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Why India’s Hindu nationalists worship Israel’s nation-state model

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India’s Hindu nationalists and the Israeli right have a remarkable mutual affinity. Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed Narendra Modi to Israel in 2017 with these words: “Prime Minister Modi, we have been waiting for you for a long time, almost 70 years … We view you as a kindred spirit.”

The two premiers, both battling for re-election in spring 2019, share a warm rapport, and regularly refer to each other on Twitter as “my friend Narendra” and “my friend Bibi.”

The Modi-Bibi bonhomie rests on much more than personal chemistry, or even the Israeli military-industrial complex’s significant role in servicing Indian needs. It is rooted in the profound admiration of generations of Hindu nationalists for Zionism and its product, Israel, whose model of nation-state they seek to emulate in India.

Indian secularists often claim that the Hindu nationalists intend to turn India into a Hindu version of Pakistan. This is not wrong. Just as Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s politics fused religion, nation and state, so does “Hindutva,” the political ideology of Hindu nationalism born in the 1920s.

But the Pakistan analogy is limited. For more than 60 years, Pakistan has been a state dominated by the military. India is a highly evolved democracy. It has always been inconceivable that an equivalent of Zia-ul Haq, the Islamist military dictator who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, could appear in India and “Hinduize” the state. The intent of Hindu nationalism to remake India therefore needs to be pursued, and accomplished, in a way compatible with a democratic polity.

The prototype exists of a form of state which is simultaneously democratic and supremacist: Israel. Israel was a self-described “Jewish and democratic state” until July 2018, when the right-wing majority in its parliament narrowly won a vote to further tighten Israel’s identity to “the nation-state of the Jewish people, which respects the rights of all its citizens.” The revision reflects the ascendancy of hardliners and extremists in Israeli politics.

Affinity for Zionism and Israel

Successive generations of Hindu nationalists – from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), who coined and elaborated the Hindutva concept, to Modi today – have professed a deep affinity for Israel. Savarkar wrote in the 1920s: “If the Zionists’ dreams are ever realized – if Palestine becomes a Jewish state – it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends.”

In late 1947, Savarkar was very upset when the Indian delegate in the UN General Assembly argued for a binational Arab-Jewish state in Palestine and voted against the proposal to partition Palestine into a larger Jewish state and a smaller Arab state.

Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar (1906-73), who steered the Hindu nationalist movement in post-independence India as the chief of the volunteer organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wrote in the late 1930s that the Zionist movement exemplified his own “five unities” framing of Indian nationhood: “The Jews had maintained their race, religion, culture and language, and all they wanted was their natural territory to complete their nationality.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on Jan. 15, 2018. (Photo: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on Jan. 15, 2018. (Photo: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Ethnic democracy as the shared ideal

It is Jewish Israeli scholars who have explicated the paradigm of “ethnic democracy,” using the case of their own country. One such scholar, Sammy Smooha defined ethnic democracy as “an alternative non-civic form of democratic state that is identified with and subservient to a single ethnic nation.” He said this is “best exemplified by Israel,” which is “based on Jewish and Zionist hegemony and the structural subordination of the Arab minority” – who are currently 20 percent of the population of the Jewish state. Propelling this is an ideology, Smooha says, that “makes a crucial distinction between members and non-members of the ethnic nation.” Non-members are seen as undesirable and threatening – as agents of biological dilution, demographic swamping, cultural degeneration, security risks, and even as a fifth column for enemy states.

This is the typical Hindu nationalist perspective on India’s Muslims who, at just under 15 percent of the population, are India’s largest religious minority.

The distinction made between members and non-members of the nation underlies a very controversial amendment to India’s citizenship laws that has been strongly pushed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government since 2016. The legislation confers Indian citizenship on members of designated religious minorities (Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians) from three Muslim-majority countries in India’s neighborhood – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – who have settled in India without legal status.

So, Hindus and other non-Muslims from these countries would have a fast track to Indian citizenship, the argument being that they are victims of religious persecution. The law is, in a more limited scope, analogous to the Israeli policy of promoting migration of Jews from across the world to Israel. It sends an unmistakable signal of who are preferred as citizens and who are viewed as undesirables.

India as a clone of Israel?

Ethnic democracies do not totally exclude or disenfranchise the citizens viewed as undesirables. Israeli Arabs are entitled to cultural and religious rights. Arabic is officially recognized (though the July 2018 revision asserted the primacy of Hebrew), and usually around 10 percent of the Knesset’s members are Israeli Arabs. Still, a range of formal and informal policies ensure that the Arab community mostly remains ghettoized in deprived enclaves, relegated to what is in effect second-class citizenship.

Israel is not the only example of an ethnic democracy. There is Sri Lanka, where the post-colonial state was captured by majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism from 1956 onward. There is Croatia, since 2013 a member-state of the European Union. It proclaimed independence in 1991 as: “The national state of the Croatian people, and a state of other nations and minorities who are its citizens.”

What ethnic democracies do is to create a de facto but very real hierarchy of citizenship, in which some are full, first-class citizens and others are second class – at best. The current Hindu nationalist movement is remarkably faithful to the ideological creed laid down by its pioneers Savarkar and Golwalkar eight decades ago. In 1938, Savarkar declared that “the Hindus are the Nation in India and the Moslem minority a community” just as “the Turks are the Nation in Turkey and the Arab or the Armenian minority a community.” Golwalkar wrote in 1938: “The non-Hindu people of Hindustan … may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation.”

The type of “democratic” state exemplified by Israel – and not Pakistan – is the model the Hindu nationalist movement, led by its core RSS organization, aspires to establish in an Indian variant. But will its vision prevail? It’s far from certain that a 1.3 billion-strong country, defined culturally by multiple identities and politically by cross-cutting cleavages, can be turned into a giant-sized version of Israel, Croatia, or Sri Lanka.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sumantra Bose

Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is the author of seven books, most recently Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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9 Responses

  1. Misterioso on January 10, 2020, 7:22 pm

    No surprise that like Hitler and Mussolini, Netanyahu and Modi “share a warm rapport…” Fascists love other fascists.

    • Talkback on January 11, 2020, 3:31 am

      I always find it hilarious when racist admirers of Israel explain why and how much it is racist.
      It’s no suprise that Israel and South Africa under Apartheid were best friends, too.

      Hendrik Verwoerd, the “architect” of South Africa’s Apartheid allready said in 1961 [!} that “… they took Israel away from the Arabs after the Arabs lived there for a thousand years. In that, I agree with them. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”.

      Birds of a feather flock together.

  2. fyrebird on January 13, 2020, 6:10 am

    Like many others I was fooled about the propaganda against Islam post-9/11. An opportunistic argument from the ‘pseudo-left’ also ran that monotheism was uniquely evil. I don’t know the genesis of this, but feel it mostly comes from Indian-origin intellectuals or certain atheists like Hitchens or even the anti-anti-Zionists (still viewing history through a subjective lens). It goes back to colonial encounters in India – or even further.

    Well I decided to read the Koran and came away with more appreciation than I could have imagined, coming from a Quaker background.

    I have been following the news from India closely, having visited often and reading its thinkers. What I have gathered is there is no real left in India other than Roy and some ‘dissidents’. The liberals like Thuroor sound patronising. Like liberal Zionists, they paint themselves as progressive while demonising their Muslim neighbours. In another post, Phil Weiss writes:

    ‘They can’t say what is so obvious to the world, Muslim lives are cheap to the United States.’

    This goes beyond the United States. The ‘war-on-terror’ or endless war has directly caused the emboldening of fascists. It has given sanction to India, Burma and China to carry out traumatic policies and crimes on Muslim minorities. I don’t believe Modi would be so emboldened on a national level without the ideological ground already laid by the neoconservatives and the war-beneficiaries in the United States.

    • shawsg on January 13, 2020, 11:36 pm

      First – thank you for this piece – the link between Hindu and Jewish fascism is something that needs more attention – as are the political links between Modi and Netanyahu.

      Two comments – the piece ignores the NRC (National registry of citizens) which is the the piece of legislation in India that not only disenfranchises up to 150 million muslims, its the reason the CAA was concocted in the first place. There would be no CAA without the plan for a countrywide role out of the NRC, forcing millions of poor, illiterate people to prove they’re “Indian”.

      Second, in response to fyrebird above – its true the left has no power in India, but there are more leftists there than in American, probably two to one. Also, I don’t think people like Sashi Thuroor are like liberal zionists. Just as the struggle against Jewish Supremacy should delink Judaism and Zionism, rejecting the latter, people like Thuroor delink Hindiusm from Hindutva. As far as I know Thuroor doesn’t demonize Muslim neighbors. That said, it also doesn’t mean that muslim neighbors are always blameless either. I like Roy, but she’s not always a particularly helpful voice in India, much more of a voice abroad. India is on fire now – and the fire threatens vastly more acreage than Palestine. The struggles are linked, even before Modi embraced Netanyahu.

      • RoHa on January 14, 2020, 7:29 pm

        “its true the left has no power in India, but there are more leftists there than in American, probably two to one.”

        Since India has about four times the population of the US, this is likely to be true of many kinds of people. (Certainly there are far more Indians than Americans who speak good English.) Two to one is probably an underestimate.

      • fyrebird on January 15, 2020, 9:20 am

        shawsg – I find your reply reasonable and agree with most of your thoughts — they are based on fairness and justice.

        I’m going to disagree with both your and RoHa’s contention about the supposed number of leftists. Indians educated in the Humanities would form what Chris Hedges calls the Liberal Class. There are not many visible and even these must refrain from talking about Kashmir or War if not downright celebrating the ‘troops’. Among the Liberal Class the support for Modi and the narrative of victimhood — even as a majority — is alive.

        The comparison with the United States is probably right but not in the way that was suggested. This Liberal Class is too weak to address matters that a healthy left must. The recent attacks on the JNU, which represents a left centre, prove the sidelining of an already thin left. Radicals like Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra have always been attacked by the Indian Liberal Class. See Pankaj Mishra’s remarks here:
        “Arundhati Roy was predictably denounced as ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ by today’s anti-Modi martyrs when she repeatedly warned against creeping fascism in India. And the biggest accusation against my own articles on Kashmir – levelled by a prominent anti-Modi liberal – was that I was undermining India’s international image.”

        This Liberal Class obviously cares for civil rights though as I noted — and you disputed — its members like Tharoor sound patronising. I’m not even going into Tharoor’s make-believe about ‘new India’ which he communicates to those ‘abroad’. I’m sure he is a nice man and his statements separating Hinduism from Hindutva should be encouraged, but that’s not all he is doing. Broadly speaking I find him a limited thinker though a good one in other areas.

        I’m going to argue that India is a Hindutva nation that pretends to be secular. But not in a way of pitting two groups of people. Hindutva is a projection of power by a certain class in the name of many just as it dispatches mobs of the ‘lower classes’ in what are called riots. The problem is its power of persuasion.

        All said, I hope I’m wrong and you are right.

  3. shawsg on January 15, 2020, 11:40 am

    We’re on the same page basically and its nice to find someone on MW that follows this stuff. I believe India is ground zero for the next massive humanitarian tragedy – beyond its already casteist nightmare. I would like MW to report more on this, since the connection to Israel is now quite intimate.

    However, the situation there isn’t exactly Hedges, “liberal class”. I kind of wish it was, that might be better. The fact is, there are massive protests in India right now – nothing like what you find in the US. People have turned up by the millions and millions in cities all throughout India. They are let by a large diversity of voices.

    Nevertheless, I agree completely that India has become an Hindutva nation – like Israel, it is seeking to become an ethno-democracy (a contradiction in terms) and its secular constitution, hard won by Ambedeker and Nehru and Gandhi is being unravelled by a monster worse than Trump and the republican party. Perhaps secularism is largely illusory now in practice – but the constitution will need to be changed for it to disappear completely.

    I know the leftist community in India pretty well because my wife is an activist there (and here) . By horrible coincidence she was detained today in Lucknow trying to meet with a lefty priest who is trying to build a center of tolerance in Ayodhya – think Park51 in lower manhattan that was protested out of existence. She was written up in this morning: The interesting work she’s doing is similar to JVP here – to convince Hindus that they have nothing in common with Hindutva. Like separating Jewishness from Zionism. Hinduism must be actively separated from Hindutva, a nazi ideology. I think this message is critical since india is largely Hindu and is going down the drain in the name of Hindu-ness. only in this capacity do I know Thuroor but I think it’s an important position to take. There are so many brave souls in India doing work that gets them killed – the activist community is braver and much larger than here – no comparison in my book, but there is no comparison of the stakes either. I appreciate your points.

    • shawsg on January 15, 2020, 11:54 am

      I’m also just a tiny bit hopeful that the NRC has lifted the veil from the eyes of indian liberalism. For some reason the NRC has really shaken people who were, last month, quite pro-modi. This is at least my point of view having just come back from India last week.

      • fyrebird on January 18, 2020, 6:27 am


        Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your points too. No doubt the stakes are higher.

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