India and Israel: strange bedfellows

By Ali Khan Mahmudabad

For the time being no one knows who carried out the attack on an Israeli embassy car in New Delhi. However, what is clear is that the perpetrators have consciously or unconsciously created a situation that could perhaps strengthen Indian-Israeli ties at the cost of India’s ties with other countries. Given the fact that many of the founding fathers of India, including Gandhi and Nehru, were opposed to the Zionist movement and settlement of alien Jews on Palestinian land, it is interesting to see why India is now developing closer relations with Israel.

There are many strategic and defence reasons for this relationship but perhaps the answer also lies in the way in which certain groups from both countries have constructed and advocate a form of religious nationalism.

Recently the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna by stating that “India and Israel are two ancient peoples seizing the future: in technology, in innovation, in enterprise, and I think we can seize it even better by our cooperation.”  On previous occasions Israeli ambassadors to India have talked about the “awe and admiration in Israel for Indian history, culture and mentality.” Although there is no one Indian culture, mentality or history, this talk of ancient people and “Indian culture” resonates with an important and politically powerful group of people in India.

The RSS has a pan-Indian presence and also functions globally through various proxies. It is also the ideological progenitor of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party. The RSS’ promotion of Hindutva or a form of Hindu nationalism, must resonate with many right-wing Zionists who also view themselves as the rightful inheritors of an ancient motherland. Both groups share a nostalgia for a “lost civilization” and lament that “outsiders” forcibly dispossessed them from their homeland. The RSS has long argued that the Muslims of India can never be true Indians. V D Savarkar, one of the most influential ideologues of Hindutva, argued that although Muslims and Christians were born in India, they could never be true to its salt because it was not their holy land. Today many groups in Israel argue about the validity of citizens having to swear an oath to Israel as a Jewish state.

One of the main similarities between the groups that advocate Hindutva and those that espouse right-wing Zionism is that they sacralise the nation-state. The advocates of Hindu nationalism view the nation-state as a goddess, Bharat-Mata or mother India. Similarly many Zionists hold that it is incumbent upon Jews to create a sovereign commonwealth in the “Sacred Land” where the Halaka or sacred law is implemented. In effect both these groups imbue geography with divine sanction. This form of religious nationalism means that anyone who criticises the politics of these groups is implicitly viewed as anti-national and therefore as anti-Semitic or anti-Hindu.

Interestingly, both Zionism and Hindutva were not conceived as religious ideologies but both co-opted religious symbols and ideas in order to mould them according to a world view that was primarily centred around the idea of a “nation”. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the original proponents of Zionism and founders of Israel, such as Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and Max Nordau were atheists. Similarly VD Savarkar and KB Hedgewar were self-professed atheists as were many other founders of the RSS. Recently, the leader of the BJP and a close ally of the RSS, LK Advani gave an interview to the Indian Express saying that he was very much a ‘secular’ man.

It was at Advani’s behest that the Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, a proponent of ‘soft Hindutva,’ set up the formal relationship between Israel and India. Advani visited America in the early 1990s and was asked by Jewish lobbies as to why India had not set up formal relations with Israel.

Like the Israelis, the Hindu right has also cultivated deep ties in Washington and has an active lobbying presence there. The RSS has many umbrella groups and one of them is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the World Hindu Council. The VHP, along with the Friends of India Society International (FISI), actively lobby in Washington and regularly hold meetings with the American-Israeli Peace Affairs Committee  (AIPAC) and other similar outfits. It is somewhat ironic that today these two groups have such a close relationship when one of the founders of the RSS, MS Golwalkar openly supported the abhorrent treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and praised Hitler for “purging the country of Semitic races…”

Congressman Gary Ackerman from New York perhaps articulated the reason for India and Israel’s increasing proximity most bluntly. At a conference organised by Indian and Israeli lobbyists in 2006, he said that while Israel’s problem is that it is surrounded by 120 million Muslims, India’s problem is that it has 120 million Muslims.

Right-wing Zionism and Hindutva are not representatives of Judaism or Hinduism but in today’s world where terrorism and security have become the dominant drivers of international and domestic policies, it is important to be aware and indeed condemn those who cynically manipulate religion for political expediency.    

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 March 2012 on page no. 2

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