The last week of January 2020 marked two events in the Indo-Israeli/Jewish world. 27 January 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi extermination camp by the advancing Soviet Army as well as the UN International Day for Remembrance of the Holocaust. 29 January marked the 28th anniversary of the day (in 1992) India and Israel upgraded their relations to full diplomatic ties, which included setting up of embassies in both countries and all related activities. For many Indians, this was an action long overdue, especially after the end of the Cold War had released India from many of its long-held mental shibboleths regarding Israel.
India formally recognised Israel as a de facto state in September 1950, almost 28 months after the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru received a request from Moshe Sharett, the Foreign Minister of the State of Israel, within hours of its formal declaration of Independence on 15 May 1948. A delay that puzzled many Israelis considering there were no disputes of any kind between the two brand-new states of India and Israel. In fact, it was Nepal that became the first South Asian country to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel, as early as 1955.
Now, 28 years after that historic day, relations between the two countries could not have been better. Collaboration and interaction between the two states are improving every single day, not just between the governments but even among the people. Air India, the only airline that flies direct from New Delhi to Tel Aviv, has now increased its flights to six times a week purely due to “increased demand”.
The 27th, however, marked a more sombre event. It is the day the world marks the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A day to remember the 6 million Jews (and 5 million other) exterminated in Nazi death camps all over Germany and Occupied-Poland. The day was observed even in India with various events all over the country, including one in Kolkata, where I moderated a panel discussion on anti-Semitism. The main function was in New Delhi where the Alliance Française de Delhi, the UN and Israeli Embassy, along-with other embassies organised an exhibition highlighting some of the atrocities from the Holocaust. Unfortunately, besides this once-a-year programme, there is no mechanism that brings a better or deeper understanding on what the Holocaust was.
In India, Holocaust Studies is a most neglected subject. The Second World War itself is barely taught in schools, despite India having been deeply involved in many ways besides the contribution of 2.5 million volunteers to fight the war, in the sea, air and land. All other countries fighting in the war had larger armed forces, but they were all conscripts, not volunteers. India’s forces fought in almost all theatres of the war and received numerous accolades and the highest of military decorations.
Unfortunately, India’s post-Independence leaders decided that the Second World War was a “foreign” war into which India was unnecessarily dragged by the British colonial rulers. As a result, almost nothing about the War is taught to Indian students. This reluctance also extends to any proper information about the Holocaust.
Again, the Shaoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust, is seen by many as something nasty that happened to Jewish people in the middle of a devastating war that overall killed over 75 million people on all sides. And that 6 million dead aren’t seen as that large of a number in Asian countries terms which have seen deaths of far larger numbers. This happened especially in the middle of a war included around 2.5-3 million Bengalis who starved to death due to denial of food by Winston Churchill’s orders.
As a result, while there is certainly sympathy and empathy towards the Jews, it really isn’t understood well what exactly made the Holocaust a unique event in world history. As a result, there are no memorials in India commemorating the victims, including over 1.5 million children. Senior academics such as Dr Navras Jaat Aafreedi are among the few in India who teach Holocaust Studies as a subject at the Presidency University in the city of Kolkata. He also highlights the ridiculous sight of Hitler’s Mein Kampf openly sold all over the country, with many buying the book out of curiosity, not out of any sense of solidarity with the Nazi leader.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem, is the place all official visitors are taken to pay their respects just as they are taken to Raj Ghat, the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi. Such places are largely indicative of what is central to a country’s core conscience. Yad Vashem reflects how deeply the Holocaust is imbedded in the very core of Jews, even if they or their ancestors have never experienced it directly. It is part of their collective racial memory.
Students in Israel are taught about Gandhi and India and the role of Indian soldiers in liberating the city of Haifa. Perhaps now, 70 years after formal recognition, India should begin to take steps to see that Indian students are also taught about the Holocaust, to better understand the people and the country that has grown so close to us.
Arjun Hardas is the India Representative of the American Jewish Committee.