Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi

Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi

Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi is a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), and convener of the Antisemitism in South Asia in Comparative Perspective ISGAP seminar series. He is also an Assistant Professor at the Department of History at Presidency University in Kolkata, India. Along with Priya Singh, Navras is also the co-editor of Conceptualizing Mass Violence: Representations, Recollections, and Reinterpretations (London and New York: Routledge, 2021). For more about the author, visit https://linktr.ee/njaafreedi.

In September-October 2009, a Holocaust films retrospective was held in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, India. The event was significant because of several reasons: it was the first-ever Holocaust films retrospective in South Asia. It ran for fourteen days, during which forty-six films were screened, seen by four thousand people at the two biggest universities in the area. The event was covered by the local press in Hindi and English, the two official languages in India. Every two screenings was followed by talks and lectures against Holocaust denial by eminent personalities, including several Muslim intellectuals (Aafreedi 2010).

(Brochure of the Holocaust Films Retrospective)

The event was a rebuttal to a conference held in December 2006, in Tehran with the aim of promoting Holocaust denial. Titled “Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision,” the conference was organised by the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) and attracted sixty-seven participants from thirty countries, including former Ku Klux Klan leader and Holocaust denier, David Duke, French Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson, and officials of the neo-Nazi German National Democratic Party (NPD), among others. The conference was preceded by a cartoon contest on the Holocaust held by Hamshahri (Fellow Citizen), a national Iranian Farsi (Persian) newspaper, in February 2006. Two hundred cartoons out of the twelve hundred received from over sixty countries, including cartoons that denied or minimized the Holocaust, were exhibited in August of the same year at the Saba Art and Cultural Institute in Tehran, with sponsorship from the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.[I]

It was not just the timing but also the venue that made the films retrospective significant: Lucknow is one of the biggest centres of Shia culture in the world, with a strong connection to Iran. Although Muslims constitute only 26.36 per cent of the city’s total population of 2.8 million, as estimated in 2011, they have made a strong impact on the city’s culture. The patronage extended by its Shia Muslim rulers of Iranian origin (1722-1858) to intellectual pursuits attracted Shia Muslim scholars from around the world, including the ancestors of Ayatollah Ruhollah Mussaui Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution of Iran (1979). They migrated from Nishapur, Iran, to Kintoor, District Barabanki, India, adjacent to Lucknow, in the late eighteenth century and stayed there until 1830, when Khomeini’s grandfather, Seyed Ahmad Musavi Hindi (1790-1869), moved to Iran. He was known as “Hindi” (Farsi and Arabic for ‘Indian’) in Iran as he came from India. The Shias of South Asia (Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) maintain strong ties with Iran, where they often go for religious studies and pilgrimage. Among them, there is also a high rate of news consumption, including antisemitic propaganda such as Holocaust denial and/or minimization, disseminated by the Iranian media (print, electronic and digital), and translated/dubbed into Urdu and/or other major languages spoken by them. Considering this, it is not surprising that Lucknow is also a major centre of anti-Zionist and antisemitic Muslim rhetoric in South Asia.

Lucknow has been a hotbed of Muslim politics in India. It served as the headquarters for the All India Muslim League, the political organization that successfully led the movement for the partition of India, creating Pakistan (an independent state for the Muslims of pre-independence India) by uniting those areas of British-ruled India that had a Muslim majority.  It is also home to several highly prominent institutions of Islamic learning, such as Nadwatul Ulama and Farangi Mahal. Alumni of Nadwatul Ulama are found heading Islamic centres across the world.

Lucknow also serves as the administrative capital of the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people. It is the biggest state located inside a country in the world. It is more populous than any country in Africa, Australia/Oceania, Europe, and South America. (Kopf & Varathan 2017).

For the retrospective, a trilingual (Hindi, Urdu, and English) brochure was released. Along with an introductory essay and synopses of the films screened, it also contained an Urdu poem written by Anwar Nadeem (1937-2017) (Aafreedi 2009, p. 2).

(Anwar Nadeem 1937-2017)

This is the only Urdu poem on the Holocaust:

The series of this pain should not continue!
The magic of life and death,
Is spread in all directions,
Relief comes with tribulations,
Troubles come with fortitude,
Each footstep is laden with darkness,
Light is in the hands of Time,
What should I comment on the event unfurled?
A moment of false comfort.
Life, again in this torture cell,
The Day of Judgement in every epoch,
A blood bath of humanity,
If only one could interpret this nightmare.
The only desire that still remains, friends!
The series of this pain should never be born again!
(Translated from Urdu by Saira Mujtaba, 2019)[ii]

(The original poem in Urdu)

Urdu poetry is counted among the most vibrant of contemporary poetical traditions, and of all the literary forms in Urdu, poetry is the most pre-eminent, far ahead of short stories and novels (Ahmed 1998). Nadeem wrote the poem upon my request when I organised this retrospective on behalf of the Centre for Communication and Development Studies, Pune, as its fellow under its youth outreach programme, Open Space.

The significance of the Urdu language lies in the fact that it is the lingua franca of linguistically diverse South Asian Muslims (the Muslims who live in the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, popularly known by its acronym SAARC), making up almost a third of the global Muslim population. It is a pidgin language resulting from the interface between Indians and the Turks and Afghans who conquered territories in India in the second millennium and settled there. Hence, it borrows its vocabulary from several languages, including Sanskrit, Arabic, Farsi (Persian), Turkish, et cetera. It has also been the language of South Asian Islamic discourse. In the eighteenth century, it emerged as the language of Indo-Persian Muslim high culture. It is spoken as a first language by nearly 70 million people and as a second language by more than 100 million people, primarily in Pakistan and India. It is the official state language of Pakistan and is also officially recognised in India. The region has produced some of the greatest Islamic thinkers, viz., Shah Wali Allah (sometimes also spelled Waliullah, 1702-1763), considered one of the originators of pan-Islamism, Rahmatullah Kairanwi (1818-1892), Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), Syed Abul A’la Mawdudi (also spelt Maududi) (1903-1979), and Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi of Nadwat ul-Ulama, Lucknow (1914-1999), all of whom have played a pivotal role in shaping political Islam with global impact. Most of them wrote in Urdu.  

Anwar Nadeem who had read about the Holocaust at the secondary level of education, found next to nothing on the subject while studying at the Amiruddaula Islamia Inter College in Lucknow, as is the case with most of the students in South Asia. Nazism finds mention in the Indian National Curricula for School Education (Banerjee and Stober) and in the syllabus for the National Eligibility Test (NET) for lectureships in History conducted by the University Grants Commission (UGC). However, the mention of the Holocaust is absent in both. Besides, not all books mention Jews as the victims of Nazi rule. Hitler’s success is seen as indicating that he possessed specific personal qualities. Reference is made to the fact that he was an impassioned speaker capable of deeply moving his audiences. He is presented as innovative in the sense that he devised a new style of politics by making optimum use of rituals and spectacles for mass mobilization. All the above-mentioned alleged qualities of his are mentioned even if he used those a manipulative manner, by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbook for year nine students, from 2006 onwards. Other books present these traits not merely as capabilities, but as positive qualities. While the Nazi rule is validated in general, when it comes to the characterization of Hitler, the tone of the text varies from profound condemnation to appreciation and admiration (Banerjee and Stober).

 As a consumer of news provided by the Urdu press, Nadeem had read much that aimed at either denying the Holocaust, minimizing its scale, obfuscating it, or simply reversing it by describing the Jewish Israelis as the present-day Nazis. Even when the Holocaust films retrospective was taking place in Lucknow, for which he wrote the above quoted poem, the Urdu press there published front-page stories denying the Holocaust and calling it the biggest hoax of the twentieth century, with the intention of sabotaging the ongoing event. The articles were largely based on the arguments made by well-known Holocaust deniers, such as Arthur R. Butz, David Irving, Harry Elmer Barnes, David Hoggan, and Paul Ressinier. The Urdu journalists, most of whom are Muslims, resort to Holocaust denial because they believe that they can delegitimize the State of Israel by proving that the Holocaust is a big hoax, as it would deprive Israel of what, in their eyes, can be the only justification for its creation and existence. Urdu has a vibrant press, the third-largest in India after Hindi and English, both in terms of the number of publications and daily circulation. According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India, there are 1,443 Urdu newspapers, including 929 dailies with a total circulation of 34 million (Quamar 2016). Nevertheless “the Urdu journalism, in its essence, is ‘views oriented’ as its role in moulding Muslim public opinion is simply incomparable to the other vernacular press,” explains Arshad Amanullah, a New Delhi based writer and filmmaker (Amanullah 2009, p. 276).

However, Nadeem still had an open mind and was ready to acknowledge the Holocaust as a fact of history when pointed out to him by me.  His open-mindedness could be attributed to his secularism, as he had abandoned Islam, the religion he was born into, when he was merely ten years old, and vowed never to embrace any religion whatsoever. He was conscious and aware of the existence of Islamism, its terrorism and also its antisemitism. His poem entitled “Tauhīn” (Insult) tells us that ‘God is one and Muhammad is his prophet’, which is a message for our hearts! But there are those, alas, who have sought to write it on the sharp edges of their swords which, they do not realize, is an insult to the great Prophet” (Translated from Urdu by Sarva-Daman Singh)[iii]. His being neither popular nor famous can be attributed to this very assertive secularism, his very unconventional approach to life, and his extremely critical attitude towards religion, society, and politics.  This explains why today, even several years after his death, there does not seem to be any paucity of people prejudiced against him. His literary contributions to Urdu literature largely went unrecognised, and he is rarely ever talked about. The Urdu literary world is kind and even welcoming to non-Muslims, but its attitude towards apostates ranges from indifference to apathy to antipathy. He was one of those rare poets who never played to the galleries. In sharp contrast, Muhammad Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan, revered as the ideological father of Pakistan and one of the greatest Urdu poets ever born, is regularly cited by Urdu columnists for his anti-Jewish statements and couplets, such as, “the veins and life of the English (people) are in the clutches of Jews” (Ahmad 2013). In 1937, Iqbal questioned the logic of Zionist territorial claims in Palestine (now Israel) in the following couplet:

If the Jews have the right to the earth of Palestine
Why, then, should the Arabs not have the right to Spain?[iv]

Anwar Nadeem comments on the Urdu literary world’s obsession with Iqbal in his poem “The Only Poet” (Akélā Śāyar):

Just caught hold of Iqbal
And sticked to him
Once for all
Keeping from a camel’s hold
And a dog’s spring! Yah! Took it for granted
That religion,
The social issues,
As it were,
No longer demand
To think over
And understand again!
Let India,
With its latitude
And amplitude
Remain in tatters!![v]
(Gardish 2000, pp. 71-72)

Iranian Islamo-Marxist Ali Shariati (1933-1977), a source of ideological inspiration for the Islamic Revolution in Iran, was influenced by Iqbal’s philosophy. Urdu poet Zaheer Kashmiri (1919-1994) in his poem entitled ‘Palestine’ describes the Israelis as “aggressors” (jangbazon) and “usurpers” (ghasibon) who have occupied Palestine by force, in spite of the fact that the state came into existence as a result of a majority vote in favour of its creation at the General Assembly of the United Nations, an international body in which the Arab states that attacked Israel upon the declaration of its statehood in 1948, were and continue to be members. In Urdu poetry, there is no paucity of paeans to Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Abu Jihad (also known as Khalid al-Wazir), responsible for numerous terrorist attacks. An example is the famous Pakistani poet Ahmad Faraz’s poem to Abu Jihad:

Abu Jihad, our struggle is one,
Whether that land be yours or mine,
Whether it is your blood that flows in the path of Fidelity or mine,
Whether it is your shirt that is torn or my sleeve.
We will go forth together for the sake of the banners of companionship,
To wheresoever our friends call out,
If the blade and dagger are the language of Tyranny,
We will ready the armour of the Word of Fidelity.[vi]

Of all the Urdu poems against Israel, the most famous is Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s “For those Palestinian martyrs killed in foreign lands”, written during his exile in Beirut in 1980. Shahab Ahmad explains that “Palestine became a metaphor in Urdu poetry for resistance to superpower hegemony and authoritarian rule in the Third World, the more so as the military government [of General Zia ul-Haq, President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988] tried to utilize the Palestinian cause to legitimize its political authority” (Ahmad 1998, p. 53).  

Most Indians have never come into direct contact with Jews, due to the latter’s small population size. There are only five thousand Jews in India, in a population that exceeds 1.3 billion. The only Jew Anwar Nadeem had ever met was during a train journey: a British linguist who happened to be traveling in the same compartment that he was in with a few poets returning from a musha‘irah (public poetry recital).[vii] He gives a vivid and moving description of the lady’s beauty in his travelogue and points out how he, along with the other fellow poets, enjoyed the conversations with her. But he leaves the readers surprised when he quotes Tasneem Faruqi, one of the fellow poets he travelled with, who told them once the British Jewish linguist got off the train that when he woke up in the morning, he ensured that it was one of the fellow Muslim poets he saw and not her when he reopened his eyes, for he did not want to begin the day with the sight of a Jewess! (Nadeem 1985: 137)

This incident illustrates how deep-rooted hatred, disgust, and disdain for Jews is among certain sections of South Asian Muslims. It is so deep that the word Yahūdī (Urdu for Jew) has come to be used as a pejorative. In fact, Anwar Nadeem was himself called a Yahūdī once, of course, with a negative connotation, by a fellow poet Saghar Mahdī, whose collection of poems, Dīvānjalī (1973) Nadeem had published under the auspices of his publication enterprise Hamlog Publishers, but refused to give him more than the number of copies of the book that they had originally agreed upon. What he obviously implied was that Anwar Nadeem was just as stingy and greedy as the Jews are (as Mahdi and many other Muslims like him perceive Jews to be). It reminds us of how one of the paintings by the great Indian artist Raja Ravi Verma (1848-1906), an oil portrait of a Jew, is titled “The Miser” (1901). It only illustrates that the stereotype of a miserly Jew is not limited to Muslims, as the artist was a Hindu.

Prior to the partition in 1947, India was home to the world’s largest Muslim population, though still a minority with its proportion in the total population slightly less than a quarter. Since partition, India has had the third-largest Muslim population, which happens to be the largest minority segment in the world. Their numerical significance contrasted by the numerical insignificance of Jews, which essentially renders the Jews invisible, emboldens the Muslims to voice ugly public opinions about Jews, based on perceptions formed by antisemitic propaganda instead of proper information, without challenge. Wherever the Jews and Muslims in India and Pakistan had interaction over a long period, they developed superbly cordial relations which even the Arab-Israeli conflict failed to dent. But for those Muslims in India and Pakistan who never have the chance to directly interact with Jews over any considerable period of time, as is the case with most of the South Asians regardless of their religious persuasion, it becomes very easy to develop prejudices and biases against them, fuelled by the antisemitic propaganda unleashed by certain clerics, intellectuals, and social and political commentators.

A few of such clerics mentioned-above played a pivotal role in shaping political Islam with global ramifications, in which antisemitism is intertwined. In fact, Albert Hourani labels the eighteenth century, the “Indian century” in Islamic history. In spite of this, the antisemitism in South Asia, particularly India, has escaped attention, as instances of violent antisemitic attacks have not only been few and rare, but have never been perpetrated by local Muslims. When the synagogue in Karachi, part of India before 1947, was desecrated immediately after the creation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the perpetrators were the Urdu-speaking immigrants from the plains of northern India and not the Sindhi-speaking local Muslims. Similarly, during the terrorist attack on the Chabad Lubavitch centre in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in 2008, all the perpetrators were from Pakistan. The fact is that wherever in South Asia there has been direct interaction between Jews and Muslims over a long period of time, there has been little room for stereotypes to develop. What is badly needed is the promotion of awareness of Jewish history and the correct interpretation of the polemics, instead of the overly literal ones, in order to combat antisemitism in the region.  Overlooking this cannot be an option. It would not have been so easy for the apex court in Pakistan to acquit the main accused in the case of the murder of the American Jewish journalist, Daniel Pearl, in 2002, had antisemitic attitudes not been dominant there. We must strive for a better understanding between Jews and Muslims. No matter how discouraging the situation may be, complacency would only make it worse than it already is. Our efforts in this direction would also be a befitting tribute to the poet who wrote the only Urdu poem on the Holocaust. 


[i] https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/Iran-Holocaust-denial-timeline.pdf

[ii] Zindagī aur maut kī jādugarī, hai zamīṅ par chārsū phailī huī / rāhtéiṅ bhī zahmatoṅ ké sāth haiṅ, muśkiléiṅ bhī hausloṅ ké sāth haiṅ / tīragī har gām kī jholī méiṅ hai, rauśnī bhī vaqt kī mut’thī méiṅ hai / is kharābé ké chalan ko kyā kahūṅ, ik zarā sī dér kā jhūtā sukūṅ / phir isī zulmatqadé méiṅ zindagī, hai junūṅ ké sāmné bhikrī huī / har zamāné méiṅ qayāmat kā vajūd, khūn méiṅ nahlā gayā insāniyat / kāś mil jātī koī tābīr bhī, ék sapnā hī rahī haq’qāniyat / ārzū phir bhī yahī hai dosto! dard kā yé silsilā paidā nā ho!

The poem’s English translation by Saira Mujtaba, published in Anwar Nadeem, a blog dedicated to the memory of the deceased poet, on August 11, 2009. Accessed on February 23, 2021 at http://anwarnadeem.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-series-of-this-pain-should-not.html

[iii] Singh, Sarva-Daman. 2014. Poetry of Anwar Nadeem. In Anwar Nadeem, Ye Kaun Méré Qarīb Āya (Lucknow: Humlog Publishers), pp. 10-13. Available online: http://anwarnadeem.blogspot.com/2017/10/poetry-of-anwar-nadeem.html

[iv]hai khāk-é-filastīn peh yahūdī kā agar haq!/ hispanyah par haq nahin kyuṅ ahl-é-arab kā?”, Muhammad Iqbal, “Sham o Filastin”, Zarb-e-kalim, 156, in Kulliyat-e-Iqbal: Urdu (Lahore: Shekh Ghulam ‘Ali and Sons Publishers) 1973, 618. Cited in Ahmad 1998.

[v] “logoṅ né / bas Iqbāl ko pakaṛ liyā / mazhab aur tārīkh / śāyarī aur samāj / ab kisī ké bāré méiṅ / kuchh sochné, samajhné kī zarūrat nahīṅ hai / zamīn kī ék dhaj‘jī / unké liyé bahut hai / hindustān apnī tamāmtar vus‘atoṅ ké sāth / kat‘tā hai to kat jāé”, Anwar Nadeem, “Akélā Śāyar”

[vi] abu jihād hamāra jihād ék sā hai/ voh sarzamīn tirī ho keh sarzamīn merī/ rāh-i vafā men tirā khūn bahé ké merā lahū/ darīdāh ho térā dāman kéh āstīn mérī// chaléngé sāth rifāqat ké parchamoṅ ké li’é/ jahāṅ jahāṅ sé bhī sāthī haméṅ pukāréṅgé/ agar hai daśnāh o khaṅjar zabān qātil kī/ to ham bhī harf-é vafā kī zirāh sanvāréṅge“, Ahmad Faraz, “Abu Jihad”

[vii] Musha‘irahs attract large audiences in Pakistan and India. Their audio and video recordings are widely circulated and attract viewers in large numbers on YouTube, and are also broadcast on radio and television.



Aafreedi, Navras J. 2009. The First Ever Holocaust Films Retrospective in South Asia, Lucknow, September 2009 (Pune: Centre for Communication and Development Studies): https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/bib255249

Aafreedi, Navras J. 2010. The First Ever Holocaust Films Retrospective in South Asia. Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, Vol. 11: 149-151. Accessed on February 24, 2021 at http://www.mei.org.in/uploads/jijscontent/205-1555516372-jijsarticlepdf.pdf

Ahmad, Shahab. 1998. The Poetics of Solidarity: Palestine in Urdu Poetry. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 18, Post-Colonial Discourse in South Asia, 29-64.

Ahmed, Tufail. 2013. Question Islamism of iconic poet. The New Indian Express. November 9. Available online: https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2013/nov/09/Question-Islamism-of-iconic-poet-535321.html

Amanullah, Arshad. 2009. Is Urdu Journalism in India a Lost Battle. In Muslims and Media Images: News versus Views. Edited by Ather Farouqi. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 276.

Banerjee, Basabi Khan and Georg Stober. 2020. “Hitlermania”: Nazism and the Holocaust in Indian History Textbooks. Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 12.1: 43-73.

Gardish, Ghulam Rizvi. 2000. English Translation of Anwar Nadeem’s ‘The Only Poet’. Indian Literature, Vol. XLIV, No. 3, May-June, 71-72.

Kopf, Dan and Preeti Varathan. 2017. If Uttar Pradesh were a country. Quartz India, October 12. Accessed on February 24, 2021 at https://qz.com/india/1094942/if-uttar-pradesh-were-a-country-where-would-it-rank-by-size-wealth-and-other-measures/

Nadeem, Anwar. 1985. Jalté Tavé ki Muskurāhat. Lucknow: Hamlog Publishers. Available online: https://www.rekhta.org/ebooks/jalte-tawe-ki-muskurahat-anwar-nadim-ebooks