Indian Americans welcome move to distinguish Swastika from Nazi hate symbol, but not all

Ritu Jha-

California’s Assembly has become the first in the U.S. to acknowledge the difference between the Swastika, the Hindu religious symbol, and the Hakenkreuz (Hooked Cross), the widely reviled and hateful Nazi emblem.

The move has been welcomed by some Hindu advocacy organizations but other Hindu and Buddhist organizations are not pleased and have expressed their disappointment.

The Assembly passed Bill AB2282, authored by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), by 73 votes in favor and none against May 26.

The bill will now go to the California Senate Public Safety Committee, then the Senate Appropriations Committee, and finally the full Senate for a vote.

If it is passed by the Senate, it will go to Governor Gavin Newsom for his signature.  There is, however, no clear timeline for the process to be completed.

If the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor, the Swastika would officially cease to be seen as a symbol of hate and terror.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) welcomed the passage of the bill, but the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) said it fails to do away with the term ‘Nazi Swastika’, continuing the association of the dharmic symbol with hate.

At present, the law treats the Swastika, the noose and the Hakenkreuz as symbols of terror, implying criminal penalties for using them in K-12 schools, colleges, cemeteries, places of worship, places of employment, private property, public parks, public spaces and public facilities.

Samir Kalra, HAF managing director, told indica that passage of the bill is an important first step in decriminalizing the Swastika and recognizing it as a sacred symbol of peace for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists under California law.

“We look forward to it moving through the Senate and being signed into law by the Governor,” Kalra said. “Once it is signed into law, it will protect Hindus, Jains and Buddhists and allow them to practice their traditions freely as they will no longer need to continuously defend and ‘prove’ the intent of their spiritual practice to the public or law enforcement.”

He said the HAF had been working for years to educate the public and policymakers on the significance of the Swastika and began working on the California bill in March.

However, Pushpita Prasad, steering committee member at the CoHNA, told indica, “We agree the bill is well-intentioned, but our primary objection lies in its opening line which declares ‘…Nazi Hakenkreuz (hooked cross) [is] also known as the Nazi Swastika that was the official emblem of the Nazi party’.

“This means the bill is only reinforcing and perpetuating the hateful narrative that ties the sacred symbol of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains to Hitler and the Nazi regime.”

In a press note, CoHNA president Nikunj Trivedi said, “In spite of claims that the bill has decriminalized the Swastika, the amended language continues to use the term ‘Nazi Swastika’. By passing the bill in its current form and failing to accommodate the concerns of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains in the language, the Assembly has essentially supported the false idea that there is a ‘good Swastika’ and a ‘bad Swastika’.”

Pushpita Prasad said the ‘Nazi Swastika’ claim flies in the face of research by CoHNA and others that have shown that Hitler and the Nazis called their symbol the Hakenkreuz, German for hooked cross.

She said CoHNA had been working with Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan, who introduced the bill, for the past two months. “We have briefed her office about the history of the sacred Swastika versus Hitler’s Hakenkreuz, something we have been doing as part of our Swastika Education and Awareness Campaign working with lawmakers in several other states that have considered similar legislation like New York, New Jersey and Maryland over the past two years,” Prasad said.

The CoHNA team shared old articles from the 1920s and 1930s from a variety of publications of that era. For instance, The New York Times coverage from Nov 21 1922 called Hitler’s movement the ‘Hakenkreuz movement’ and his followers ‘Hakenkreuzlers’, she pointed out.

“Thus, the term Nazi Swastika is plain wrong and deserves to be corrected for that reason alone, since it presumes there is a ‘good’ Swastika and a bad one that Hitler used,” she said.  “It is an incredibly hurtful term for millions of Buddhists, Hindus and Jains who over the decades have seen their sacred symbol get conflated with Hitlers’ hate.”

She said CoHNA wants the offending terms to be deleted altogether from the bill. If that is too difficult, CoHNA suggests a minor change in framing to say ‘Hakenkreuz, incorrectly known as the Nazi Swastika’. This, Prasad said, would help to drive more accurate education across the board.

While the bill has been passed by the Assembly and is headed to the Senate, she said CoHNA will continue to work with community members, allies and others to get the modifications done.

The bill is expected to address growing hate crimes against Indian Americans. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) crime statistics report that hate crimes surged to the highest level in 12 years in 2020. This increase is likely a fraction of the many hate crimes that go unreported.

The HAF claimed that the Swastika (or Svastika) had been used for more than 10,000 years in the Indo-Gangetic civilizations. Similarly shaped symbols have been used in other cultures such as ancient Troy and by Native Americans for just as long.

Swastika in Sanskrit means ‘that which makes all well’. Su means ‘good’ and asti means ‘to exist’. The word appears in one of the most frequently used mantras from the Rig Veda (1.89.6), the oldest scripture known today.