Many years ago, when I began working for Amnesty International in Washington DC, a colleague came to my office and dropped off a 300-page binder. It included newspaper clippings and reports, as well as hand written notes of all the lessons she learned during her 20-year human rights career. At the time, my focus was on the Middle East and knowing this, she bookmarked a section labeled “The folly of comparing tragedies.”

In it, she wrote that there are many golden rules in talking with and learning from trauma survivors but perhaps the most important is never compare or pit tragedies against each other. There is a singularity in each instance of suffering, she told me, and our duty as human rights staffers was to work hard to understand the particularities of each conflict and not to use past events either to highlight or to downplay a present day tragedy. She gave one example I still remember: “Complete list of events the Holocaust can be compared to: the Holocaust; complete list of people Hitler can be compared to: Hitler.”

I thought of her advice as I saw photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi projected onto the British Parliament, holding a sword, standing in front of the word “Om” transforming into a swastika. On November 12, Modi is expected to address a large gathering in London. In protest of his visit, the Awaaz Network, a group dedicated to combating and monitoring religious tolerance, created this image.

Enormous violence

 I understand wanting to draw attention to Modi’s human rights record. I also know that in the years since the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, the magnitude of that event, and Modi’s role in it, has been trivialized with each passing year. One columnist called it a mere “civil unrest” and another said there is no sense in discussing this topic because we have “2002 fatigue,” as if, to paraphrase this year’s Man Booker winning novelist Marlon James, atrocities and traumas have timetables and expiration dates.

However these reasons, or any other for that matter, do not excuse the fact that what Awaaz did is offensive and counterproductive.

First, it is preposterous to take a symbol cherished by hundreds of millions, the Om, and turn into a swastika, the epitome of hatred, destruction, and chauvinism. As Rohit Chopra, the Santa Clara University professor who runs the popular Twitter handle @IndiaExplained wrote in a series of Tweets,



The Om has become beloved symbol around the world, and not just by Hindus, and many people, in the US and in the Middle East for example, have historically faced backlash for placing “Om” on their homes or places worship in the face of anti-Hindu prejudice. To ignore this is to belittle what many have, and in some cases continue to, endure for being Hindu in non-Hindu countries.

Second, this tactic is disrespectful to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust, a tragedy which resulted in the extermination of one-third of world Jewry. The trauma from that horrific event lingers, as does the anti-Semitism.

 Anti-Semitic rhetoric

In 2014, Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, told the British newspaper The Guardian, “On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades.” I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Jewish person walking past the British Parliament, seeing a symbol sadly still used today to target Jews, now appropriated as lazy tool to critique Modi.

I should add that in India, I have never liked how the swastika and Adolf Hitler is often used, particularly by those on the left, in arguments and in brochures against Hindutva. Nor do I understand how some are so forgiving of what Hitler did. In 2012, for example, I remember seeing a clothing store open in Ahmedabad by the name of “Hitler. The shop owner, who was later forced to change his store’s name and apologize, told reporters he chose it because it was a “cool name.”

Third, the use of the swastika by Awaaz comes at a particularly ill-time. At the University of Missouri in the US, thousands of students protested this week after a swastika appeared on a student dormitory. After the university’s president Timothy Wolfe failed to acknowledge the widespread campus racism that black students spoke of, students successfully pressured the president to resign. Although the students maintained that all speech should and must be protected, some speech comes with a very high emotional cost, especially the swastika.

 Symbol of hate

This is something I know far too well, unfortunately. When I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, a white student in my dormitory drew a swastika on my wall after he and I had a disagreement about Middle East politics. Since then, every time an activist in India gives me a report on Hindu nationalism or Modi with a swastika on it, I cringe and think about how this same swastika was once used to bully me.

Suresh Grover, one of the organizer’s behind the Awaaz protest, himself has been the target of racism, which makes it all the more odd that his group would use the swastika.

In a powerful interview with the BBC published this August, Grover spoke about being stabbed by white supremacist skin heads in England. “I knew I was different and I knew they would not accept me. You realise your lives are very cheap and that burns you inside and it actually hurts you and it makes you angry,” Grover said.

At the protest Grover and Awaaz are organising this week, there might indeed be many good natured people, some of whom may have been directly affected by Modi’s dereliction of office, both past and present. But it matters little: being the victim intolerance does not make it justified to resurrect a symbol of intolerance, even if you agree the cause is righteous or the method effective.