Unpacking the Hindutva Embrace of Israel

What we see now reveals more things about the nature of the Hindutva project, its aspirations and ideological directions through the decades, than about Zionism.

As Israel attacks Gaza with brute military force in response to a coordinated offensive by Hamas, staged in a manner and at a scale never seen before, Indian X (formerly Twitter) is abuzz with some familiar chatter – widespread solidarity for Israel. 

Mostly emanating from right-wing Hindutva circles, this wave of support is hardly new. It rears its head every time there is an escalation between Palestine and Israel – and as is the case every time, Tel Aviv deploys disproportionate military force against Palestinians. 

Reflexive online solidarity

The last time Indian X was flushed with pro-Israel hashtags and posts was in the summer of 2021, when the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) bombed Gaza in response to a wave of rocket attacks that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) conducted after Israeli forces stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque and violently evicted Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. 

“We Indians are with Israel in fight against terrorism. It’s time to #StandWithIsrael,” Anshul Saxena, a prominent right-wing voice on X, had posted on May 12, 2021.

“What is happening with #Israel today,will happen with EVERY country in future which refuses to surrender before Radical Islamic Terrorism! India has suffered it a lot & that’s why we must #StandWithIsrael,” one Alakh Alok Srivastava with more than 129,000 followers on X posted on May 13, 2021.

Gaurav Arya, a retired Indian Army major and an influential right-wing commentator on X, wrote on May 17, 2021:

“Israel helped India in 1971 war. Israel helped India in Kargil war. Israel helped India in Balakote. Help was extended to India by Israel in other operations also. So before you get conned by Hamas terror supporters into questioning Israel’s motives, take a step back and think.”

Cut to October 2023. 

Many of these voices are back with their pro-Israel rhetoric and how. Arya, who has positioned himself as one of the most vehement supporters of Israel on Indian X, has been relentlessly tweeting in support of Tel Aviv. This time, he has gone as far as to suggest that India should send Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles and Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers to Israel. Once again recalling Israel’s assistance to India during Kargil and the Balakot airstrikes, he wrote in a post that has so far gathered nearly 2 million views:

“@IDF I wish you good luck and happy hunting. Show no mercy or remorse. Extinguish Hamas.”

Further suggesting that Israel should not stop at eliminating Hamas and should go after the Iranian regime (a well-known backer of the Palestinian armed resistance), Arya wrote in a post that draws an outlandish analogy between Israel-Palestine, Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Iran:

“The final solution to Lashkar lies in Rawalpindi. The final solution to Hamas lies in Tehran.” 

Saxena too has been very active since Hamas’ offensive on October 7. In a post showing Hamas militants open firing at passing cars in Israel, he drew the following comparison:

“Israel is under attack like 26/11 Mumbai attack in India.”

Shefali Vaidya, another popular right-wing voice on X with more than 7.3 lakh followers, expressed her support for Israel in a series of posts. On October 7, she posted:

“I stand with the people of Israel. State of Israel has every right to defend itself from Izlamic terr0r. Israel did not ask for this escalation. #IStandWithIsrael.”

Even a cursory search on X using the hashtags “#StandWithIsrael” and “#IStandWithIsrael”, ideally combined with the keyword “India”, would instantly throw up a barrage of right-wing, pro-Hindutva accounts that forcefully assert their own personal support for Israel in its brute force offensives in Gaza. Not just that, posts made by Israeli accounts show a deluge of Indian right wing support in the replies. Some of them even iterate a wholesale national support, implying that every Indian backs the Israeli side in the conflict. This sits very well the unusually strong diplomatic support that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally extended to Israel this time.

What’s notable, however, is that a specific strand within the right-wing ecosystem has categorically projected “Hindu” – rather than “Indian” – support for Israel. For instance, one user with a blue tick verification called ‘Samyukta Athreya’ posted the following comment on a post by a pro-Israeli blue tick account called ‘The Mossad: Satirical, Yet Awesome’ showing IDF personnel cutting off water supply to Gaza:

“Do what you have to do! All the positive energy from the Hindus will help you win!”

In a post on October 10, another right-wing account with more than a lakh followers called compared Hamas’ offensive against Israelis with a supposed opposition-aided Islamic onslaught against Hindus in India.

Remarkably, even the current Israeli ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, partook in amplifying the Hindu-Jew solidarity narrative. Retweeting a post about a pro-Israel rally organised in Toronto by one ‘Hindu Forum Canada’, he wrote:

“Brotherhood has no borders. #Hindus and #Jews join forces in Canada against #Terror and in support of #Israel.”

In fact, the Israeli envoy has been particularly active in foregrounding Indian support for Israel. In a press conference organised at the embassy on October 8, Gilon claimed that his country had received “overwhelming support and solidarity from Indians – businessmen, civil servants, professionals, ordinary people.”

There’s always the risk of over-analysing these narratives of solidarity. Yet, for those interested in the sharp turns of modern Indian politics, there is some value in unpacking the subtext of the Hindutva embrace of Israel as it reveals a few more things about the nature of the Hindu nationalist project, its aspirations and ideological directions through the decades, than about Zionism.

Three key themes become conspicuous in the rhetoric contained in the above posts – transnational solidarity built on cultural nationalism, identification of a common enemy, and shared values of hyper-militarism. All three aspects play on each other. But, to really deconstruct the unprecedented wave of India-Israel transnational solidarity, we need to go deeper into the shared imaginaries of the Hindutva and Zionist projects.

Common cultural-nationalist dreams

The Hindutva movement’s fascination with the Zionist project goes back to the early 20th century. Both VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar – the two stalwarts of modern Hindutva thought – had expressed sympathy and admiration for Jews for remaining committed to their cultural practices despite the monumental persecution that they faced. But, not just that, they looked up to the Zionists for giving a tangible shape to their nationalist aspirations in the form of a Jewish state. A great deal of this cross-cultural affinity arose from a sense of nationalist and racial insecurity inherent in early Hindutva thought, which ultimately generated the need to establish a Hindu Rashtra (nation) as a corrective measure. 

As the late Satadru Sen, who taught at South Asian history at the City University of New York, wrote in a 2015 article for South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Golwalkar saw in “Jews and Hindus a shared political problem that stemmed from a clash between the reality of race and the failure of nationhood.” In Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar refers to Jews (and Parsis) living in India as “guests” as opposed to the Muslims and Christians who were “invaders”. This reflects Hindutva’s acceptance of Jews as non-threatening members of the Hindu Rashtra who could co-exist peacefully.

Savarkar too framed Hindus and Jews, as Sen observes, in the language of “racial units”. In fact, the reframing of Hinduism as a “race” has today become a core driving force of the Hindutva ethnonationalist project. When combined with other unifying markers, such as language and culture, both the “Hindu” and the “Jew” could be refashioned as ethnic super-identities that can then subsume, if not displace, other social identities (like Dalits and Muslims). Add to this transformative mix a modern nation-state with a strong military, and you end up with a formidable ethno-state. 

In the eyes of the Hindutva intelligentsia, the state of Israel is a striking manifestation of this complex arc that begins at cultural assertion and culminates in the creation of an ethnic ‘homeland’ protected by military force and exclusivist laws. Yet, without specific territorial limits, an ethno-state remains incomplete and ineffective. So, an essential aspect of this process is territorial reclamation and in turn, the production of a bounded national space through the physical displacement of other “dispensable” identities; the creation of what Polish-Jewish scholar, Zygmunt Bauman, has called a “gardening state”. Both the older Hindutva ideologues and their modern political agents recognise this imperative with much sincerity, and see in the state of Israel, a ready-made and fairly successful model for replication.

Shredded social cohesion is the first symptom of fragility. Credit: PTI

Hindutva groups. Representative image. Photo: PTI

This irredentist “model” is partly driven by a colonising impulse. As Jewish-Israeli scholar, Ilan Pappe, has astutely observed in his writings, early Zionist policy was inherently premised on establishing full control over the native Palestinian population through a meticulously-designed military-governorate regime, which has continued in nearly the same form till today. This architecture of control by brute force and legal diktat was a means to achieve a specific end – Judaizing Arab Palestine. Similarly, the modern Hindutva project seeks to Hinduize, using an equal mix of hard power and socio-legal tools, specific regions that lie outside of the Hindu cultural orbit. Of them, the Kashmir Valley is the most prominent. While scholars like Nitasha Kaul have rightly cautioned against drawing direct comparisons between Kashmir and Palestine because of their varying political contexts, one cannot ignore the fact that the modern Hindutva elite itself tends to analogise both.

Take for example the remarks made in November 2019 by then Indian consul general in New York (currently Joint Secretary, Europe-West at the Ministry of External Affairs), Sandeep Chakraborty, at a private event hosted by Kashmiri Pandit expats in the city. Talking in the context of the debate around the reading down of Article 370, Chakraborty argued that Kashmiri Pandits would be able to return to their homeland “in his lifetime” just like the Israeli people were able to return to theirs. Without mincing words, he said: “We already have a model in the world, I do not know why do not follow it. It has happened in the Middle East. If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it.” Chakraborty might have, inadvertently or otherwise, revealed a core objective of modern Hindutva statecraft: to replicate an Israeli-style settler-annexation model to undo the “wrongs” of the past in Kashmir. The abrogation of Article 370 was the first major step towards achieving that goal.

Here’s a more recent example. In a post made on X on October 8 in light of the ongoing clashes between Israel and Hamas, Nishikant Dubey, a BJP Member of Parliament from Jharkhand’s Godda constituency, quoted a post by senior Congress MP, Jairam Ramesh, on the “legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people”. Posting a picture of former Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, with the former Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief, Yasin Malik, he implied that the Congress party has engaged in dialogue with elements that once violently evicted Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir and now want to chase Israel away from Tel Aviv. 

As absurd as the claim sounds, it is deliberately designed to synonymise Kashmiri and Palestinian Muslims as violent troublemakers for Indian Hindus and Israeli Jews, respectively. The subtext here is that the Kashmiri Pandits are the persecuted Jews of India. Ironically, this extrapolation comes from a senior member of a sitting government that, much like previous Indian governments, steadfastly opposes the internationalisation of the Kashmir issue at global forums.

Common enemy, shared victimhood

It is here that a key bridge in the Hindutva-Zionist relationship becomes visible: a common cultural enemy. The Israeli state’s very founding was based on a direct military confrontation with Arab Muslim powers and displacement of Arab, mostly-Muslim Palestinians. This instantly made them a natural compadre for the Hindutvavadis, who have long marked out Muslims (and Islam) as the primary cultural threat to their imagined body politic. In fact, the success of the Zionist forces in containing the “Muslim threat” through external military aggression and internal colonisation makes Israel the ideal reference point for the Hindutva-vadis. As Kaul observes, “the right-wing majoritarian nationalist projects championed by the regimes in the two countries both portray themselves as beleaguered by Islamists and resolute in combating terrorism.”

Once again, we need not hunt for clues in the dense forest, for the evidence sits bare in the open field. Sample this statement made by senior BJP veteran, Subramaniam Swamy, during a joint panel discussion with Israeli academic, Gadi Taub, organised by the “Indo-Israel Friendship Association” in Mumbai in August 2019: “Zion is today under attack from Islamic extremists, and therefore both of us [Hindutva-vadis and Zionists] should come together to fight the Islamic terror forces.” This congruence of perceived victimhood to Islamist extremism is integral to both ideologies. 

More importantly, the pinpoint identification of a veritable common enemy logically segues into the creation of a legal-political system that marginalises that enemy. Thus, the adulatory Hindutva fascination for the Zionist project also extends to its desire to create a hierarchical citizenship structure within a Hindu Rashtra that would privilege Hindus over other religious groups, especially Muslims. Israel’s ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’ law, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2021, definitively establishes Israel as a homeland for Jews. 

As academic, Honaida Ghanim, observes, the law also applies to Jews from other parts of the world, thus “[reinventing citizenship] as a transboundary ethnos that automatically subsumes Jews from across the world into an ethnoracially engineered reserve of potential citizens.” This is very close to what India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, which the BJP government put in place to regularise Hindu and five other non-Muslim immigrant groups from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, seeks to achieve. The CAA iterates a certain breed of ethnoracial homelands politics that the Israeli ‘Basic Law’ successfully institutionalised to a larger extent. 

Neither the Israeli ‘Basic Law’, nor the CAA (or even a proposed all-India National Register of Citizens) are designed to physically expel the “undesirables”. They are merely designed to establish a system of political and cultural majoritarianism by rendering dispensable groups into half-citizens, doubtful citizens or in some cases, non-citizens. In his book, The Biggest Prison on Earth, Pappe calls this unique formula of keeping the territories, not expelling the people in them, but at the same time not granting them citizenship “the unholy trinity of the consensual Zionist catechism.”

Vicarious militarism

Finally, the Hindutva ecosystem’s unmitigated fascination for the Israeli state and its actions cannot be understood without situating it in the contemporary context of the India-Israel bilateral relationship. Much has already been written about the renewed political and strategic cooperation between both, entailing strong interdependencies and investments in the defence and technological domains. As a May 2022 report by journalist and writer, Assad Essa, shows, military-to-military cooperation between both sides is at an all-time high, with India emerging as Israel’s top arms buyer and key co-production partner. 

All of this is firmly backed by a longstanding legacy of deep state cooperation, Israel’s eagerness to lure India away from its neutral stance on the Palestine issue, and more recently, a shifting geopolitical context in West Asia that allows New Delhi to simultaneously consolidate its relationship with Tel Aviv and the Arab monarchies who are themselves warming up to Israel. The revamped political and military cooperation, however, is merely a material manifestation of the deeper ideological intimacy between two ethno-racially driven regimes. At best, it offers a visible platform for both to share their imaginaries of hyper-militaristic nationalism. 

For the modern Hindutva elite, especially, which envisions India as an assertive regional and global military force, Israel offers critical inspiration. Here is a small state that has erected a near-impenetrable fortress buttressed by formidable systems of deterrence deep within hostile territory. In that sense, the new political and security elite in New Delhi believes that India, which supposedly faces the spectre of a “two-front war” from Pakistan and China, has much to learn from the Israeli security model.

While this thinking predates the Modi government, there is something new in the current security doctrine in Delhi that has strong echoes from the Israeli model – a leaning towards pre-emptive defence, also framed as ‘offensive defence’ by serving National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval (who has played a key role in cementing India-Israel security ties in recent years). The Uri surgical strikes and the Balakot airstrikes were both glaring manifestations of this new security approach à la Israel of going deep inside enemy territory and taking out threats. More recently, some commentators drew positive comparisons with Israel after the Canadian government alleged Indian deep state involvement in the killing of Khalistani activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Vancouver in June.

Also read: Canadian Media Wonders Why Trudeau Went Public About Alleged Indian Involvement in Nijjar’s Death

This top-down security doctrine – “Doval doctrine” as some call it – is unmistakably, at least in part, inspired from Israel and dovetails comfortably with the pop culture militarism conspicuous in the online show of solidarity with Israel.

The Hindutva ecosystem clearly looks up to Israel for its militaristic bravado in confronting its enemies, and wants India to follow suit. But, it is important to note that much like everything else about the Hindutva-Zionism affair, this hyper-militarism isn’t without an ideological context. It is firmly underpinned by a shared sense of being besieged by a perceived Islamic threat manifested in the two ‘Ps’ – Palestine and Pakistan. So, once we scratch the surface of the shared muscularity between the Hindutva and Israeli elites, we find something more visceral – a lingering political fear psychosis that is framed by a deep-seated strategic paranoia of being under a never-ending state of war with the enemy. 

In all, the modern Hindutva ecosystem has been living its ethno-state, hyper-nationalistic dreams through the state of Israel. In the Zionist project, the modern Hindu nationalist elite sees a tangible conclusion of its own Hindu Rashtra blueprint. Israel shows that there’s isn’t an abstract dream; that there is a step-by-step means to the end. What they forget, however, is that the Zionist project owes the bulk of its success to the extraordinary levels of financial assistance and committed political backing offered by the US and Europe in the post-war period. None of that is available to India. Despite its growing closeness with the West, New Delhi doesn’t enjoy even a fraction of the support from the Western political elite that Tel Aviv does. This won’t change anytime soon. So, the Hindutva project’s starry-eyed love for Israel remains devoid of a real geopolitical premise and continues to operate on a brittle ideological fellowship.  

Angshuman Choudhury is an associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.