India's 'Internet Hindus' Are in Love With Israel

Hindu nationalists incessantly tweet their support and admiration for Israel, an online force that helped push Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a landslide victory in 2014

Anshul Saxena, center, at an event he organized on a south Delhi street corner celebrating Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India, January 2018.
Manu Misra

In New Delhi, Anshul Saxena spends three to four hours a day on Israel.

The 26-year-old gathers information from right-wing websites, blogs, Wikipedia, the American Jewish Committee website and India-Israel friendship forums. He has set up alerts to be notified of any India-Israel news, and tries to tweet about Israel every day.

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Back in November, he announced a celebration party when he first heard that Netanyahu would be visiting. Sometimes, the tweets are about Israel in general and the lessons India can learn from it.

A few months earlier, in July, he wrote: "Israel revived its Hebrew, whose fate was similar to Sanskrit about 7 decades ago. India should learn from Israel, We can revive Sanskrit."

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Other times, he's inspired by the news. Last month, he wrote, comparing Jerusalem to the northern Indian city where a 16th-century mosque was demolished by right-wing Hindu mobs 25 years ago: "India should shift embassy from Tel Aviv to #Jerusalem. And also recognize that Temple Mount belongs to the only Jewish people. What Ayodhya Ram Mandir to Hindus, same Temple Mount to Jews."

The goal is to convince Indians that Israel is their country's best friend. Saxena has nearly 70,000 followers (and won about 5,000 new followers within six hours of Netanyahus arrival on Sunday.) He is one of the 1,861 accounts followed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

His tweet about Hebrew inspiring a revival of Sanskrit has been retweeted 1,275 times and liked 1,982 times. The ones about Netanyahu have been retweeted a few hundred times.

Saxena drafts his tweets on a Word document – sometimes hundreds on a given theme. "The first thing I try is to make them informative and not controversial or humorous," he says. Then he forwards them to his friends – his core team of 50 people. On a group chat, they write their views and choose hashtags.

Anshul Saxena at a pro-Israel event he organized on a south Delhi street corner, where he handed out local dishes to passersby, January 2018.
Manu Misra

"There are groups on Twitter, WhatsApp, social media .... Each person has 500 to 1,000 people, some are in 100 to 200 groups," he says. "Theyre all pro-Israeli as well. So ... it keeps getting forwarded and circulated on social media."

In the summer of 2015, when Modi announced plans to visit Israel, tens of thousands of people (both Israelis and Indians – largely Hindus – in India and the diaspora) celebrated India-Israel brotherhood, and condemned the Palestinians, Pakistanis and Muslims in general. There were flags, quotes and memes. #IndiaWithIsrael trended a second time within a few days when India abstained from a July vote against Israel at the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Over the next two years, Saxena campaigned for #WorstIranDeal (Iran Nuclear Deal is not only Threat to our friend @Israel but for the whole World, he tweeted), and #IndiaAgainstPalestinianTerror (I started it in the evening, but it failed, so I started again the next day, only then did it become successful).

Looking beyond Pakistan

In 2016, when Reuven Rivlin visited India, Saxena introduced #IndiaWelcomeIsraelPres. Last month, when the Palestinian ambassador to Pakistan was seen in a photo at a public event with Hafiz Saeed, considered the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, Saxena pushed #ShameOnPalestine. All of these hashtags trended in India.

On India's social media if you're trending Israel, then it's a very big deal, Saxena says. "People are not so aware of Israel, because here in India people dont think beyond Pakistan. When I get Israel trending, I know how much hard work it takes. A lot of people, we put in their minds that were pro-Israel, and you also become a part of this, you also understand it."

Saxena is what is called in India an internet Hindu: a vast and incalculable army of right-wing Hindu nationalists dominating the country's political discourse. Social media campaigns in India were credited with helping Modi and his Bhartiya Janta Party win the 2014 election in a landslide. These campaigns further encouraged nationalists on the Indian internet.

Saxena denies being part of the BJP's social media efforts, or being paid for his online campaigns – which he coordinates with BJP workers. I have an attachment to Israel, and that's why I do this. I dont get anything, he says.

In the days leading up to Netanyahu's visit, he tried to find an app that could add a filter of the Indian and Israeli flags to Twitter profile photos. There wasnt enough time to merge the two, so he settled for the Israeli blue and white.

In 2014, a few months after Modi became prime minister, #IndiaWithIsrael trended on Twitter for the first time – during that years Gaza war. Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, now a BJP spokesman in Delhi, was then a famously aggressive internet Hindu. He worked on that campaign, and held a solidarity protest for Israel. Only 200 people showed up, but they made a human chain and carried banners saying India and Israel were united against terrorism.

"We thought we should give a message that Indians are in support of Israel, whatever is going on .... Whenever it comes to Kashmir, Palestine has never stood with us," Bagga says.

"If you want our support, then you should also give support in the same way. But who stands with us on the international platform? Israel. Whenever we have to fight, whenever we have a need, who gives us weapons? Israel. Who gives us technology? Israel. So as a good friend, when it stands with us, and we feel that these issues come to us in Kashmir through Pakistan, similarly Israel is also daily suffering."

Social media is occupied by Hindutva's people, adds former journalist Manoj Joshi, referring to the main form of Hindu nationalism in India. "So its very difficult to kind of make any judgment from that because they are there in great strength and they put forward their view," says Joshi, now a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

He says it's very hard to ascertain how widespread these ideas are beyond Hindu nationalists. But the similarity between Israel and India, Joshi says, is a kind of imagined similarity.

Mainstream Indians are also very affected by these majoritarian kind of ideas, he says. All they see is that Israel has fought so well, Israel has dealt with its Muslims so well, not realizing that the reality is something else. Meaning Israel is a garrison state constantly under pressure, constantly living with insecurity.

Few reporters on the ground

This preoccupation with Israel, though, is largely invisible in the world outside social media. The Indian media is notoriously insular. The only Indian correspondent in Israel is a reporter for the news agency Press Trust of India, and prominent newspapers rely on Western news agencies.

And although he thinks that there is tremendous interest in Israel among many Indians, our understanding of Israel is very limited. Even among informed people, says P.R. Kumaraswamy, a professor of Middle Eastern studies specializing in Israel at New Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University.

But because Hindutva is dominant today, the discourse is as well – and thus limited in its understanding of Israel. "They think if the Jews can revive Hebrew, we can also revive Sanskrit," Kumaraswamy says. "Jews also have the kibbutz, but are you ready to do a kibbutz?"

Hindu nationalists have vehemently admired and supported Israel since the 1940s. But Hindutva was a very small force in the 40s, and therefore a very small number of people were arguing on those lines, he says. But today it is seen as a large discourse, so the admiration is proportionately increased.

Last month, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, wrote a piece criticizing India's vote in the UN General Assembly. He rejected India's vote that condemned Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

When I wrote that piece I was expecting to get abused as usual when I criticize this government, he says. But instead, among Hindu nationalists, Indias vote was seen as a betrayal by the government.

Nationalists tweeted to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj expressing their disappointment. And they also tweeted something to Netanyahu: apologies.

In recent days, the apologies have been replaced by excitement over Netanyahu's visit. Saxena has asked members of his group to change their display pictures to add #IndiaWithIsrael. Hes also putting together a video on why Israel is our best friend and why India runs away from Israel when that country is doing so much for us.

In 2009, Israel's Foreign Ministry had commissioned a survey that found that 58 percent of Indians have sympathy for Israel. The greatest level of sympathy for Israel was found in India, he says, referring to a survey of people in 13 countries including the United States, Britain, Canada, France, China and Russia. I want that in future surveys, this 58 percent turns into 90 percent.

The official hashtag for Netanyahus visit is #ShalomNamaste, combining the traditional greetings of both Hebrew and Hindi. But also trending is Saxenas #WelcomeNetanyahu, and he has also asked his followers to use #NetanyahuInIndia in tweets.

He asked his friends – those with verified accounts – to add the Israeli flag filter to their photos. Last time he checked with the filter creators, 1,030 people had added the filter (though he doesnt know how many of them are in India).

And as he promised, Saxena hosted an Israeli party on the streets in south Delhi. He handed out tea and samosas to everyone in the street, from rickshaw drivers to children. When the samosas ran out, he replaced them with khichri, a dish of rice and lentils. "The event went on for six hours," he says.