Does Modi's India Care About Palestine Any More?

Apart from deepening ties with Tel Aviv on all fronts, especially military, the Hindutva ideologues in power in India draw great inspiration from the Israeli model of nationalism and repression.

November 29 is the annual, UN-declared “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” and is a good occasion to look at Indo-Israeli relations and how increasingly inconsequential the plight of the Palestinians and their struggle for justice have now become for the Narendra Modi government.

To be sure, the overall trajectory of India’s current policy has been shaped by earlier governments, especially after the Cold War, when Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. From then onwards, all Indian governments have pursued stronger bilateral ties with Israel and the US respectively, well aware that both pursuits reinforce each other diplomatically and politically. Since then, military and economic exchanges between India and Israel have grown dramatically. Israel has become a principal supplier of military equipment of all kinds to India, perhaps second only to Russia, and India its number one purchaser of such materiel.

However, what is distinctive about the Modi regime is that not only has there been a substantial acceleration in established areas of collaboration but that there is a growing ideological affinity, and indeed admiration, that India’s current rulers – as protagonists of Hindutva and Hindu rashtra – now have for Zionism and the idea of Israel as an exclusivist Jewish state. In key respects, Tel Aviv has already achieved a status that India’s Hindutva government is still striving to attain – regional military dominance (still denied to India by Pakistan) and almost universal acceptance by governments (including China and Russia) of Israel as a legally sanctioned racially exclusivist state.

Also read: At UN Committee, India Abstains on Call for ICJ Advisory Opinion on Israel’s Occupation of Palestine

Before 1992, Indian governments, while maintaining low-level diplomatic relations and on occasions contacts between RAW and Mossad, nevertheless had considerable moral-political empathy with the Palestinian struggle for justice. No doubt the post-World War II processes of decolonisation up until the late 1970s played a big part in promoting and sustaining this more genuine sense of solidarity. The first turning point came with New Delhi’s turn towards the US and the West after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which was further reinforced by the neoliberal opening towards greater foreign investment from the developed world. Henceforth, India’s policy towards the Palestinian cause was to provide it lip service and rhetorical support besides funds for its Fatah-PLO leadership and the Palestinian Authority. The two BJP-led NDA governments have broadly followed this pattern but have further eroded even this minimalist position.

First-time changes

In 2000, L.K. Advani became the first Indian minister to visit Israel; three years later, Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli prime minister to officially come to India, and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee declared Israel a “natural ally”. Under Modi, more first-time changes have emerged. We have now seen Indian abstentions on UN resolutions criticising or condemning Israel for its unjustifiable actions. In 2015, to put flesh on an early 2014 bilateral agreement on “Cooperation on Homeland Security”, IPS officers were sent for the first time for training sessions to Israel to familiarise themselves with how its police and security forces deal with Palestinian resistance. This is now an annual affair and includes personnel serving in or to be stationed in Kashmir.

In 2017, Modi becomes the first Indian prime minister to officially visit Israel. He also broke an established tradition established by earlier Indian official visits by not also visiting the Palestinian leadership in the Occupied Territories (OTs). A deliberate message was thus being sent that the Palestinian question is essentially irrelevant as far as Indo-Israeli ties are concerned. In this trip, Modi also formalised a “Strategic Partnership” between the two countries; this is also when, as the New York Times has reported, the Modi government struck a deal for the purchase of Pegasus – the military grade spyware whose traces have been found in the phones of Indian journalists and opposition leaders.

Israeli Security Personnel Stand Guard in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, February 14, 2022. Reuters/Ammar Awad/File Photo

As for Indian support for a two-state solution, a subtle change took place during Modi’s three-hour visit to Ramallah to meet Mahmoud Abbas. Modi endorsed the call for a “sovereign,  independent” Palestine but dropped the words “united” and “viable”, thus making it clear to Israel that a final settlement that does not vacate the areas acquired for Israeli settlers or any further encroachments by Israel into the OTs will be acceptable to New Delhi which also no longer insists that East Jerusalem be the capital of any future Palestinian state.

But let us now turn to the affinities and differences between Hindutva India and Zionist Israel, and their state-sponsored ideologies.

Israel/Zionism and India/Hindutva: Similarities and contrasts

The origin myth

The claims of political nationalism are preceded and justified by particular constructions of cultural nationalism. Here, two religiously supremacist nationalisms have invented a past resorting to origin myths.

Israel claims that Jews were the original ancient inhabitants of where they now are. This is wrong. The Old Testament itself refers to predecessor tribes such as the Canaanites, Jebusites and Philistines. Shlomo Sand’s famous book The Invention Of The Jewish People explodes the myth of their forcible exile in the first century. West Asia like South Asia was criss-crossed by migration patterns. Ashkenazi, black Jews and most Sephardics are descendants from converts in Eurasia and Africa. Barring a minuscule number, they have no territorial-generational family histories of longevity of residence in today’s Israel that is remotely comparable to what Palestinians in the region have had before their forced expulsion.

Also read: One Year After Pegasus Project Revelations, the State of Israel Continues to Evade Scrutiny

For Hindutva ideologues, Hindus are supposedly the lineal descendants of Aryans who in turn are supposedly indigenous to India. This has been proved linguistically and genetically to be false and the Indus Valley civilisation is not Vedic. Moreover, the Hindu religious community is itself constructed over time through incorporation of various communities, sects, tribes, etc. whose own primary self-identification was, and in many cases is still, not Hindu.

Foundational exclusivity

Zionism is not anti-Muslim but foundationally anti-Palestinian, regardless of whether they are Muslim, Christian or non-believers. However, Israeli governments are happy to piggy back on current Islamophobia since such sentiments can more easily feed into its justifications for brutalities and crimes against the Palestinian people.

Hindutva, however, is foundationally anti-Muslim.

Perpetuating victimhood

Both ideologies constantly promote a sense of victimhood, although in different ways.

The explicitly Jewish state has a professional military that is technologically the most sophisticated and powerful in the region capable, if necessary, to take on the conventional military might of all the neighbouring Arab countries together now that there is an enduring peace with Egypt. Furthermore, it has nuclear weapons and is backed by the most powerful military power in the world, the United States. But it still goes on and on about its ‘regional insecurity’. It deliberately cultivates this sense of victimhood through compulsory conscription of men and women precisely to foster this sense of being besieged. It is a garrison state with a garrison mentality and Israel is in certain circles rightly referred to as “an army with a nation”.

In India, the idea that a minority Muslim population can ever dominate Hindus is ridiculous. So to cultivate a sense of victimhood among Hindus, the Sangh parivar must push the politics of historical revenge. It must try and provoke anger by creating ‘grievances’ through claims of ‘appeasement’ by the state or other parties which thereby ‘discriminate’ against Hindus. So, the absence of a reform in Muslim Personal law via a uniform civil code is said to be ‘unfair’ to Hindus though the principal sufferers of this absence are Muslim women and children. Hindutva ideologues also know they need to generate fear among Hindus, howsoever contrived, at different levels – hence the absurd ‘love jihad’, ‘land jihad’ campaigns, the scare-mongering on Muslim population growth, terrorism as a supposed characteristic of Islam, and so on. As for Hindutva’s ‘army’, this is constituted by its vast network of organisations in civil society.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

International support

Zionism enjoys considerable international support. So much so that to be anti-Zionist is widely equated with being anti-Semitic and therefore equivalent to racism.

However, there is much less international support for Hindutva. Certainly, being anti-Hindutva is not yet seen abroad as being anti-Hindu. But if Hindutva consolidates and expands politically in India, don’t be surprised if there is growing reference to ‘Hinduphobia’ against those who would criticise the Hindutva project.

Right of return

In Israel, there is no right of return for Palestinians displaced in wars or otherwise from 1947-48 onwards. But there is full right of return for Jews from anywhere, making Israel the only country in the world that is not a state of its citizens but of all members of a particular religion. The Islamic states of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, etc. are not states for all Muslims but only of their own citizens. Similar is the case with the Buddhist states of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand.

Also read: The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh is No Aberration

In India, whatever the ultimate aspirations of Hindutva forces, all they can point to as a beginning effort is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). This is a kind of ‘neighbourhood right of return’ for Hindus plus Jains. Sikhs, Buddhists (accepted as truly indigenous) and an Act whose anti-Muslim Hindutva character is revealed by it applying only to Islamic neighbours and not to Buddhist Myanmar or Sri Lanka. Of course, the law’s actual intent is sought to be covered up through the offer of fast-track naturalisation to Parsis and Christians in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan as well. For the first time in India, religious discrimination has been embodied in a law pertaining to citizenship.

Violence and lawlessness

There is routine violence on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and also at times within Israel. But for Jews, the regime is not lawless; and though economic inequalities are growing there are welfare measures and their civic rights are largely protected.

In India, there is targeted violence on Muslims in India but for the majority of Hindus and non-Hindus, life is hard and violence of all kinds – caste, ethnic, gender, class, religious, gangsterism, police repression – permeates society and is accompanied by utterly inadequate welfare measures.

Opposition parties

All non-Arab parties in Israel uphold Zionism and therefore the foundational principles on which the state rests. None are seriously committed to pursuing a just two-state solution with Israel and Palestine existing side-by-side. Indeed, they are not even interested in pursuing an unjust two-state solution but prefer the current situation where further Bantustanisation of the West Bank and the maintenance of the world’s largest open air prison in Gaza continues. There are, of course, pockets of both anti-Zionism and post-Zionism in Israeli civil society.

In India, apart from the Left parties, all other opposition parties to the BJP concede to a soft Hindutva. A posture of belligerent nationalism gets even wider support from the general public. However, in a country the size and diversity of India, there are more widespread and larger sources of strong hostility to Hindutva in civil society.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joke during an exchange of co-operation agreements ceremony in Jerusalem July 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Amir Cohen

Surveillance and apartheid

Israel is a surveillance state with respect to Palestinians. It is also a de jure apartheid state. India is moving towards becoming a surveillance state (helped along by Pegasus) and as far as the forces of Hindutva are concerned they would like to establish at least a de facto apartheid state in which their ‘enemy communities’ are effectively second-class citizens. The Apartheid definition in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) completely fits Israel. It lays down a set of Inhumane Acts in a separate Paragraph 1 and then goes on to say:

“The crime of apartheid means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

Both Human Rights Watch and B’ Tselem in Israel in their respective reports of April 2021 and January 2021 declare Israel to be an apartheid state. Indeed, now that the apartheid regime of South Africa has ended, Israel has taken over the mantle of being the world’s only Settler Colonial Apartheid state. It is a measure of the distance India has travelled that a country that rejected diplomatic, let alone close, relations with apartheid South Africa today has no compunction in lauding its relationship with Israel.

The problem for Israel and its supporters, however, is that the Palestinian resistance continues generation after generation and even as more governments have normalised their ties with Israel, a growing number of organisations and many more individuals worldwide, especially among a younger generation (including of Jews), are expressing a wider and deeper recognition of the grave injustice done to Palestinians. There is also a greater willingness to extend solidarity to the Palestinians in whatever way they can. Here, the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has proved particularly effective.

Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is the author of The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India and The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism.