French president Francois Hollande, center, on the screen delivers a speech on Monday, 25 August 2014, during a ceremony at the Paris City Hall in recognition of the liberation of the capital by American and French troops. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP Photo
French president Francois Hollande, center, on the screen delivers a speech on Monday, 25 August 2014, during a ceremony at the Paris City Hall in recognition of the liberation of the capital by American and French troops. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP Photo

Outside In | Not ‘our’ war

Declared on behalf of Indians by the British Raj, India's war effort mobilized the largest volunteer force known to man, but the World Wars seem to exist only on the margins of the average Indian's consciousness

This week, 70 years ago, Paris was freed from the clutches of the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators by French and US-led Allied forces. On 25 August 1944 the streets of Paris erupted with joy. Men and women danced the night away at City Hall.

Iconic photographs capture the popular mood of that historic day. “Even among the era’s handful of ‘wish you were there’ moments," reported Life magazine, “for sheer, cathartic, hope none could surpass the Liberation of Paris."

Seventy years on, this last Monday, Parisians marked the anniversary with another mass outdoor dance at City Hall.

“Never do I expect to see such scenes as I saw on the streets of Paris. There was only a narrow lane through which the armor could roll. Men and women cried with joy. They grabbed the arms and hands of soldiers and cheered until their voices were hoarse. When the column stopped I was smothered, put pleasantly, with soft arms and lips," reported Don Whitehead of the Associated Press (AP) news agency.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a dark side too. Stray Nazi marksmen were holding out, shooting at Charles de Gaulle in a last-ditch attempt to delay the inevitable. In his famous speech at City Hall, de Gaulle said, “Paris! An outraged Paris! A broken Paris! A martyred Paris! But a liberated Paris!"

“Everyone was hugging and kissing," a Parisian in her 90s told an AP reporter last week. “People were happy. All the while, we were picking up dead bodies."

There are photographs also of women and men, with their heads shaved and swastikas painted on their foreheads, alleged collaborators being marched through the streets of Paris. Women were shamed publicly—without anyone trying them—for the mere hint of a claim that they had slept with a Nazi.

Marking the occasion French President Francois Hollande said this week, “It is from Paris that democracies seek protection from terror. It is to Paris that today the Iraqi people and all the minorities persecuted by the barbarous Islamic State turn,"

The tone was grand, just like de Gaulle’s 70 years ago.

Such events evoke scant coverage in the Indian media these days (they did, once). Ironically, the more India has globalized over the past 25 years, the more insular it seems to have become—in some important ways.

More Indians travel to the West, particularly the UK and US these days than ever before, in some years spending more than Japanese tourists. And Indian metros are full of French and Italian eating places.

Yet, the World Wars seem to exist only on the margins of the average Indian’s consciousness. Why else would Adolf Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggle) be such a hit in India?

This is a universally reviled book written by a man likened to Satan. It is banned in many countries, including China and Israel (with which India makes extremely strenuous efforts to cosy up). In some parts of the world publishers have tried to make amends by pledging revenue from the sales of Mein Kampf to charities—only to have the charities return the money.

Dozens of books are banned in India. They include The Lotus and the Robot by Arthur Koestler (because it talks about Gandhi’s experiments with sex), Indo-Irish writer Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold (said to be a satire) and Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama (a fictionalised account of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi that suggests security lapses). Most of these book on the Indian banned list are described as having the potential to hurt religious sentiments—of either Hindus or Muslims.

But many of them are easily available in India—V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness for example, is freely sold. In addition, it is theoretically possible for an Indian to download electronic versions of these books. E-books of Wendy Doniger’s academic book on Hindus, which was withdrawn last year by its publishers rather than banned, circulated wildly by email and on social media.

By all accounts, books are banned in India on the flimsiest of excuses. Yet no one thinks twice about the moral obscenity represented by the sight of shiny new copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on shop windows and on top of a pavement seller’s pile.

I was set wondering about this after finding a copy of the book, new and glistening, on the display shelf of a well-known bookshop in an upmarket South Delhi neighbourhood. “Sells very well," the lady at the counter told me, not the least bit surprised. “All kinds of readers buy it." I wanted to check for the introduction and the shop assistant helpfully tore out the thin plastic sheet covering the book. It did have an introduction but I cannot say if it gave a warning of the bigoted contents of the pages that follow for, say, young and impressionable readers.

Adolf Hitler and his ilk have long enjoyed a loyal following in India. The Bengali Nobel-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore briefly flirted with the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, enamoured of his Strong Man image.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the “cultural organization" that gave birth to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which now rules in New Delhi, said in a 1938 pamphlet, We or Our Nationhood Defined: “Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole—a good lesson for us in Hindusthan (i.e., the land of Hindus) to learn and profit by."

One reason, according to some of my Indian friends, is that there is only a tenuous popular association between Indians and the War. Declared on behalf of Indians by the British Raj, India’s war effort nevertheless was gigantic—it mobilized the largest volunteer force known to man.

There were countless heroic sacrifices too. But it’s impossible to get away from that feeling in India—that this was not “our" war.

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