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My friend Hitler

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DEAL WITH A DICTATOR: Biographer Damodar Nene claims Sayajirao attended the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics and met Hitler at a party hosted for Indian wrestlers.

In the summer of 1936, Berlin was abuzz with the Olympics. Predictably, many opposed the event as it was held under Adolf Hitler's supervision;supporting it would have meant condoning Hitler's unpardonable war crimes and his atrocities against Jews. Among the few who supported the Games despite the Fuhrer's presence at the opening ceremony was then US Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who famously said: "Politics has no place in sport. " But politics did find its way into the Berlin Olympics, though the context was different. And it was purely clandestine. A new biography of Sayajirao Gaekwad (1863-1939 ), ruler of the erstwhile Baroda state, says that Gaekwad met the German dictator during the Games and even signed a secret pact with him to oust the British from India. Although historians doubt that the ruler of a princely state would have the guts to infuriate the British Raj, the biographer, Damodar Nene, claims that Gaekwad did meet Hitler. He should know. His grandfather Pandurang Vasudev Nene and father Vishnu Nene were personal secretaries to Gaekwad from 1900 till his death in 1939. "Sayajirao was seated a row below Hitler's box at the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics, " claims the Baroda-based physician. "Later, Gaekwad met Hitler at a party hosted for Indian wrestlers. My father had prepared a draft of the pact. " Nene has never seen the draft nor can he say where it is kept (he was just 13 when his father died). He says he heard of it from his uncle Mahadev Nene.

The Baroda-Berlin pact was a well-guarded secret, says Nene, as the British would have seen it as an act of treason and probably eliminated Gaekwad, had they come to know about it. "The draft said that Gaekwad would garner the support of Hindu princes (he was a member of the Chamber of Indian Princes) for Hitler during World War II and, in return, Hitler would support India's freedom struggle, " says Nene. "On Gaekwad's death, Hitler sent a telegram to my father that said, 'Greatly grieved. Adolf Hitler'."

Ranjit Singh, Gaekwad's great-grandson and current Maharaja, says that he has not come across this or any other document to prove that his ancestor met Hitler, but asserts that Gaekwad was a silent supporter of the freedom movement and freedom fighters. "If someone claims he met Hitler, there must be some truth in it, " he says. "It is for the scholars and historians to explore. "

This breed, however, has mixed opinions on the book. Arvind Dhanachari, head of Mumbai University's history department who has studied Baroda's princely rule, takes Nene's 'research' with a pinch of salt. "I have not come across any diary which says Gaekwad met Hitler, " he says. "But we can give Nene some benefit of the doubt - because Gaekwad did fund Vivekanand's famous Chicago visit and even employed a revolutionary like Aurobindo Ghosh. He was undoubtedly a progressive. "

Nagindas Sanghvi, another Mumbai-based scholar and historian, has a contrarian view on Gaekwad's nationalism and rubbishes Nene's claims. "There is a serious attempt among a section of scholars to prove that Gaekwad was a great patriot and nationalist, " he says. "When the British pulled him up for attending an industrial exhibition of the Indian National Congress, he rationalised it, saying it was not a political meet. Still some scholars claim Gaekwad was a great supporter of the INC. He had to save his kingdom and did not have the guts to go all the way to Berlin and enter into a pact with Hitler. "

Dr A B Saxena, head of the department of history at MS University, Baroda, which was set up by Gaekwad, insists that the probability of the Maharaja making a pact with Hitler cannot be dismissed out of hand. "If you visit Baroda's Fateh Singh Museum, you will find many photographs of Gaekwad with several famous world leaders of the time, " she says. "Obviously he might not have got photographed with Hitler lest he be accused of treason, but he was a nationalist and supported several individuals, including B R Ambedkar. " Saxena, an expert on princely states, adds that Gaekwad was a sports enthusiast and did attend the 1936 Olympics. "He was a visionary ruler and must have moved pragmatically if he made a pact with Hitler, " she concludes.

An important question is: why is Gaekwad's clandestine meeting with Hitler, which should have been an important and interesting chapter of India's freedom history, so shrouded in mystery unlike Subhash Chandra Bose's meeting with the dictator a mere couple of years later? Nene attributes this to the difference in their positions: Bose, who had fled the Raj, had nothing to lose and could afford to announce his partnerships with the anti-British forces from the rooftops. But Gaekwad had a kingdom to return to.

"Gaekwad appeared to be a friend of the British, but at heart he was a nationalist and supported a number of revolutionaries, " says Nene who, in his book, has portrayed Baroda as a crucible of revolutionaries. Tilak, a prominent leader of the radicals in the Indian National Congress, sought Gaekwad's help, which the latter generously provided. Among other revolutionaries and progressives whom Gaekwad financially supported were Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian member of the British House of Commons, B R Ambedkar and scholarreformist Sri Aurobindo, whom he had hired as a teacher at Baroda Arts College. A prince among educators, Gaekwad was the first Indian ruler to make girl child education compulsory at a time when all-pervasive patriarchy denied equal space to women. He abolished child marriage and patronised the arts (legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma had stayed in Baroda too).

Why did Nene choose to write this biography now? "I am 81, " he replies. "If I had not written this book, perhaps Sayajirao's role as a champion of India's freedom would have remained hidden from the world. "

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