NEW DELHI -- Israel won't compensate two Indian businessmen to get them to change the name of their shop called Hitler, a diplomat said Wednesday, because paying them could inspire a host of copycat fortune seekers.
"We'd have 10,000 shops tomorrow," said Orna Sagiv, Israel's consul general in Mumbai. "We need him to understand it's wrong; we're not going to negotiate for money."
In recent days, the Western clothing shop in Ahmedabad has attracted global attention for its huge "Hitler" sign in white lettering with a red swastika inside the dot above the letter "i." Co-owner Manish Chandani said by telephone he won't cover the sign with a cloth or otherwise obscure it until he's settled on a new name and had a new sign made.
"I have a name in mind, but I don't want to disclose it yet," said Chandani, 24. "I've been getting a good response with the Hitler name; sales are good. I'm concerned that business could drop off once I change it."
Chandani, who set up the shop with partner Rajesh Shah, said he knew who Hitler was before he named the shop, having watched a TV program, and was aware the German leader helped start World War II and was responsible for the deaths of millions of people in gas chambers.
But the shop wasn't named after that Hitler, Chandani insisted, but after shopkeeper's strict grandfather who had the nickname "Hitler." The swastika -- a version of which has been used in Indian Hinduism for over 3,000 years -- was added by the sign-maker, he said.
"The billboard company suggested that since the shop was called ‘Hitler,’ it was all right to go with the Nazi symbol as well," said the shop owner. "It was kind of the theme, so I agreed."
Chandani said he has been asking for $3,000 to cover what he spent on the sign, but Indian officials and members of the local Jewish community have been noncommittal or refused.
Before opening the shop on July 19, Chandani said he ran "Hitler is coming" teaser advertisements. Later, some customers said they came into the shop after doing a double-take on the unusual name.
The government did not object when he got the name registered and copyrighted, he said. "Until then, no official made an issue," Chandani added. "All this mayhem started behind my back."
Chandani said the owners started receiving protest calls from members of the small Ahmedabad Jewish community in August, followed by visits from local officials and calls from Israel, Germany, the United States, Britain and Turkey, often at odd hours.
Though most of the overseas callers were opposed, he said, some expressed support.
Sagiv, who visited Ahmedabad to elicit the support of local officials, said she believes the use of the mass murderer's name is less about anti-Semitism than deep-seated ignorance about history. Indians would not open a shop named after the prophet Muhammad and adorned with a pig, she said, yet there seem to be few qualms in some circles about opening a Hitler shop.
Indeed, Chandani's is the most recent of several companies, films, TV programs, even people in India using Hitler's name, in a country where the dictator enjoys a certain cult status in some circles.
In 2006, the restaurant Hitler's Cross in Mumbai agreed to change its name to Cross Cafe under pressure from Israel and the Jewish community, though a pool parlor called Hitler's Den, which opened in Nagpur last year, has so far resisted such pressure.
Hitler’s manifesto "Mein Kampf" enjoys brisk sales in India -- even marketed as a management guide alongside the "Who Moved My Cheese?" series -- and "Hitler Didi," a popular TV series about a strong career woman, has chalked up 200 episodes.
Some see in this misinformed admiration a desire for order and discipline in a country where rules aren't always followed, others an attraction to strongmen in male-dominated communities. Textbooks in Gujarat until a few years ago referred to Hitler as someone who gave "dignity and prestige" to the German government.
"They don’t necessarily know much about what Hitler's all about," said Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.
Hitler's views on racial purity have a certain resonance with right-wing upper-caste Hindus desperate to preserve their social position, added A.F. Mathew, a humanities professor at the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode, as democracy advances and Muslims and lower-caste communities fight to improve their lives.
"It's a defense mechanism, this idea you need a strong dictator," he said. "It all comes together in a deadly cocktail, with this shop a small manifestation of that."
Despite borrowing its swastika symbol, Hitler was fairly dismissive of India, referring to Indian freedom fighters as racially inferior "Asiatic jugglers" and advising Britain's foreign secretary in 1937 to "shoot Gandhi," referring to pacifist leader Mohandas Gandhi.
For shop owner Chandani, all the controversy is taking its toll.
"Some people have supported me, but I don't want to get into a big political drama," he said. "At this point, even if I'm not compensated for the sign, I'll still have to change it."
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Co-owner Rajesh Shah stands in front of his Hitler clothing shop in Ahmedabad, India. He and his partner, Manish Chandani, have sought compensation to change the name of the shop after a ruckus erupted. Credit: Sam Panthaky / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images