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What India’s Prime Minister Modi can teach us about Zionism

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Large-scale protests have been roiling Indian cities since earlier this month, when the country’s parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, CAA. It offers citizenship to any refugees from the neighboring (majority-Muslim) countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who are members of non-Muslim “minority” communities in those countries—but notably not to any Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had introduced this clearly discriminatory measure as part of a package of anti-Muslim steps he has taken since his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an increased majority in the Lok Sabha (parliament) last April.

The BJP was founded in 1980 as a party that proudly and explicitly pursues “Hindutva” (Hindu power) in a country that, throughout the 50 years after it won Independence from Britain in 1947, had remained committed to the determinedly non-religious form of civic equality envisaged by the Congress Party and key independence-era leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress Party is now but a shadow of its earlier self. In the April elections, the BJP won 303 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 elected seats.

Democrats and progressives around the world have been united in protesting the BJP’s radically pro-Hindutva (or “saffronizing”) policies. It is instructive, therefore, to note the many parallels between the BJP’s policies and the classic kinds of policies Zionists have pursued both on the ground in Palestine and in the lavish p.r. campaigns they have run worldwide. Modi, it turns out, can teach us all a lot about Zionism. Here, in a nutshell, are Modi’s step-by-step lessons for how to create and defend an exclusivist, ethno/sectarian-nationalist state:

Step 1: Politicize the whole issue of religious identity.

In classic views of democratic theory, religious belief is a matter of individual conscience, and governments should be prevented from privileging adherents of any one religion over adherents of others. In India, some 80% of the country’s 1.3 billion people are Hindu; some 14% are Muslims; and the rest belong to smaller religious groups including Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and so on. As noted above, the CAA legislation is only one step the BJP has been taking to privilege Hindu believers. Others taken in recent months have included rolling out a “National Register of Citizens” in such a way that in some northeastern areas it has left thousands of Muslims off the voters’ rolls, and a large-scale, violent crackdown against Muslim-majority Kashmir.

In historic Palestine, the Zionist project has from the very beginning given extreme privilege to members of the Jewish community, denying any form of equal rights and protections to followers of other religions in the areas that have come under Zionist/Israeli control. More recently, in 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party enacted the Nation-State Bill, which enshrines the concept that Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people into Israel’s Basic Law.

The only two other major countries founded on such strongly theocratic principles are Pakistan and to a certain extent Saudi Arabia. Pakistan, indeed, was expressly founded as a Muslim homeland, according to the vision of its founder Mohammed Ali Jinna. In 1947, Jinna’s party broke off the majority-Muslim provinces of the territory the British had ruled as a single, “Imperial” India, to form Pakistan. That partition of India led to mass ethnic cleansings on both sides of the new border, many of them extremely violent. But in response to that violence, Gandhi, Nehru and the other leaders of the rest of India did not counter by proclaiming any form of discriminatory Hindutva. Instead, they doubled down on both on the secularism and inclusivity of the new India they were building and on the reforms they saw as necessary within Hinduism itself. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu-nationalist extremist.

Step 2: Actions on borders and citizenship are crucial to the exclusivist project.

Modi’s new citizenship law, the CAA, looks like a pale echo of Israel’s longstanding “Law of Return”, which gives a super-privileged right of citizenship to any member of the Jewish community from anywhere in the world. If Westerners want to criticize the CAA, why have they not been equally critical of the Israeli Law of Return?

Meantime, some of the actions Modi has been taking to remove large numbers of Muslims from the citizenship rolls in the northeastern Assam province and elsewhere look like a slow and bureaucratic form of the brutally expulsionist steps the Zionists took during the 1947-1949 war and the more bureaucratic forms of exclusionist policy all Israeli governments have taken since then. If Westerners criticize what India has been doing regarding the NRC, should they not also look equally critically at what Israel did during the Nakba and the sharp demographic squeezing it continues to exert on the non-Jewish indigenes of Gaza, the West Bank, and Golan, to this day?

Step 3: Don’t forget to rewrite and reshape history and control how it gets taught

The standard version of Indian history taught, studied, and written since Independence has spoken of India’s liberation after “200 years of colonial rule”. (Actually, 190 years.) But in Modi’s first speech in parliament in 2014, he spoke about India’s liberation after “1,200 years of slavery”—referring not just to the 190 years of British rule but adding in the whole earlier millennium in which many rulers in India were Muslim emperors—though many others were Hindus.

A significant side-note here is that over the centuries many Indians had converted to Islam precisely because they saw it as liberating them from the terrible oppressions of Hinduism’s deeply anti-democratic “caste” system. When Gandhi came along, he tried to liberate lower-caste Hindus a different way: by abolishing the whole caste system within Hinduism itself. Old-school conservative (and upper-caste) forces within the religion bridled at that idea, and provided the momentum and financing for the Hindutva movement.

Modi’s “1,200 years of slavery” reframing is just one of the many ways in which advocates of Hindutva have sought actively to rewrite/reframe their country’s history. The Indian historian Romila Thapar wrote a great description of this process recently. She noted that:

These efforts had begun when the B.J.P. first governed India between 1999 and 2004.

Under Mr. Modi’s government and various state governments run by his party, the attempts to change history have taken many more forms, such as deleting chapters or passages from public school textbooks that contradicted their ideology, while adding their own make-believe versions of the past.

And then, there’s Zionism, with its claims that its central project was really a “return to Israel” for people who had long been exiled from that area; that Judaism is really a nationality rather than a prophetic religion; that the area of Palestine was either “empty” or very under-developed before the arrival of the Zionist colonists; and that Zionism was a progressive “national liberation movement” of Jewish people against British imperialism rather than itself being a settler-colonial movement…

Step 4: Aggressively inscribe your claims onto the land through bold place-changing and place-naming moves

One key place-changing move taken by the BJP and its allies came in 1992, when massive BJP-organized mobs hand-demolished the 450-year-old Babri Masjid mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya, claiming it had been built on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama. Court cases related to the destruction stumbled through the legal system for 27 years until finally, just last month, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the site must be handed over to the government for the construction of a Hindu temple.

In this very informative episode of “On the Media”, historian Shoaib Daniyal noted that, under the influence of Hindutva, state governments were bestowing new, Hindu-related names on public facilities that previously had Muslim-related names and that there had been several proposals that the Hindi language be taught nationwide.

The language issue in India is complex.  23 official languages are recognized in its Constitution. Hindi is the first language of only 43.6% of the population including many of its Muslim citizens; roughly half of all Indian Hindus do not speak Hindi at home. Meantime, to complicate matters, Urdu, which is the sole official language of Pakistan as well as one of India’s official languages, is generally judged very close to Hindi, though it is written in a different script.

Currently, Hindi and English are both widely used throughout India as bureaucratic “common languages.” Mandating that Hindi be taught nationwide and become the only bureaucratic language used nationwide would push that majority of the population for whom it is not the first language yet further to the margins.

… And then, there’s Zionism, which has imposed its own place-names on locations not just all over 1948 Israel itself but also throughout the occupied areas of East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, Golan, and Gaza… which has demolished hundreds of Muslim holy places and cemeteries (including the one buried under the Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem).. and which recently dropped Arabic from the list of its official languages…

Step 5: Twin the exclusivizing steps taken at the formal/official level with building potent grassroots networks whose more extreme actions can be “denied” when necessary

The BJP party itself was formed in 1980, from a merger of two earlier Hindutva parties. Far older than the BJP is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindutva-promoting grassroots movement founded in 1925 which now claims to be the largest NGO in the world with some five or six million members. Modi and many other leaders of the BJP got their initial training in politics and mass mobilization as members of the RSS. The BJP is often described as just “a project of the RSS;” and even after the founding of the BJP, the RSS continued its operations throughout the country.

RSS intellectuals and teachers are on the forefront of the cultural aspects of the Hindutva movement. Their writers make mind-boggling claims about ancient Hindu history, such as that satellite communications existed and were used during the era described in the Sanskrit epic poems (13th or 14 century BCE.) They also keep alive a vivid narrative of Hindus as chronic victims of the actions of others, particularly of Muslims. Their teachers put constant pressure on school systems to change curricula to more Hindutva-aligned content. Activists at many levels engage in anti-Muslim actions or attacks against anyone alleged to have challenged Hindu teachings on the sacredness of cows. RSS activists and organizers were deeply involved in the 1992 demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya. It was a former RSS member who assassinated Gandhi, in 1948.

The relationships among the RSS, the BJP, and the Indian state are slightly different than those among Zionist grassroots groups, Zionist political parties, and the Israeli state. In Israel, explicitly Zionist parties have dominated the state since the very beginning, and the state itself has always been a Zionist project. In India, that was not the case. The Indian state was founded, as noted above, as an explicitly secular, diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious entity, as advocated by the Congress Party. Supporters of Hindutva felt they needed, after Independence as before it, to build strong networks of grassroots organizations to push their agenda at the local level before they could try to push it participation in party politics at the national level. In Israel, by contrast, advocates of the exclusivist Zionist agenda have had full control of state budgets and patronage opportunities from the very beginning, whereas the advocates of Hindutva in India have only recently started to gain access to that largesse.

Nonetheless, Zionism, seen as a supranational phenomenon that exists far beyond the boundaries of the State of Israel, also relies on broad networks of grassroots (or Astroturf) organizations to continue to push or defend its agenda globally. And at the grassroots level inside Israel, groups like the East Jerusalem settler organization Ateret Cohanim or the anti-miscegenation group Lehava engage in forms of basically Zionist actions that are more extreme and violent than what the government or the big political parties feel comfortable undertaking.

Luckily, in India, there are still many millions of citizens—including many who are adherents of the Hindu faith—who have actively resisted the allure of Hindutva and have been struggling to maintain the country’s expressly democratic Constitution. We should give them all the support we can. Meantime, India’s Prime Minister Modi, his ruling BJP party, the RSS movement, and their intertwined actions can teach us all a lot about what Zionism is and how it has been so effective until now.

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.

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7 Responses

  1. GusCall on December 23, 2019, 2:23 pm

    Excellent, thank you, Helena. The 9 December issue of the New Yorker has an enlightening, depressing and frightening article about Modi and Hindutva, during the reading of which the many parallels to Zionism and Israel sprang from the pages. Of course the New Yorker, Zionist rag that it is, even if the article’s author, Dexter Filkins, is fantastic, could never see or, much less, print, any of the obvious parallels.
    Nor does that magazine, like the rest of the mainstream media, make any general statements about the trend towards ethnocracies in a half-dozen countries. The leaders of many of them are great friends with Netanyahu and Israel generally, Trump included.
    A sad time when your biological identity trumps your humanity, overrides your status as a citizen no better or worse, by birth, than any other citizens.

    • JLewisDickerson on December 23, 2019, 6:34 pm

      RE: “The 9 December issue of the New Yorker has an enlightening, depressing and frightening article about Modi and Hindutva, during the reading of which the many parallels to Zionism and Israel sprang from the pages.” ~ GusCall

      ARTICLE: “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India” | The New Yorker
      Dec 9, 2019 – The Prime Minister’s Hindu-nationalist government has cast two hundred million Muslims as internal enemies. … A week earlier, Modi’s government had announced that it was suspending Article 370 of the constitution, which grants autonomy to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.
      LINK –

      • JLewisDickerson on December 23, 2019, 7:39 pm

        P.S. ALSO SEE: “Those Who Search for Dawn Don’t Fear the Night”
        December 23, 2019
        There is little that divides Modi’s fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and his Vishwa Hindu Parishad from the piety movements of Tablighi Jamaat (with its millions of Muslim followers) and these neo-Pentecostal formations in Latin America, says Vijay Prashad.
        LINK –

  2. Misterioso on December 23, 2019, 7:31 pm

    Not precisely on topic, but importantwords of wisdon from Professor Lawrence Davidson:

    “Trump’s Executive Order on Anti-Semitism: A Category Mistake—An Analysis” (23 December 2019) by Professor Lawrence Davidson

    “Part I—Trump and the Constitution

    “It is a pretty sure thing that President Donald Trump is ignorant of what is in the U.S. Constitution and, in any case, does not care much about what the document says. Take the idea of freedom of speech as set down in the First Amendment. Does he understand the importance of this amendment? Actually, it would seem that the only freedom of speech he finds sacrosanct is his own, expressed almost daily in angry, often rambling ‘tweets.’ Those frequent missives hardly make the man a model of critical thinking and, as it turns out, for the price of some special interest’s political support, President Trump is willing to tell us all that we must believe the opposite of what is true. If we don’t, he will take away some federal benefit. Trump is by nature both authoritarian and simple-minded—not an unusual combination.

    “Part II—Confusing Categories”

    “It was in this simplistic frame of mind that, on 12 December, President Trump issued an executive order directing the federal government to deny funds to universities and colleges that allow alleged anti-Semitic speech on campus. Well, the reader might respond, such an order is understandable because we know that anti-Semitism is a particularly vicious form of racism. And so it is. The mistake here is to assume that President Trump actually knows how to recognize genuine anti-Semitism, so as not to confuse this expression of bigotry with its opposite: the support of human, civil and political rights—in this case, those of the Palestinians. Now, the reader might ask, how could anyone confuse these two categories: on the one hand, the support of an oppressed people’s rights and, on the other, racist anti-Semitism? It helps if you are ignorant, amoral and opportunistic.

    “And so, with the encouragement of the Zionist lobby, a particularly powerful lobby dedicated solely to the interests of the Israeli state, President Trump, who is in fact ignorant, amoral and opportunistic, based this executive order on a logical fallacy—a category mistake. He identified protests against Israeli state behavior with anti-Semitic racism and declared that any university or college that allows the former (say, by permitting criticism of Israel for its violent suppression of Palestinian rights) is to be found guilty of the latter (anti-Semitism), and therefore is not to receive federal funds.

    “Part III—A Zionist Project”

    “Working for the purposeful confusion of anti-Semitism and the support for Palestinian rights is a Zionist project. It should be emphasized that the Zionists who carry this project forward are not, like the president, ignorant or confused. They know what they are doing. And that is why this effort constitutes a tragedy of the highest order not only for the Palestinians, but for the Jewish people as well.

    “After World War II every sane individual knew that racism, particularly racism expressed through state power, was bad news. The consequences of such empowered bigotry was there to see across the world: Japanese behavior in China, Korea and Southeast Asia generally, along with German behavior throughout occupied Europe, constituted the worst examples. They resulted in the deaths of tens of millions—among them six million Jews. That is why as early as the late 1940s, an expansion of international law and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights sought to make such behavior criminal, particularly when carried out as the policy of governments.

    “As it turned out, those resolutions constituted direct obstacles to the Zionist goal of a ‘Jewish state’ in Palestine. The Zionist conquest of Palestine in the military campaigns of 1948 and 1967, was followed by the systematic narrowing or outright denial of the human, civil and political rights for Palestinians. In the case of Palestinians residing in Israel proper, the racist policies and practices were often obscured behind a facade of benign-sounding declarations that, more often than not, had little impact on minority rights. No such facade was adopted within the Occupied Territories. In this way racism became an essential tool for achieving Zionism’s goal of ethnic exclusivity.

    “So how do you rationalize this behavior? Even though Ashkenasi (that is, European) Jews have been one of the most persecuted groups in Western history, it was not hard for the Zionists to see their own racist behavior as necessary. Founding a state first and foremost for one group, in a territory already occupied by hundreds of thousands of ‘others,’ easily led to discriminatory policies and practices. It also led to indoctrination of Israeli Jews and their diaspora supporters through the distortion of the history of conquest and colonial occupation. The inevitable resistance of the Palestinians, even when non-violent, became labeled as lawlessness at best and terrorism at worst. In this sense, Israeli society has mimicked not only the apartheid sentiments of South Africa, but also the culture that prevailed in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

    “Part IV—Exporting the Fallacy”

    “Yet it was not enough for the Israelis to convince their own Jewish citizens that Zionist racism was righteous self-defense and support of Palestinian rights the equivalent of anti-Semitism. This logical fallacy had to be pushed on Israel’s primary ally, the United States. And, at least in the halls of power, this effort has been remarkably successful, probably because the Zionist lobby has a lot of money to help or hinder ambitious American politicians.

    “However, outside of those halls, the effort has been exposed for what it is: a dangerous reversal of categories that threatens to turn the clock back on much of the post-World War II progress in political, civil and human rights. As the growing popularity of the boycott Israel movement (BDS) has shown, American citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have an increasing ability to see the reality of the situation. A survey released in mid June 2017 by an organization known as the Brand Israel Group, ‘a coalition of volunteer advertising and marketing specialists’ who consult for pro-Israel organizations, indicated that ‘approval of Israel among American college students dropped 27% between the group’s 2010 and 2016 surveys’ while ‘Israel’s approval among all Americans dropped 14 points.’ Brand Israel’s conclusion: in the future, the U.S. may “no longer believe that Israel shares their values.” This is the case not because of any big increase in anti-Semitism, but due to ever-growing evidence of Israeli racism.

    “One reaction to this increasing popular clarity of vision is President Trump’s executive order. If, in this case, colleges and universities do not enforce the Zionist logical fallacy, they loose federal money.

    “Part V—Conclusion”

    “Governments do not have a very good reputation for telling their citizens the truth. For instance, just this month it was made known that the U.S. government and military misled the American people about the ability to achieve victory in the Afghan war—a conflict that has been going on for 18 years. The same thing occurred during the Vietnam War. However, it is one thing to withhold information, or downright lie about a situation, and another to urge a population to swallow the category contradictions Trump and the Zionists are peddling. There is something Orwellian about that. It is no mistake that it is the brightest of college students, those who are actually overcoming ignorance and practicing the art of thinking straight, who are most put off by this propagandistic tactic.

    “As for those Zionist students who claim that protests against Israeli policy and behavior on their campus make them feel uncomfortable, or even unsafe, they might try to learn something from those feelings. After all, it’s the closest they will ever come to the much more profound feelings of anxiety and danger that Palestinians feel every day, in their own homes, neighborhoods and campuses as well. So which category do all of us want to defend—the category of state-sponsored racism or the category of human, civil and political rights? Just be sure not to confuse one for the other.”

    Lawrence Davidson
    [email protected]


  3. JWalters on December 23, 2019, 8:42 pm

    Thanks for the excellent perspective of this article.

  4. Kay24 on December 23, 2019, 11:32 pm

    In many ways, it appears that Modi is being advised by Netanayahu, they have so much in common, including their hatred for Muslims. Maybe the Hasbara brigade recruited some Hindus that appear in some Asian websites, and appear in articles regarding Muslims in some nations, with the same talking points, maybe Hindus in the Indian military are being trained by Israelis, as they sell their weapons to India, maybe both Prime Ministers have in common the massacre of unarmed civilians mostly Muslims, blaming militants, and using similar tactics, including nationalism, to achieve their end games, they both play roles in the anti Muslim campaigns waged around the world.

  5. traintosiberia on December 25, 2019, 8:37 am

    15 years after Godhra, we still don’t know who lit the fire

    The fire was started inside the train accidentally most likely . The carriages were full of people returning from Hindu worship site Ayoddha ruling out any non Hindu passengers being remotely responsible for the accident

    Using this train burning , Hindus under Modi organized Gujrat massacre .

    Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, another ideologue who helped shape Hindutva wrote, “If we Hindus in India grow stronger, in time these Muslim friends of the League type will have to play the part of German-Jews instead.”

    But Modi is just reaping the benefits that successive governments in state and federal levels have sowed by willful negligence of the Hindu nationalism’s dark potential. For generations Hindus have been taught that the country was divided because of Mulsim’s demand’s for a separate state . For years Hindus have been told that Kashmir problem emanated from Pakistani incursion . Both can’t be further from the truth .

    This article- exposes the real banditry India played in creating and sustaining Kashmir crisis whose origin started in 1947.

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