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First for India: A Holocaust-focused course on the history of mass violence

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The Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland Presidency University in Kolkata has launched a course on the history of mass violence, featuring the Jewish Holocaust, with the aim of understanding the causes of the phenomenon and how it can be prevented by tracing its history from the 20th century to our times.

Outside China and Israel, the 200-year-old Presidency is the only Asian institution to offer a course on Jewish Holocaust studies, according to course coordinator Navras Jaat Aafreedi, an Indo-Judaic Studies scholar working as Assistant Professor in history in the varsity.

The recently-launched postgraduate course is titled “A History of Mass Violence: 20th Century to the Present” and is taught to MA (History) third-semester students.

“Although China is the biggest Communist country in the world and Communists haven’t been perceived as very favourably disposed towards Israel and Jews, yet the country currently has 10 universities with Jewish studies programmes and four of those universities even give PhD degrees in Jewish studies.

“Wherever there are Jewish studies there are Holocaust studies too. There isn’t any country other than China and Israel where universities are offering courses in Holocaust studies and Jewish studies,” Aafreedi told IANS.

The course explores how in times of violence people can be seen playing different roles — of perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders — and how different sections of society respond.

“Though Holocaust does stand out, we have kept the framework of the course wide enough to discuss other episodes of mass violence too,” said Aafreedi, author of “Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia” (2016).

The course content includes the Armenian genocide, the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966, genocide in Burundi, Pol Pot and the Cambodian genocide, episodes in Rwanda, and the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, among others.

The course tells students about the challenges of rehabilitation and reconciliation, and how memory can be politicised because of conflicting narratives.

Some of the key aspects of the course are challenges of definition and nomenclature, causes, warning signs, propaganda, hateful or inflammatory speech, the state’s connivance or inaction, mass atrocities, remembrance and memorialisation.

Incidentally, mass violence in India is not a part of the course.

“I have deliberately not included any episodes of mass violence from India because I felt that it could be a challenge to the students to retain their objectivity. Holocaust did not involve any section of Indian society and it is a genocide that remains unmatched in its scale and magnitude,” said Aafreedi.

Also discussing mass violence episodes from India could lead to discrimination and discord, he felt.

“If one decides to talk about the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, some students might stand up and say why aren’t you discussing anti-Hindu violence in Kashmir. This underscores the importance of this course in India. I can’t think of any democracy which has suffered from mass violence at the frequency and of the scale and magnitude that India has without being in a state of war, neither inter-state nor civil,” the scholar explained.

“There are a number of scholars in India who are devoted to the study of mass violence… but Mass Violence Studies had not been part of the curriculum in India until the launch of this post-graduate course,” Aafreedi said, acknowledging the varsity’s support in launching the module.

According to university Vice Chancellor Anuradha Lohia, the paper deals with one of the most socially-relevant subjects in the world today.

“You can really hide your faces in the sand and say ‘this is not going to happen to me’, but reality is different. So students must understand what it is because they have to go out in the real world,” Lohia said.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at
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