NEW DELHI – As India continues to battle its deadly second wave of the coronavirus, social media has become the country’s unofficial helpline. It has also been the home for unprecedented criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government over their handling of the pandemic.
But it isn’t only COVID-19 that has Indians venting online. The world’s second-most populous country was also at the forefront of the “online information battlefield” on Twitter and Facebook after the latest Israeli-Hamas flare-up erupted last month. In fact, First Draft News, a U.K.-based nonprofit that seeks to address misinformation, found that the top hashtags referencing the conflict invariably featured an Indian reference.
“#IndiaStandsWithIsrael and #IndiaStandsWithPalestine were the top two hashtags used in over 300,000 tweets we analyzed as part of Israel and Palestine conversations on social media across the world,” the nonprofit stated in its report. It added that an “anti-Muslim influence network in India hijacked recent conversations around Israel and Palestine.”
In 2018, Haaretz reported on organized pro-Israel campaigns run by Hindu nationalist groups associated with and including members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their reported aim is to build a narrative based around an imagined similarity between India and Israel, which they see as a kind of model for the “Hindu nation” they seek to establish. They have also been accused of using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to spread Islamophobia online.
First Draft found “signs of coordinated efforts to manipulate Twitter traffic, both in the content of the tweets and in unusual patterns of activity” in relation to use of the hashtag #UnitedAgainstJehad.
The BJP’s IT cell (its social media division) has become the government’s unofficial mouthpiece over the past decade. Many of its top social media influencers have been accused of essentially being internet trolls who use abusive and often misogynistic language to attack their political opponents on Twitter. A significant number of them are seemingly legitimized by Modi, who follows them on Twitter, and they have been accused of running disinformation campaigns.
The IT cell was credited with helping bring Modi to power. Rumors and misinformation spread through these online networks, but especially on WhatsApp, led to the mobilization of cow-protection groups, resulting in mob attacks over allegations of consumption or possession of beef. These attacks are also documented and widely circulated on Indian social media.
“It is the mindset of these people: They celebrate killings, be it in Kashmir, in Palestine or anywhere. Their target is to defame Muslims – we have to change that narrative,” charges Salman Nizami, a member of the Indian National Congress (INC), the country’s main opposition party.
Nizami, who is Kashmiri, was one of those tweeting actively in support of Palestine when the latest conflict began. He put out a call for Indians to show solidarity on Twitter and says that, on the evening of May 9, “We actually started the trend that India stands with Palestine.” An hour later, Indian right-wingers responded by tweeting their support for Israel, “but we succeeded in trending to the top,” he says.
Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a member of the BJP and part of Modi’s coterie of top social media influencers, says that when he noticed that #IndiaStandswithPalestine was trending worldwide, he decided to use the pro-Palestine hashtag in a series of tweets in favor of Israel. “So even people who are supporting Palestine, when they click that hashtag, they will see my tweet. You have to show them also that we are supporting Israel,” he explains.
Bagga, a longtime supporter of Israel, has over 700,000 followers on Twitter. He opines that “most Indians support Israel,” and that support for Palestine only comes from “one community” – referring to India’s Muslims, who comprise about a fifth of the country’s population and a tenth of the world’s entire Muslim population.
By the morning of May 10, #IndiaStandsWithPalestine had been tweeted more than 500,000 times, nearly three times as much as #IndiaStandsWithIsrael.
Problems closer to home
Amid India’s internet wars, the country’s liberal activists, students, academics and artists were on the front line in support of Palestine – like their counterparts elsewhere in the world. But in India, the anger at Israel is also specifically directed at Modi, his right-wing government and Hindu nationalists.
You can find threads highlighting the supposed similarities of Hindu nationalism and Zionism; comparisons are drawn between Palestine and Kashmir – these were especially highlighted as Kashmiris were arrested for supporting the Palestinian cause. When Indian left-wing digital publication The Wire tweeted a story about Kashmiris being arrested, particularly a 32-year-old artist who was detained for painting a mural that said “We Are Palestine,” the positive response to the artist’s actions far outweighed the hate, says The Wire’s audience editor, Naomi Barton.
“I would definitely see an increase in positive sentiment on this relative to how much hate anti-government posts get for us generally,” she notes.
Generally, pro-Israel messaging posted by Hindu nationalists flies under the radar on India’s social media. Its coordinators regularly post about Israel and look to run organized campaigns, which are rarely reported on or commented on outside of their networks.
Last month, though, tweets backing Israel’s actions in Gaza and the death of Palestinian militants and civilians were used to remind Indians of the country’s growing COVID-19 death toll, which has surpassed 350,000, according to the government’s conservative estimates. The actual number of deaths is reported to be at least twice as high, in the millions according to more pessimistic assessments.
“Imagine ignoring 2,000 bodies of your own people floating dead in the Ganga and cheering on instead the killing of Palestinians by Israel. And then calling yourself a nationalist,” tweeted Asmita Bakshi, a journalist in Delhi, referring to the dead bodies being found in India’s rivers and on river banks.
“Why are Indians trending ‘India Stands With Israel’? India can’t stand up for itself right now thanks to your elected dictator’s disastrous handling of COVID, you want to stand with an imperialist state? Sit down,” tweeted Sankul Sonawane, a young anti-caste activist who sees a similarity between India and Israel “crying about being the victims in front of the world, while oppressing minorities at home. Only difference is Israel doesn’t worship cows,” he tweeted.
“As a Dalit, oppression is not exactly foreign to me,” says Sonawane, referring to the group of people in the country’s lowest caste. “I think for me and a lot of Dalits … when it comes to supporting Palestine, it is more about the solidarity and the unity of the oppressed around the world,” he explains. “Israel is not only complicit in oppressing Palestinians, but it is also complicit in aiding India with the kind of technology that is helping suppress dissent,” he adds, referring to reported Israeli sales of surveillance systems to India in recent years.
One incident during the flare-up had a direct connection with India: On May 11, a Hamas rocket hit the residence of an elderly lady in the southern city of Ashkelon, killing both her and her caregiver, Soumya Santosh – a nurse from the southern state of Kerala.
The dominant political discourse in Kerala, India’s only communist-led state, has traditionally been pro-Palestinian. As the news of Santosh’s death broke late at night, the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) released a statement strongly denouncing “the Israeli attacks on Palestinians. The air raids carried out by Israel on the Gaza Strip led to the death of many Palestinian citizens.”
The chief minister and other lawmakers in the state were berated by right-wingers for using neutral language while expressing condolences for Santosh’s death. Yet when some of the state’s ministers used the word “terrorist” to describe Hamas, there was also a backlash from the left and Muslims.
“People who support Palestine were in a little bit of a tough spot because you couldn’t say much because somebody is dead,” Keralite journalist Deepu Sebastian Edmond tells Haaretz. “So, people went on the defensive. On both sides in fact, anybody who said anything was targeted on social media … there was no attempt to have a conversation,” he says.
Recent elections in the state revealed a growing anti-Muslim sentiment among Kerala’s Christians. After Santosh’s death, “all the dormant stuff came out in the open,” says Edmond, who said he sees it as “Islamophobia couched in the guise of supporting Israel.”
“Among youngsters in Kerala, especially among Christian youngsters, there seems to be unprecedented support for Israel now,” he says. This is noticeable because it is such an outlier for the public discourse in Kerala. “We’ve never had a discussion supporting Israel before. … Even if it’s small, they’re saying what nobody has said before,” he adds.
Another India-centric incident occurred on May 16 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted emojis showing the flags of countries “supporting” Israel in the flare-up, but omitted the Indian flag. Many Indians replied in dismay, proclaiming their unwavering love and loyalty toward Israel.
Raj Shekhar Sen, an Indian business consultant based in San Francisco, says he “felt a deep sense of embarrassment” over the “barrage of Indians with Indian flags responding in support of Israel, but in a very obsequious or subservient manner.”
Screenshots of the replies to Netanyahu and other tweets by pro-Israel Indians were widely shared, mocked and critiqued online, and support for Israel became a kind of running joke in liberal circles.
Historically, India has always supported the Palestinian cause – even after it established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. Given the very public declarations about Modi and Netanyahu’s friendship (both leaders have visited each other’s country in recent years), “Many thought Modi would change this approach and Israel would get unquestioned support from India,” says Kabir Taneja, a foreign policy analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“I think at some level, even Netanyahu thought this,” he adds. “However, it has not been so – and even the Hindu-nationalist right-wing bent of the BJP has maintained the course of this Indian foreign policy.”
But though Indian social media was ablaze over the matter, conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were widely limited to elite and intellectual circles in India. Taneja says that “even though many say India’s positioning” on the Israel-Palestine issue is in accordance with its domestic politics with regard to its Muslim population, there is very little empirical evidence that is presented to back this up.
“While I’m sure there may be discontent amid India’s Muslim population, I don’t see debates within the community on this being integral to their daily lives, local or national political sentiments,” he says. During the 51-day Gaza war in 2014, there were small protests in some parts of India over Israeli airstrikes against Hamas. BJP’s Bagga recounts how he organized a counterprotest in Delhi during that war. “In their thousands, Muslims were protesting all over India. That’s why we decided that if they were protesting in support of Palestine, why shouldn’t we stand in support of Israel, which is our friend?”
He says he believes that “if they weren’t so vocal before, if they didn’t stand in support of Palestine, the Indian government and policy would not have been so one-sided.”
Taneja points out that Indian social media in 2014 was “not as vivid, divided and politically active as it is today.” He adds: “I think general clarity in ideological thinking with the Indian population, particularly the young, has led to a very strong and decisive stance on the Israel-Palestine issue.
That is apparent in the conflicting stances of the BJP’s Bagga and INC’s Nizami. While Bagga is adamant that “most Indians are supporting Israel,” Nizami response that “the BJP is not India. Officially, the prime minister of India goes to Palestine and supports them. And here, they abuse them. This is the double standard of the BJP. Likewise, they celebrate the killing of Gandhi ji and when they go abroad, they worship him.”