Opinion

Closer Ties Between India and Israel Must Not Become an anti-Muslim Alliance

There are many good reasons for Modi and Netanyahu to celebrate warming relations. But if they exploit that closeness to boost a shared narrative of extreme nationalism, exclusion and defining Muslims as the enemy - we, in India, must discredit it

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greet during the India-Israel Business Summit in New Delhi. January 15, 2018
MONEY SHARMA/AFP

It has been a ground-breaking year for India-Israel relations, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Israel in July 2017 and, this week, his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu making a reciprocal visit, all within just six months. 

A lot is being said about the undeniable strategic cooperation and benefits of the relationship.    

But underlying these practical considerations are talks amongst prominent analysts in India of an "ideological affinity" between the two. Do India and Israel really share an ideological affinity?

Let us start by briefly revisiting Israel’s ideological roots. The State of Israel was created as a nation-state and safe homeland for the Jewish people, not least as a consequence of their historical worldwide persecution. Within Israel’s identity lies an exclusive national and religious conception:  a purportedly democratic and secular state that primarily expresses the sense of belonging of Jews. This sociopolitical conception inherently renders Israel’s Arab minority second-class citizens.  

Post-independence India, on the other hand, is an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse pluralistic state based on the ideals of democracy and secularism laid down by its founding fathers. This ideological conception resulted in the marginalization of religion in the national identity of the state.

The communalization of Indian politics in the 1980s with the advent of vote bank politics, and the subsequent emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist party, chaired by PM Modi, has since challenged this identity. But still, the multi-ethnic secularism of the Indian state at its foundation is fundamentally different from Israel and other religiously conceptualized states, like Pakistan. 

Proponents of the 'affinity' idea assert that for both countries, confronting Islamist terror is a key common ground. Dr Vivek Dehejia, Professor at Carleton University in Canada and Senior Fellow at the IDFC Institute in Mumbai, is one of several commentators calling for a tripartite alliance between India, Israel, and the U.S. on the basis that the three countries have suffered "from the scourge of Islamic terrorism." 

Israel, since its birth in controversy, has suffered consistently from terrorism emanating from groups with a radical Islamic orientation, most notably Hamas and Hezbollah. The displacement of the Palestinian people through the creation of Israel, the consequent non-acceptance of its existence in majority of the Islamic world, and the numerous wars that ensued, have inevitably resulted in Israel becoming a state prioritizing security over other values. But India’s situation is markedly different.

India has an abysmal ranking in the Global Terrorism Index, which measures the number of attacks and casualties, ranking just a few spots below Afghanistan and Syria. But in contrast to Israel, most terrorist attacks in India are not perpetrated by Islamist fundamentalists but by internal insurgences fuelled by very different ideologies, including Maoists and the Naxalites.

Furthermore, it is not without reason that India is touted as a case study within Europe in terms of not just its successful federal union, but also its relatively successful assimilation of Islam. India has the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, a community of over 180 million people.

Policemen reinforce barricades during a protest against the visit of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu near the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, India. Jan.15, 2018
Oinam Anand/AP

But at a time when Islamist fundamentalism remains a major global challenge, a miniscule number of Indian Muslims, only 23 individuals as of the end of 2016, have left to fight for ISIS. Contrarily, the tiny state of Belgium with a population of less than half a million Muslims has produced nearly 500 ISIS fighters – the highest per capita in Europe.

India has historically been a hotbed of Islamist extremism, but India’s complex relations with Pakistan must be de-hyphenated from India’s massive domestic Muslim population.

Indian Muslims are far less attracted to violent Islamism, not least because of India’s secular nature and the opportunities for full participation within the political system, and the persistence in India of the moderate traditions of South Asian Islam and its relative lack of exposure to the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam propagated in Pakistan. Indeed, scholars Fearon & Laitin posit that despite occurrences of religious conflict, cooperation not conflict remains the norm in India.

Indeed, India needs to secure its borders and citizens from internal and cross-border terrorist attacks, whether Islamist-oriented or internal Maoist assaults, and cooperation with Israel is vital in this context. But that should not be paraphrased in terms of building an anti-Islamic coalition.

PM Netanyahu has, during his current visit to India, reiterated the importance of strengthening security cooperation against radical Islam. But even though a certain degree of religious turmoil does exist, a tacit anti-Islamic alliance wrongly signals Muslims as the common enemy, and disproportionately and erroneously singles out Islam as India’s key security threat.

A hoarding welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu featuring him along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Ahmadabad, India. Jan. 16, 2018
Ajit Solanki/AP

The India-Israel relationship is also commonly being framed in terms of a natural convergence of ideas between their ruling BJP and Likud parties.

The ethno-nationalist political movements of the BJP's Hindutva and right-wing Zionism represent exclusivist conceptions of the state based on their majority populations, thereby naturally discriminating against other ethnicities or religions. Both parties and have moved rightwards from earlier, more liberal versions of Hindutva and Zionism.

Identities, including religious and ethnic, are by nature instrumental and malleable. The rise of Hindutva has in parts resulted in a subsequent weakening of an Indian national identity in preference to a Hindu identity, and threatened the secularism of the Indian state.  

Hindu nationalist parties have managed to unify a diverse Hindu polity through their clever construction of a narrative of Hindus as historically victims at the hands of Muslims – an idea that resonates amongst the masses, given India’s bloody legacy of Partition and its ensuing turbulent relationship with Pakistan.

In fact, Israel’s biggest fans in India appear to be the Internet Hindus who primarily love Israel for how it deals with Palestine and fights Muslims.

The normative positing of Indo-Israeli relations in the context of such intellectual parallels once again frames the Muslim threat against a Jewish Israel and an allegedly Hindu India, whilst simultaneously legitimizing Hindutva politics. And whilst parallels between the two political streams exist, Hindutva does not equate to India, just as right-wing Zionism does not equate to Israel; these ideologies should not be the foundation of the Indo-Israeli relationship.

None of this is intended to critique Israel, or to oppose closer India: Israel relations per se. 

Israel has been enormously successful in confronting its traditional enemies and securing its borders. It has achieved significant technological sophistication and developed expertise in realms beyond defense and security to include areas such as water management and agriculture that remain a top priority for India. The two countries are working on a five year agriculture and water cooperation plan, which fit in perfectly with PM Modi’s deployment of vigorous diplomacy to achieve India’s development goals. 

Thus, by all means, India must continue to pursue a strong strategic, economic and security relationship with Israel. But this kinship should be regarded as more pragmatic and transformational than ideological.

India’s foreign policy makers recognize the complexities of its alliances and decisions, and those same considerations relate to India’s relations towards Israel and towards the Palestinians. There may be a growing realization of the diminishing returns its pro-Palestinian policy has incurred, but India’s UN vote against the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel exhibits a pragmatism that even repeated statements by Israel, about a ‘marriage made in heaven’, won’t significantly shift.

It is naïve, even perturbing, to couple India and Israel as ideological sisters. India should have no interest in resembling further an exclusivist conception of the nation-state legitimizing one ethnic or religious group’s primacy. It must instead try harder to ideologically safeguard itself from the menace of Hindutva becoming a guiding principle for the state and a tool of incitement among its citizens.

Its exclusive and discriminatory conception that India belongs only to Hindus is dangerous, not least at a time when the lynching of minorities and Dalits in the name of cow vigilantism are becoming more commonplace.

Indian children wave to a vehicle carrying Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian PM Narendra Modi as they arrive at Sabarmati (Gandhi) Ashram in Ahmadabad, India. Jan. 17, 2018
Ajit Solanki/AP

This is where the talk about an "ideological affinity" between India and Israel is not only erroneous but could potentially have serious repercussions for India, by giving a green light to the politics of extremist Hindutva.

That language draws simplistic and amateurish conclusions from superficial similarities, whilst failing to take into account the disparate foundations, unique circumstances, and consequent paths that both countries have adopted.

And it’s critical both for India’s domestic and international relations that the narrative of an anti-Islam ‘front’ underpinning the two countries’ relations be publicly discredited.

PM Netanyahu’s current visit to India has focused on many diverse arenas of cooperation: innovation, technology, and tourism; he’s even made a pitch to lure Bollywood to make movies in Israel.

That kind of broad spectrum of interactions would indeed lend credence to the idea that the India: Israel relationship goes beyond a convergence of right-wing Hindu nationalists in New Delhi, and right-wing Jewish nationalists in Jerusalem.

Shairee Malhotra is Associate Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels. She previously worked at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations in Mumbai, and has an MA International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Fair Observer