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A Changed India Looks, Emotes, and Thinks Like Israel

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A Changed India Looks, Emotes, and Thinks Like Israel

Its sympathies are with Israel. Indeed, it believes it too is Israel.

A Changed India Looks, Emotes, and Thinks Like Israel

People hold placards and a banner in solidarity with Israel in Ahmedabad, India, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

Immediately after the horrifying Hamas terror attacks on October 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly declared India’s unequivocal “solidarity with Israel,” even before U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders had had a chance to react.

Then, days later, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson reiterated New Delhi’s support for “a sovereign, independent and viable State of Palestine.” India’s official response was a mundane continuation of its long-standing efforts to deepen ties with Israel while supporting an independent Palestinian state.

On the ground in India, no such nuanced rhetoric is visible. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the far-right Hindu nationalist Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath issued orders to crack down on those supporting Palestine. Uttar Pradesh police suspended a Muslim constable for a fundraising post in support of Palestine. A case was also registered against an unidentified person for posting pictures of aerial bombings of Gaza. Meanwhile, prominent Indian news anchors declared that Israel’s war against Hamas was a “war for all of us.”

The full-throated support for Israel among many Hindu nationalists goes well beyond India’s official stance because it reflects a changing social and political dynamic in India.

In the decades after independence, India had staked out a moralistic stand in favor of Palestinian self-determination, even as it had run backchannel diplomacy with Israel for weapons trade in times of war. This was in part a result of India’s post-colonial dedication to the principle of self-determination, and in part a result of the then-ruling Congress party’s secular politics, which yearned for broad-based support from India’s large Muslim minority.

It was only in 1992 that India finally established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Worsening tensions with Pakistan and heightened violence in Kashmir were immediate triggers for that more overt shift. Yet, India continued to draw a distinction between the conflict in Palestine and the conflict in Kashmir. In Kashmir, New Delhi saw a territorial dispute with Pakistan, which it held as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and of international law. But in Palestine, New Delhi saw illegal territorial occupation by Israel in violation of the Oslo Accords.

Differences over Palestine did not, however, preclude burgeoning strategic ties with Israel under successive governments through the 1990s and the 2000s. India’s approach to Israel was driven by hard-nosed pragmatism — of an opportunity to diversify its military supplies by courting an alternative supplier and learn best practices in areas such as agriculture from an innovative Israeli economy.

In the wake of Modi’s rise to power in 2014, that strategic partnership began to morph into a more deep-seated meeting of souls. Although Modi continued to speak rhetorically in support of Palestine, he came to share a stronger personal bond with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than any Indian prime minister before him.

Besides, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its ideological fount, always saw elements of Israel in their own vision of India. Indeed, they were strong proponents of normalization of relations with Israel long before it became India’s policy.

To many Hindu nationalists, Israel’s struggle to establish an ethnic Jewish state amidst Muslim-majority neighbors closely parallels their own efforts at raising a “Hindu nation” in South Asia. Israel’s war against militant groups sponsored by Iran and Lebanon looks like India’s own wars against groups from Pakistan. And Israel’s efforts to resettle Jews in Palestinian territory increasingly feels like New Delhi’s own similar problems in Kashmir.

Indian police have cracked down on Kashmiri protestors in recent years for expressing solidarity with Palestine. In 2021, as many as 21 people were arrested in the regional capital of Srinagar, including one prominent cleric-cum-artist who had drawn graffiti that read, “We are Palestine.”

That has not so far changed India’s official stand on Palestine. But it has certainly driven India to emulate Israel’s muscular approach — especially in acting against elements beyond its borders.

In 2016, after India conducted surgical strikes in parts of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, Modi confessed that New Delhi had taken inspiration from Israel, which has had a long record of conducting covert operations inside enemy territory. Similarly, after Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of killing a Sikh separatist leader in Canada earlier this year, far-right nationalists in India compared India’s intelligence agents with Israel’s Mossad and celebrated what they saw as India’s newfound boldness in acting against “the enemy.”

Regardless of what the Modi government says on Palestine, India’s strategic considerations have now essentially been reversed. India had once reluctantly embraced Israel because of its burgeoning defense and national security needs. But its ideological sympathies then lay with the Palestinian cause. Today, India reluctantly expresses solidarity with Palestine because it doesn’t want to alienate partners in the Arab world. But its sympathies now lie with Israel.

In more ways than one, India now believes that it too is Israel. That model carries with it a muscular religious nationalism, a contempt for ethnic diversity, and a heightened willingness to flout global norms in pursuit of what the ruling government sees as the “national interest.”