“Hitler” covers the black store front in large white letters – a red swastika dotting the “i”. The name of the new men’s clothing store has caused a stir in India’s Ahmedabad city.
Ignorance over Adolf Hitler’s dark history, or a tasteless shock-advertising scheme? That’s the question being asked after Rajesh Shah named his shop after the Nazi dictator, who took over Germany in the 1930s and then tried to conquer Europe.
The small Jewish community in Ahmedabad in western Gujarat state – numbering less than 500 – is up-in-arms and demanding he change the name. But Shah says to do so would bite into his profits.
“If the Jewish community wants the name to be changed, they should pay for it. I have spent too much on the logo … the brand,” Shah told Al Jazeera, refusing to divulge how much it would cost.
Unlike most countries in the world, in India it is not uncommon for the name Hitler to represent businesses, movies, TV programmes, and even people’s names – a strange reality to outside observers, but one that is accepted without much thought by ordinary Indians. The swastika, meanwhile, was used as a Hindu symbol long before the Nazis adopted it.
“They call the German leader a monster. [But] no other people have complaints. I have not hurt any sentiments of the majority Hindu community.“
– Rajesh Shah, co-owner of ‘Hitler’
One academic, however, warns the growing use of the name Hitler and what it represents is a dangerous development.
“With the rise of right-wing parties in India, Hitler has made a huge comeback in India,” says professor AF Mathew who teaches sociology, cultural and cinema studies at the India Institute of Management Kozhikode. “This is a matter of great concern. Fascism is morally wrong and to see some neo-Nazi parties making waves in Europe and India is extremely worrying.”
Orna Sagiv, Israel’s consul general in Mumbai, told Al Jazeera she was “very surprised and shocked” to hear the clothes shop was named Hitler after it opened in August.
“We believe that in this case, the choice of the name ‘Hitler’ does not derive of anti-Semitism, but from pure ignorance. Nevertheless, it still strongly hurts the sentiments of the local Jewish community, as well as the feeling of Jews around the world and in Israel.”
A ‘catchy’ name
Jewish members from the city have approached Shah urging him to rename the store. So far he has refused.
So why did Shah choose the German despot’s moniker? Because that was the name of the co-owner’s grandfather, he says.
Later Shah learned of the name’s significance, but decided to use it because it looked “catchy and different”.
“Customers … tell us that they came in seeing the shop name,” says Shah. “So far, business is good.”
“There is a wrong notion among people that Hitler was a great leader, which is completely wrong. The disappearance of history has resulted in such notions and given birth to right-wing ideologies in India.“
– Professor AF Mathew
Esther David is a prominent Jewish-Indian writer, artist and sculptor who lives in Ahmedabad. “It comes as a shock that a name like this can be used for marketing purposes,” she told Al Jazeera. “There is a lack of sensitivity and maybe the social structure had rotted in such a way, that people do not realise the implications of using such a name for a shop.”
The clothing store is one of a handful of Indian businesses named after the Nazi dictator. Owners seem to have picked it more for shock value than as an embrace of or admiration for Nazism.
In 2006, a Mumbai restaurant owner called his café “Hitler’s Cross” and used the swastika as a logo. Eventually, he agreed to change it after protests by the Israeli embassy, Germany, and the US Anti-Defamation League.
“Hitler’s Den”, a pool parlour in Nagpur, also ruffled feathers in 2011. Owner Baljit Singh Osan said he was looking for something “different, something that had recall value”. He told Al Jazeera the name has attracted patrons and popularised his business.
Osan refused to change the name when the Jewish community protested. “I did not sympathise with the German dictator or his beliefs,” he says.
Professor Mathew says a sense of history has disappeared, and there’s a need to teach students what the Nazis and Hitler were responsible for, including the carnage of World War II and the extermination of six million Jews.
“There is a wrong notion among people that Hitler was a great leader,” Mathew told Al Jazeera. “The disappearance of history has resulted in such notions and given birth to right-wing ideologies in India.”
Historic and cultural ties to Hitler
Mohandas Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation and a symbol of peace, wrote a letter to Hitler on July 23, 1939 urging him not to wage war. The two men had a common enemy: the British Empire. Bollywood released the drama Gandhi to Hitler in 2011 that depicted India’s move away from British colonial rule.
A Punjabi romantic-comedy film, Hero Hitler in Love, was also released in 2011.
The small screen has also employed the Führer’s name. A television series on Zee TV about a dictatorial woman was launched in 2011 called “Hitler Didi“, or “Hitler Sister”. It was renamed “General Didi” in the United States after the Anti-Defamation League in New York protested.
Curiously, Mein Kampf – in which Hitler set out his racist theories – continues to be a bestseller in India, where business students view the book as an important guide for management strategies. More than 10,000 copies were sold in six months in New Delhi alone in 2009.
There is even a member of India’s ruling-coalition from northeastern Meghalaya state named “Adolf Hitler”.