‘Exclude Swastika from the remit of the Nazi symbol ban’

By Indira Laisram
Representational pic only. Photo by Mert Kahveci on Unsplash

In September, the Victorian government announced it will become the first state or territory in Australia to make the public display of Nazi symbols illegal in a bid to help stamp out hateful behaviour and boost human rights protections.

In an official statement, the government said it will, among other things, legislate a ban on the public display of Nazi symbols, expected in the first half of 2022, in recognition of the rise in neo-Nazi activity and its role in inciting hate behaviour.

A Parliamentary inquiry committee into the effectiveness of the state’s anti vilification and hate laws had recommended that “the Victorian government establish a criminal offence that prohibits the display of symbols of Nazi ideology, including the Nazi swastika, with considered exceptions to the prohibition.”

The government response noted that it will introduce legislation to criminalise the display of the Nazi swastika and other symbols historically associated with Nazism.

It is this conflation of the Nazi Hakenkreuz and the Swastika that has become a moot point. For communities such as the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, amongst others, the Swastika is a sacred symbol.

Since the announcement, 40 plus Hindu organisations have signed letters to the Premier.

Acknowledging the cultural and historical significance of the Swastika symbol for Hindu and other faith communities, including Buddhist and Jain communities, the Attorney-General, the Victorian Multicultural Commission in partnership with the Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS) recently held an on-line roundtable to address the issue.

Representing the Hindu Council of Victoria, Makarand Bhagwat, made a presentation stating, at the outset, that the conflation Nazi Hakenkreuz and the Swastika criminalises and vilifies Hindus and increases the risk of stigmatisation and Hindu phobia.

“From the Hindu community point of view, we want to make sure that the language and the law is very clear. The ban of the Nazi Hakenkreuz should exclusively exclude the Swastika, and at the same time, reclaim the Swastika symbol as an image, as a word and as a meaning. Swastika is a Sanskrit word and the word itself means peace, the symbol itself is a symbol of peace and it cannot be a hateful symbol,” Bhagwat said.

“From the Hindu community point of view, we want to make sure that the language and the law is very clear. The ban of the Nazi Hakenkreuz should exclusively exclude the Swastika, and at the same time, reclaim the Swastika symbol as an image, as a word and as a meaning”
— Makarand Bhagwat

The Buddhist Council of Victoria (BCV) also expressed dismay at the term ‘Nazi Swastika’. “It is a very Euro centric point of view to refer to the Swastika as a Nazi swastika, it was borrowed in the middle of the 20th century by the Nazis, but Swastika is not the property of the Nazis, it is a colonist’s way of talking about the Swastika. It is to give to a victory to Hitler which we don’t want to do,” said Diana Cousens of the BCV.

Cousens said, “We also want to end racism and anti-Semitism hate speech and the rise of the right, but we don’t feel that simply banning a symbol is going to assist in these bigger calls. The cross has been used by Ku Klux Klan but no one is going to ban the cross. Typically, the right wing identifies itself by waving the Australian flag. So you can see that just banning a symbol is a diversion. It pretends to be doing something while doing nothing and creating a lot of unintended consequences which have the potential to discriminate against the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc.”

She further said, “If you actually start from the intention of ending racism and anti-Semitism then you need to think creatively about targeting those groups, how they organise, what they are on about and work more deeply within the community that creates those groups. It is much more concrete to ban the use of something in the context of a hate crime and to have a view about the intention and the purpose and the context rather than just going around banning symbols which come from other cultures about which you may know very little.”

Seeking mitigation, the Hindu Council of Victoria has asked for a clearly stated public clarification that the proposed Victorian Parliament prohibition is limited to the Nazi hate symbol known as Hakenkreuz and not the Swastika; that Parliament desist from referring to the Nazi Hakenkreuz as the Swastika in all communications as well as the legislations, and that Parliament exclude the Swastika from the remit of the Nazi symbol ban.

Bhagwat made the recommendations that the Victorian government engages with and consults with the Hindu community via the Hindu Council of Australia during the drafting of the legislation. He also recommended community education will and, if possible, even in schools which will lead to better understanding and thereby prevent vilification of Hindu communities and other forms of Hindu phobia.

In response, Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said, “It is not our view that we can stop hate behaviour by banning a particular symbol.” She assured that the government was committed to deeper meaningful engagement on this.

“This is not a full stop but an opportunity to hear from you and give you our assurance that there is absolutely no intention to impede on your use of religious symbols or practices you’ve been engaged in for centuries. We know the Swastika symbol is unfortunately getting hijacked by some other communities and used to vilify not only the Jewish community but extending to the LGBTI community as White supremacists use it, that’s why the government wants to make sure that there is an exclusion for appropriate purposes such as the importance of your community.”

At the moment, the government is finalising the draft proposal to bring out to everyone which will then form the basis of developing the offences and exceptions.

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