Israel-Palestine Conflict: Why Has India Forsaken Its Role as a Voice of Moderation?

The increasing support for Israel in the country is in consonance with the rise of anti-Muslim, anti-minority politics represented by the BJP.

“It is sad to see how Indians have changed,” Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa told Rajdeep Sardesai. She said that she was surprised that Indians, who have experienced the cruelty of colonialism, fail to connect with the plight of the people of Gaza, which has faced the brunt of settler colonialism at the hands of Israel. How can Indians wish for the extermination of the occupied people of Gaza and wish victory for the occupier Israel?

There are many reasons for the change that India has gone through in the recent past. One reason for this change is the fading memory of English colonialism, with the Mughals/Muslims being increasingly seen as the real colonisers.

The world, yet to come to terms with the change in the imagination of the Hindu majority, was surprised to see massive support for the Israeli war against the Palestinians coming from India. One person noted that it was amusing to see the maximum number of social media posts calling for an end to the war in Hebrew and the maximum number of posts calling for the annihilation of Gaza in Hindi.

He may have been exaggerating, but it is true that there was an obscene glee in the Indian media after Israel started to bomb Gaza in retaliation for the surprise Hamas attack which killed more than 1,300 Israelis, most of them civilians, and took more than 200 Israelis as hostages to be exchanged with more than 5,000 Palestinians, including children and women.

One has to be fair to the Indian media. It was after all not very different from its Western counterpart, which was demonstratively partisan towards Israel. A majority of TV channels and newspapers actively decontextualised the Hamas attack and also failed to see and point out the visible disproportionality in the Israeli ‘response’. The killing of Israeli children and women outraged them. But the killing of Gazan babies by the indiscriminate bombing was because of Hamas embedding themselves within the civilian population.

The attack on civilians was justified by suggesting that without their support, Hamas would not thrive. If they were not revolting against Hamas, they were complicit.

The Western media and political leadership kept calling the Hamas attack ‘unprovoked’, totally neglecting the underlying context – which includes the daily violence against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, not only by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) but also by settlers who are given arms and cover by the Israeli state to loot and steal Palestinian land and houses and even kill.

Calling out this dishonesty, Amira Hass, a veteran Israeli-Jewish journalist, plainly said that history did not begin on October 7, 2023. The Hamas attack, she said, may not have happened if Israel had not committed unspeakable atrocities on the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and even Jerusalem.

An Israeli flag. Representative image. Photo: Taylor Brandon/Unsplash

But the Indian media went berserk, asking for the total destruction of and predicting the end of Gaza. It seems to have taken a cue from the first reaction of its chief editor, who also happens to be the prime minister of India. Narendra Modi took to X (formerly Twitter) immediately and said, “Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.”

The Indian big media tried to portray this statement as Modi‘s entry into the war against ‘terror’, which, according to it, has driven fear in the heart of Hamas.

But others noted that India had associated its reputation with Israel and forsaken its role as a voice of moderation, which it has performed historically since independence. While expressing shock at the Hamas attack, India could have asked for restraint, by calling upon Israel not to target the civilian population of Gaza. Only five days later, it tried to correct its official position when it reiterated its stand for a sovereign Palestine.

Even after 18 days of the Israeli bombing of Gaza, India has not called for a ceasefire. It has not called upon the international community to mediate. That indicates that it is allowing Israel to continue its genocidal attack on the civilian population of Gaza.

Also read: Israel’s War on Palestinians: Language in the Service of the Unspeakable

An election agenda?

A journalist friend of mine, who lives in Chandigarh, told me he is worried about the impact of the Israeli ‘war’ on the state elections to be held next month. His worry is not misplaced. If you follow the big media, which acts like a mouthpiece of the ruling BJP, you can see that the trope of terror is being used to vilify Muslims. It is suggested that Islamic countries should accommodate Palestinians and make Gaza available to Israel. This is what they have been wishing for Indian Muslims: to be packed off to Pakistan.

It is not hard to ascertain that the conflict in West Asia would be used – is already being used – to demonise Muslims.

The BJP’s propaganda cell is working overtime to tell its constituents that Palestinian ‘terror’ is a result of the policies of Indira Gandhi or the Congress party. The Congress party’s stand after the Hamas attack was different from Modi’s. It did condemn the Hamas attack but immediately called for a ceasefire: “The CWC calls for an immediate ceasefire and for negotiations to begin on all outstanding issues including the imperative issues that have given rise to the present conflict.” It did not take time to ask for the rights of the Palestinians to be respected and spoke for their independence.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma compared the stand of the Congress party with that of Pakistan. He taunted Sharad Pawar, who had talked about the rights of the Palestinians over their land and resources and said that all Indian prime ministers had stood firmly with Palestine, by asking Pawar to send his daughter Supriya Sule to fight for Hamas.

Another BJP leader, Piyush Goyal said: “Pawar ji was a part of the same government that shed tears on the Batla House encounter and slept while there were terror attacks on Indian soil…”

Support for Palestine is being treated as support for terrorism. You can be booked or jailed for supporting Palestine in India. Protests are not allowed by the government.

The increasing support for Israel in India is in consonance with the rise of anti-Muslim, anti-minority politics represented by the BJP. The idea of Israel as a country in which Jews are first-class citizens and others second is attractive to the BJP supporters, who want Hindus to be treated similarly in India. They want India to become a majoritarian democracy like Israel. They also share the sentiments of Israeli Jews who consider Palestinians as lesser humans who are unlike them in all matters.

Outsiders are puzzled by the support of the BJP, or its parent body the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for Israel. Did it not endorse the notion of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ for the Jewish question? How can it now justify its support for Jews?

This paradox can be explained by the RSS and BJP’s belief in the idea of dominance. They admire those who dominate and use violence to maintain their dominance over others. A hundred years ago, the Nazis were the dominant power. Now it is Israel. The RSS worshipped Hitler then, now it is a disciple of Israel.

Also read: The Israel-Palestine War Is a Stain on Every One of Us

My journalist friend was also perturbed by the silence on campuses. Why is our youth not speaking out? There are many reasons. But one reason is that they are not adequately informed. They depend on TV Big Media and WhatsApp for inforamation.

Note that even the nearly six-month-long violence in Manipur has not been able to stir the imagination of the rest of India. There are hardly any public protests demanding peace there. It is impossible for them to think about Palestine. For them, there is an entity called Israel which is being threatened by terrorists led by Hamas. Palestine does not seem to exist in their imagination.

There are people who invoke Gandhi and Nehru to speak for the rights of the Palestinians. But a significant section of Hindus now believe that India has to correct the “wrongs” committed by those great leaders. Israel is cited as an ideal in these circles. Its violent methods to control people perhaps appeal to them.

Moreover, there is no parallel education about liberation struggles in India. Given the shift in demographics, with NFHS-5 revealing that 52% of Indians are under the age of 30, present-day Indians do not have a memory of apartheid South Africa and know little of the stellar role India’s political leadership took in mobilising international opinion against it.

More than that, one needs to accept that a lot of Indians are not averse to some kind of apartheid as they themselves believe in a caste-segregated society, with entrenched notions of hierarchy and dominance. Israel has achieved this. It may, therefore, be a reflex to admire it.