Ahmedabad, Sept. 2: Rajesh Shah, 32, is an engineering graduate and former stockbroker but claims he knew nothing about Adolf Hitler when he opened his latest menswear shop 10 days ago and named it “Hitler”, earning international notoriety.
He says the store, which he co-owns, draws its name from the nickname “Hitler” by which his business partner’s late grandfather Dungromal Chandani, a very “strict” man, was known.
Ask him about the swastika on the signboard of his outlet, and he says it’s only a Hindu symbol. The swastika is now indeed placed upright like the traditional Hindu version — although the four dots are missing — but in the middle of last week it was tilted 45 degrees, just like the Nazi emblem.
Rajesh admits he rotated the swastika on Friday to avoid controversy.
Still, he insists that he learnt about the real Hitler and his crimes only last week, when representatives from Ahmedabad’s small Jewish community of 40-odd families approached him to express their hurt and request him to change the outlet’s name.
Rajesh says he won’t. “We wanted to catch people’s attention by hook or by crook and have succeeded. I have now read up about Hitler and his horrific acts — but then, I am not selling anything related to him.”
He explained how the name came about. “Manish’s grandfather played the role of Hitler during his schooldays and the name stuck because he was too strict a disciplinarian,” Rajesh told The Telegraph.
Manish Chandani is abroad and couldn’t be contacted. Rajesh’s remark about the Hitler play, though, suggests he was at least aware of a historical Hitler even if he did not know the reasons for his association with “strictness”.
“We were searching for an offbeat and catchy name and Manish suggested we use his grandfather’s nickname which I found very interesting,” said Rajesh, who owns another clothing outlet named Jeans Casino.
Rajesh said: “Other garment stores in the locality have catchy names such as ‘Mafia’, ‘Loffer’ (apparently ‘loafer’ misspelled), ‘Custody’, ‘Lootere’ (robber) and ‘Firengi’ — so why can’t we have ‘Hitler’?”
Rajesh had told the Jewish delegation, led by local synagogue secretary Menasseh Solomon, that he had spent Rs 40,000 putting up eight hoardings to publicise his store and would change the name only if they compensated him. The delegation declined to pay him.
Today, Rajesh told this newspaper he would not change the name even if someone offered compensation.
“Why should I? I would rather fight a legal battle to protect my brand. I am in touch with my lawyer and am ready for any eventuality.”
Orna Sagiv, the Israeli consul-general based in Mumbai, has said she plans to request Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at a scheduled meeting this week to pressure the owners of the shop to change the name.
She said she was “shocked” at the name and the use of the swastika, adding that it was “insulting” to the Jewish community across the world.
On Thursday, the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, called on Rajesh to “heed the concerns of the local Jewish community and the voices of others from around the world by immediately changing the store’s name”. It called his decision to use the name “an affront to the memory of the millions of Hitler’s victims”.
However, naming brands or businesses after Hitler isn’t illegal in India, and Rajesh says he “faced no hassles” registering his store under the state’s shops and establishment act.
A high court lawyer, Rajesh Makad, said that if anyone felt aggrieved by the name, they could complain to the registration authorities and, if not satisfied with their decision, move a public interest litigation in the higher courts.
Other legal experts said a police complaint could be lodged on the ground that the shop’s name hurts religious sentiments and promotes enmity between groups. They cited how Ahmedabad police had started such a case in the 1990s after a company printed Hindu symbols on T-shirts.
Naming a clothing store “Hitler” would not be illegal in most countries although denial of the Holocaust — which refers to the murder of 5-6 million Jews by Hitler — is implicitly or explicitly outlawed in Israel, Canada and 15 European nations. New Zealand last year banned babies being named Hitler, though.
The Jewish community in Ahmedabad doesn’t want to take the matter to the courts or the police and prefers a “friendly” settlement, synagogue secretary Solomon said.
“We’ll meet this week and decide our next course of action. Most probably, we will seek the state government’s intervention. We don’t want any protest or confrontation,” he said.
The key issue is that unlike countries such as America, India’s Jewish community may be too small to exert effective political pressure on the government, a point Rajesh seemed to be making to The New York Times last week.
“None of the other people are complaining, only a few Jewish families. I have not hurt any sentiments of the majority Hindu community. If he (Hitler) did something in Germany, is that our concern?” he said.
His protestations today that the controversy had become a “headache, with someone calling up every now and then” seemed a little affected, though, because he was clearly enjoying the situation.
“The name is arousing curiosity and attracting people. To create a sense of mystery, we haven’t written anything below the sign or on our cards to indicate what we sell. The customers tell me they came in seeing the name,” he said.
“People (competitors) are jealous of us. They think we are getting free publicity,” he added, standing before his ground-floor shop at upscale Vastrapur, less than a kilometre from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
Nirmal Kumar, an IIM Ahmedabad alumnus who runs his own advertising business, joked that his alma mater might do well to carry out a case study of Rajesh under the head: “How to promote visibility without spending a single paisa.”
“Rajesh is not into branding, he only wants visibility, positive or negative,” Kumar said. “That’s why this name, which many find objectionable, is nothing but a publicity stunt.”
Rajesh comes from a trading family: his father and two brothers run a wholesale business in edible oil. After graduating in mechanical engineering from Dhulia in Maharashtra, he worked as a stockbroker for five years before the recession prompted him to change his profession.
“I thought it was time to move on and not get stuck where I saw no future for myself,” the father of a five-year-old girl said. He opened his first shop, Jeans Casino, along with a partner four years ago.
Rajesh’s family had immigrated from Pakistan in 1971 and initially settled at Barmer in Rajasthan before moving to Ahmedabad, where they live in the middle-class neighbourhood of Naroda.
Rajesh doesn’t own a car though he can afford several, and prefers to ride a motorcycle. He said he didn’t consult his family before naming the shop. “I take my own decisions.”
Rajesh’s store is one of a handful of Indian businesses bearing Hitler’s name, with most of the owners appearing to have picked the name for shock value rather than an admiration for Nazism. Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, however, remains a strong seller at roadside book stalls.
Baljit Singh Osan, who opened the “Hitler’s Den” pool parlour in Nagpur six years ago, said he chose the name for its recall value and did not sympathise with Hitler or his beliefs. But he still refused to change the name when the Jewish community in Nagpur protested.
“If I named my son ‘Hitler’ and wanted to start a business in his name, would they have a problem?” Osan said.
Punit Sablok, who opened Hitler’s Cross Cafe in Navi Mumbai in 2006, however, renamed it “The Cross Cafe” within days after protests by the local Jewish community and the Israeli consulate-general. The restaurant-cum-coffee shop closed in 2009, unable to handle competition.
An Internet advertising company that was named Adolf Hitler Inc. when it started in May 2011 changed its name to AHI ADS in January bowing to “public pressure”, its manager Prakash G said. “I have read his (Hitler’s) autobiography and like some of his ideas,” Prakash said.
A Zee TV serial about a dictatorial woman, which began in 2011, uses the name Hitler Didi but was renamed General Didi for its US broadcasts after the Anti-Defamation League protested.
But context seems to play a key role in stoking controversy. In the 1990s, a Malayalam movie titled Hitler ran to full houses for over 200 days without any murmurs.
The plot — a comedy about an overprotective brother with five sisters who is nicknamed “Hitler” because of his sternness — did not have any allusions to the real Hitler or his atrocities. The film starred Mammooty, one of the biggest stars in southern India, and was directed by Siddique, who also made last year’s Salman Khan blockbuster Bodyguard.