Sometimes, they qualified those threats by saying they meant not all Hindus but only the “Hindutva Supremacists.” Other times, they didn’t bother making the distinction. One image of a bloodied Hindu man also showed up on the feeds, as did that of a masked man desecrating a saffron flag on a Hindu temple. 

As for what it all meant, who started it, and where it was going, there was no clarity in the media at all. Some newspapers blamed Hindus (or Hindutva groups) for holding a march near a mosque. There was talk of a cricket rivalry that started it. Or a Ganesh puja pandal desecrated.

We live in an age of reality-polarization. Depending on who you follow on Twitter and what shows up in your feed, it is quite easy to come away with very different impressions of what is happening in reality. Leading newspapers in the UK like The Guardian have already invoked “Hindu Nationalism” as a pat explanation. Right-wing UK media are up in arms against what they call “multiculturalism.” Social media sites of course run the whole spectrum in terms of belief, competence and objectivity. Sweeping claims have been made, and even rendered into publication, about Hindus attacking mosques, or trying to kidnap Muslim women, only to be followed by police clarifications that no such things have happened. Refutations and retractions and threats go on even now. 

No one knows what will remain in our memories one day, no one knows what the future will be, given the way things are, and things seem to be going. As I read about Hindus who are erasing symbols of their Hindu identity for fear of being targeted, and Hindu community leaders who are too afraid to speak the truth to power, I wonder if things will ever change in the world, or if more and more Hindus will choose to survive by erasing all signs of their identity, and rationalizing it somehow. The signs of cultural genocide are already here. As for a physical one, I don’t know.

The Other (Claims to) Holocausts

The Shoah or Holocaust is inevitably a touchstone for many communities to compare their own sufferings, real or otherwise, to measure themselves. Many Hindus today compare antisemitism with Hinduphobia, not only for their shared historic origins in certain religions with their anti-Jewish and anti-pagan/kafir/Hindu attitudes but also for the peculiar “bipartisan” nature of anti-Jewish and anti-Hindu hate in the West today. Anti-Semitism, and Hinduphobia, tend to come from both Left and Right, unlike, say, Islamophobia, which comes only from the Right and is firmly opposed by the Left (Bari Weiss’s book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” is a good guide to this phenomenon). Hindus naturally talk sometimes of the “Hindu Holocaust,” remembering everyone from Aurangzeb to Churchill, though the debate remains whether it is appropriate to “borrow” a term fought for with sweat and blood by one community by others.

Having said that, I think it is important to take our lessons where we find them. Ken Burns after all, seems to believe that it is not inappropriate to end his six-hour epic with references to not only anti-Jewish violence in the U.S. but also to anti-black and anti-Muslim prejudice/graffiti (as well as the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Congress by Trump supporters). There is a consensus today about antisemitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. Hinduphobia is not part of that consensus.

I think it will be a long time, if ever at all before Hindus get to tell their stories on the world stage, and not merely in marginalized social media silos of frustrated rage, but there are two key points from Ken Burns’ discussion of the Holocaust that strike me as urgently relevant, especially in the context of the Leicester tensions. One is the reality of organized killing, and that is something we witness with horror throughout the series, the ghettos, the trains, the camps, and the methodical and maniacal way in which mass murder was carried out. The other is the elusive and less obvious phenomenon of organized lying.

Will there ever be a day when the world will learn the truth and say most of the smear campaigns against Hindus/Hinduism/Hindutva were a lie? Or will a tipping point of Hindus simply accept self-erasure and cultural extinction as not a big deal really?

Jews and ‘Bolsheviks,’ Hindus and ‘Hindu Supremacists

While the rabid, racist examples of Nazi anti-semitic propaganda comparing Jews to animals are well known, what Ken Burns manages to show us is another dimension of propaganda that is sometimes less easy to detect. If the Nazis had their dehumanizing stereotypes and slurs to hurl at Jews, they also manufactured, with equal precision and effectiveness, strategies of distraction and sanitization for what they were doing to their victims.

For example, even as the violence against Jews began in the 1930s, a concerted message went around to the world that these actions were directed not against a community as a whole, but only against “Bolsheviks.” We see front-page newspaper headlines quoting German officials challenging the growing allegations of Jewish persecution. “Name one Jew who has died,” the headlines quote German officials. Hermann Goering insists that no Jew would ever be subject to persecution “solely because he is a Jew.” The discourse is set. The Nazis have persuaded fence-sitters into making excuses for them.

Little wonder then that American public opinion, already poisoned by antisemitism of its own to start with, was incredibly slow to change. Nazi propagandists ensured there was always a seemingly reasonable discourse also out there to assuage the public that somehow the naked antisemitism was only a “fringe” phenomenon, that somehow there was a difference between widespread anti-Jewish hate and their so-called “Bolshevik” clean-ups.

For several years, we have witnessed, in mainstream media, academia, and finally, in the inflammatory social media posts of violent Jihadist mobs, the same sort of wriggle room being set up in the discourse to excuse Hinduphobic hatred under the guise of anti-Hindutva criticism too. Like “Bolsheviks,” the phrase “Hindu Nationalists” has become a clever distraction tactic for violent racists to wear a mask of respectability. Is there a place for a critique of Hindutva groups and their actions? Sure. But that is the prerogative, frankly, mainly of Hindus in whose name these groups operate (and, often, appropriate), not of Islamists wedded to irrational hatred towards non-believers and loquacious mendacity through and through. 

Now there is a simple way ahead for Hindu groups, anti-Hindu(tva) academics, journalists and activists to move beyond the current impasse on this issue, as I wrote in The Indian Express a few days ago. Instead of gaslighting or using one another to advance one’s own claims and standing in one’s peer groups, if everyone concerned could come to an operational definition of both Hinduphobia and Hindu Nationalism, perhaps media houses, universities and others could help mitigate the highly propagandized and polarized situation we have today. 

I fear though that too much is already at stake for too many in the status quo. Organized lying has done its work already, and the disorganized and weak complaining of Hindu groups and leaders has left most Hindus with little room to speak the truth anywhere.

Trapped Between Internet Hindutva and Real-Life Hinduphobia

There is another important lesson from the experience of the American Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s for Hindus living as minorities in the West. The economic success of some Jewish families in America did not translate as acceptance by any measure, and as Ashley Rindsberg has written, prominent Jewish families like the Sulzbergers who owned the New York Times worked doubly hard to deny and suppress the truth about Jewish suffering simply to fit in. In The U.S. and the Holocaust, we see more examples of the same; even as some American Jews demanded that something be done about Jews facing imminent danger in Europe, there were others who opposed protests fearing that speaking up would anger Hitler even more.

Hindus in the diaspora, too, face such a dilemma today (non-Hindu Indians may face other challenges, but their complaints are not denied as vehemently as say, concerns of Hinduphobia are). 

No Hindu wants to show up to protest outside the offices of Hinduphobic media companies or Hinduphobic universities, even when peaceful protest is often within the law and seen as acceptable in Western culture. 

No Hindu wants to invest in anti-Hinduphobia research centers in universities, or in activist and community defense training. 

Worse, no Hindu wants to even learn, it seems, how people on the inside in mainstream institutions like media and universities do things.

See Also

Hindus, like some of the fearful U.S. Jews of the 1930s, want to show they fit in by denying Hinduphobia, or alternately, acknowledging its existence only to say that it will magically go away if only all Hindus support the BJP. Ironically, even as the BJP-affiliated Hindu groups abroad have chanted the slogan of unity, they too have managed to achieve quite the opposite in the last few years, with many Indians accepting severe anti-Hindu positions as the new normal in the discourse even though it’s not true because they simply have no other way of functioning in a society where lies have been normalized. Non-Hindutva Hindus simply cannot fight to change the image of Hindutva organizations when they lack the interest or competence to do so themselves. They are paying the price already, as Hindus, for that incompetence. 

In the wake of the Leicester violence, I think questions about the purpose, role and usefulness of Hindu organizations should be asked, by Hindus, more than anyone else. It is, after all, the leaders of some of these U.K. Hindu groups who have worked hard to discredit and even deny the use of the term “Hinduphobia” in the past, even boasting on social media that they removed the word from anti-hate legislation in the UK some years ago because, according to them, Hindus would be seen (by Whites, presumably) to be similar to Muslims and their Islamophobia talk if they brought up Hinduphobia and wouldn’t get jobs! Some leading Hindu groups in the UK were also busy using social media to express condolences for the Queen while avoiding saying anything about what might well be the biggest case of organized violence and organized lying against British Hindus we have seen until now.

This is the tragic reality of the Hindu/Hindutva “leadership” today.

The Future has Already Been Normalized

Organized lying against Hindus is nearly complete. If or when there will be organized violence too, is something no one even seems to have an answer for given how much obfuscation there is. Some might say it is happening already, in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and maybe elsewhere too. Others might say it will be fine if we just “keep our heads down,” which means erasing bindis, bottus, markers of our religion from public detection. 

It will start with the Ganeshas on the dashboard, sure, but where will it end?

Just as the language of eugenics reinvented old religious hatred for Jews into a new pseudo-scientific guise and grew for several years by the time a whole community found itself silenced and abandoned even as death came for it in the 1940s, the old religious prejudices against Hindus, as the last unconverted pagan polytheistic people on earth, have been recast into pseudo-progressive anti-fascist jargon and propagated and normalized everywhere now. 

Today, everyone agrees eugenics was pseudo-science and just a cover for antisemitism. Will there ever be a day when the world will learn the truth and say most of the smear campaigns against Hindus/Hinduism/Hindutva were a lie? Or will a tipping point of Hindus simply accept self-erasure and cultural extinction as not a big deal? 

Will this generation of Hindu adults, so proud of boasting of their economic success and political clout and Indian CEOs, be the cohort that shuts the doors forever on whatever future their children may want to seek in Sanatana dharma?

Organized lies cannot be fought by disorganized truths that are not backed by investment and are guided by expertise. That is the bottom line Hindus have to deal with now or never. 

(Top photo: Thousands of Hindu devotees gather in West London for chariot procession in August 2016. Courtesy

Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”

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  • Prof. Juluri, as usual, offers the kind of thoughtful probing in his essays that should make all readers sit up. Alas, given that there a million others out there to squash all such thought, what we shall continue to see and hear are “right-wing authoritarianism,” “Hindutva politics,” “Hindu fascism,” “Anti-minority violence in India,” “Brahmanism,” and “dismantling global Hindutva”. But then, without that kind of slander and lies, maybe Prof. Juluri would not have been this eloquent… Thanks as always for writing, Prof. Juluri.

  • In India, Islamic & Hindu fanaticism sustain as a reaction to each other (& blame each other). Neither can be eliminated without eliminating the other. This is now applying to USA & UK diaspora , thanks to the same fanatics. While globally fanatic Islam is a big problem , in India the situation has become different with rise of Hindu revivalism, particularly targeting Muslims. Fortunately there are sensible people on both communities. They have to unite to fight this menace.

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