The roots and histories of India and Israel are poles apart. The apparent ideological similarities are not the same.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Israel is nothing short of an iconic moment in history. A lot has been said about the undeniable strategic cooperation and benefits of the relationship between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. But underlying these realist and practical considerations are talks amongst prominent analysts and scholars of “an ideological affinity” between the two. Do India and Israel really share an ideological affinity?
Let us start by briefly visiting Israel’s ideological roots. The State of Israel was created as a safe homeland for the world’s Jewish population on account of their worldwide persecution historically. Thus, within Israel’s identity lies an exclusive religious conception of an allegedly democratic and secular state belonging to Jews. This sociopolitical conception inherently renders Israel’s Arab Muslim minority as 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) have since challenged this identity. But overall this condenses the Indian state in its foundation as fundamentally different from Israel and other religiously conceptualized states like Pakistan.
AN ANTI-ISLAMIC ALLIANCE?
Vivek Dehejia, a professor at Carleton University in Canada and a senior fellow at the IDFC Institute in Mumbai, has called for a tripartite alliance between India, Israel and the United States on the basis that the three countries have suffered “from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”
The overwhelming displacement of the Palestinian people through the creation of Israel, the consequent non-acceptance of its existence in most of the Muslim world, and the numerous wars that ensued have justifiably resulted in Israel’s path as a security state. Israel, through its very controversial coming to being, has suffered consistently from terrorism emanating from groups with a radical Islamist empathy, most notably Hamas. Thus, while Israel’s security orientation and exclusively Jewish conception is understandable, India’s situation is markedly different.
Contrary to Israel, the majority of terrorism in India — which has an abysmal ranking in the Global Terrorism Index, ranking just a few spots below Afghanistan and Syria — is not perpetrated by Islamist fundamentalists, but by internal insurgencies including the 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. At a time when Islamist fundamentalism remains a major challenge for the world, a miniscule number (only 23 by the end of 2016) of Indian Muslims — constituting the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia at over 180 million — have gone to fight for the Islamic State (IS). In contrast, the tiny state of Belgium with a population of less than half a million Muslims has produced nearly 500 IS fighters — the highest per capita in Europe.
Even prominent scholar Michael Mann diagnoses India as a counter-case in his famous and much-evaluated postulation that “Ethnic conflict is the dark side of democracy.” Scholars James Fearon and David Laitin posit that, despite occurrences of religious conflict, cooperation not conflict remains the norm in India. While India has historically been a hotbed of Islamist extremism, the country’s complex relations with Pakistan must be separated from India’s massive internal Muslim population.
Indeed, India needs to secure its borders and secure its citizens from internal and cross-border terrorist attacks, and cooperation with Israel is vital in this context. But even though a certain degree of religious turmoil does exist, a tacit anti-Islamic alliance comprising India, Israel and the US signals an implicit thinking of Muslims as the common enemy, and disproportionately and erroneously singles out Islam as India’s key security threat.
HINDUTVA AND ZIONISM
The ethno-nationalist political movements of Hindutva and Zionism represent exclusivist conceptions of the state based on their majority populations, thereby naturally discriminating against other ethnicities or religions. The India-Israel relationship is commonly framed in terms of a natural convergence of ideas between their ruling BJP and Likud parties, the ideological foundations of which respectively draw upon more liberalized 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 the national identity in preference of 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 historically being victims at the hands of Muslims — an idea that resonated well amongst the masses, given India’s bloody legacy of Partition and its ensuing turbulent relationship with Pakistan.
The normative positing of Indo-Israeli relations in the context of such intellectual parallels once again symbolizes a common misplaced recognition of the Muslim threat against a Jewish Israel and an allegedly Hindu India, whilst simultaneously legitimizing Hindutva politics. And whilst clear intellectual parallels between the two tenets exist, Hindutva does not equate to India, just like Zionism does not equate to Israel. Thus, these ideologies cannot be the foundation of the Indo-Israeli relationship.
None of this is to critique Israel. Tel Aviv has done admirably well and been enormously successful in defeating its traditional enemies and securing its borders. It has achieved significant technological advancement 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. (Agriculture in India is largely dependent on factors like rains and land fertility.) These fit in perfectly with 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 is more pragmatic and transformational than ideological, besides also being reminiscent of important geopolitical considerations, including a realization of the diminishing returns a pro-Palestinian policy has incurred.
It is naive and fairly perturbing to couple India and Israel on the basis of ideological similarities when the roots and histories of the two nations are poles apart and are contrary to India’s ideological foundations. India must instead take extra caution to ideologically safeguard itself from the menace of Hindutva and its exclusive and discriminatory conception that the country belongs only to Hindus, especially whilst the lynching of minorities and Dalits in the name of cow vigilantism are becoming more commonplace.
This “ideological affinity” business is not only erroneous and preposterous, but could potentially have dangerous repercussions for India by giving a green light to the politics of Hindutva. It is to draw simplistic and amateurish inferences and conclusions based on superficial similarities, whilst failing to take into account the disparate foundations, unique circumstances and consequent paths that both countries have adopted. India’s scholarly and political discourse on this very welcomed and blooming relationship must be in line with these.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.