What India’s Prime Minister Modi can teach us about Zionism

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a helicopter tour of Israel in 2017. Photo: Israel Government Press Office

JVL Introduction

Helena Cobban, President of Just World Educational, looks at Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim policies and offers a 5-step lesson in creating and defending an exclusivist, ethno/sectarian-nationalist state.

Guess what? Zionism has a lot to teach him…

Step 1: Politicize the whole issue of religious identity.
Step 2: Actions on borders and citizenship are crucial to the exclusivist project.
Step 3: Don’t forget to rewrite and reshape history and control how it gets taught
Step 4: Aggressively inscribe your claims onto the land through bold place-changing and place-naming moves
Step 5: Twin the exclusivizing steps taken at the formal/official level with building potent grassroots networks whose more extreme actions can be “denied” when necessary

This article was originally published by Mondoweis on Mon 23 Dec 2019. Read the original here.

What India’s Prime Minister Modi can teach us about Zionism


Large-scale protests have been roiling Indian cities since earlier this month, when the country’s parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, CAA. It offers citizenship to any refugees from the neighboring (majority-Muslim) countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who are members of non-Muslim “minority” communities in those countries—but notably not to any Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had introduced this clearly discriminatory measure as part of a package of anti-Muslim steps he has taken since his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an increased majority in the Lok Sabha (parliament) last April.

The BJP was founded in 1980 as a party that proudly and explicitly pursues “Hindutva” (Hindu power) in a country that, throughout the 50 years after it won Independence from Britain in 1947, had remained committed to the determinedly non-religious form of civic equality envisaged by the Congress Party and key independence-era leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress Party is now but a shadow of its earlier self. In the April elections, the BJP won 303 of the Lok Sabha’s 343 seats.

Democrats and progressives around the world have been united in protesting the BJP’s radically pro-Hindutva (or “saffronizing”) policies. It is instructive, therefore, to note the many parallels between the BJP’s policies and the classic kinds of policies Zionists have pursued both on the ground in Palestine and in the lavish p.r. campaigns they have run worldwide. Modi, it turns out, can teach us all a lot about Zionism. Here, in a nutshell, are Modi’s step-by-step lessons for how to create and defend an exclusivist, ethno/sectarian-nationalist state:

Step 1: Politicize the whole issue of religious identity.

In classic views of democratic theory, religious belief is a matter of individual conscience, and governments should be prevented from privileging adherents of any one religion over adherents of others. In India, some 80% of the country’s 1.3 billion people are Hindu; some 14% are Muslims; and the rest belong to smaller religious groups including Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and so on. As noted above, the CAA legislation is only one step the BJP has been taking to privilege Hindu believers. Others taken in recent months have included rolling out a “National Register of Citizens” in such a way that in some northeastern areas it has left thousands of Muslims off the voters’ rolls, and a large-scale, violent crackdown against Muslim-majority Kashmir.

In historic Palestine, the Zionist project has from the very beginning given extreme privilege to members of the Jewish community, denying any form of equal rights and protections to followers of other religions in the areas that have come under Zionist/Israeli control. More recently, in 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party enacted the Nation-State Bill, which enshrines the concept that Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people into Israel’s Basic Law.

The only two other major countries founded on such strongly theocratic principles are Pakistan and to a certain extent Saudi Arabia. Pakistan, indeed, was expressly founded as a Muslim homeland, according to the vision of its founder Mohammed Ali Jinna. In 1947, Jinna’s party broke off the majority-Muslim provinces of the territory the British had ruled as a single, “Imperial” India, to form Pakistan. That partition of India led to mass ethnic cleansings on both sides of the new border, many of them extremely violent. But in response to that violence, Gandhi, Nehru and the other leaders of the rest of India did not counter by proclaiming any form of discriminatory Hindutva. Instead, they doubled down on both on the secularism and inclusivity of the new India they were building and on the reforms they saw as necessary within Hinduism itself. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu-nationalist extremist.

Step 2: Actions on borders and citizenship are crucial to the exclusivist project.

Modi’s new citizenship law, the CAA, looks like a pale echo of Israel’s longstanding “Law of Return”, which gives a super-privileged right of citizenship to any member of the Jewish community from anywhere in the world. If Westerners want to criticize the CAA, why have they not been equally critical of the Israeli Law of Return?

Meantime, some of the actions Modi has been taking to remove large numbers of Muslims from the citizenship rolls in the northeastern Assam province and elsewhere look like a slow and bureaucratic form of the brutally expulsionist steps the Zionists took during the 1947-1949 war and the more bureaucratic forms of exclusionist policy all Israeli governments have taken since then. If Westerners criticize what India has been doing regarding the NRC, should they not also look equally critically at what Israel did during the Nakba and the sharp demographic squeezing it continues to exert on the non-Jewish indigenes of Gaza, the West Bank, and Golan, to this day?

Step 3: Don’t forget to rewrite and reshape history and control how it gets taught

The standard version of Indian history taught, studied, and written since Independence has spoken of India’s liberation after “200 years of colonial rule”. (Actually, 190 years.) But in Modi’s first speech in parliament in 2014, he spoke about India’s liberation after “1,200 years of slavery”—referring not just to the 190 years of British rule but adding in the whole earlier millennium in which many rulers in India were Muslim emperors—though many others were Hindus.

A significant side-note here is that over the centuries many Indians had converted to Islam precisely because they saw it as liberating them from the terrible oppressions of Hinduism’s deeply anti-democratic “caste” system. When Gandhi came along, he tried to liberate lower-caste Hindus a different way: by abolishing the whole caste system within Hinduism itself. Old-school conservative (and upper-caste) forces within the religion bridled at that idea, and provided the momentum and financing for the Hindutva movement.

Modi’s “1,200 years of slavery” reframing is just one of the many ways in which advocates of Hindutva have sought actively to rewrite/reframe their country’s history. The Indian historian Romila Thapar wrote a great description of this process recently. She noted that:

These efforts had begun when the B.J.P. first governed India between 1999 and 2004.

Under Mr. Modi’s government and various state governments run by his party, the attempts to change history have taken many more forms, such as deleting chapters or passages from public school textbooks that contradicted their ideology, while adding their own make-believe versions of the past.

And then, there’s Zionism, with its claims that its central project was really a “return to Israel” for people who had long been exiled from that area; that Judaism is really a nationality rather than a prophetic religion; that the area of Palestine was either “empty” or very under-developed before the arrival of the Zionist colonists; and that Zionism was a progressive “national liberation movement” of Jewish people against British imperialism rather than itself being a settler-colonial movement…

Step 4: Aggressively inscribe your claims onto the land through bold place-changing and place-naming moves

One key place-changing move taken by the BJP and its allies came in 1992, when massive BJP-organized mobs hand-demolished the 450-year-old Babri Masjid mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya, claiming it had been built on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama. Court cases related to the destruction stumbled through the legal system for 27 years until finally, just last month, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the site must be handed over to the government for the construction of a Hindu temple.

In this very informative episode of “On the Media”, historian Shoaib Daniyal noted that, under the influence of Hindutva, state governments were bestowing new, Hindu-related names on public facilities that previously had Muslim-related names and that there had been several proposals that the Hindi language be taught nationwide.

The language issue in India is complex.  23 official languages are recognized in its Constitution. Hindi is the first language of only 43.6% of the population including many of its Muslim citizens; roughly half of all Indian Hindus do not speak Hindi at home. Meantime, to complicate matters, Urdu, which is the sole official language of Pakistan as well as one of India’s official languages, is generally judged very close to Hindi, though it is written in a different script.

Currently, Hindi and English are both widely used throughout India as bureaucratic “common languages.” Mandating that Hindi be taught nationwide and become the only bureaucratic language used nationwide would push that majority of the population for whom it is not the first language yet further to the margins.

… And then, there’s Zionism, which has imposed its own place-names on locations not just all over 1948 Israel itself but also throughout the occupied areas of East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, Golan, and Gaza… which has demolished hundreds of Muslim holy places and cemeteries (including the one buried under the Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem).. and which recently dropped Arabic from the list of its official languages…

Step 5: Twin the exclusivizing steps taken at the formal/official level with building potent grassroots networks whose more extreme actions can be “denied” when necessary

The BJP party itself was formed in 1980, from a merger of two earlier Hindutva parties. Far older than the BJP is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindutva-promoting grassroots movement founded in 1925 which now claims to be the largest NGO in the world with some five or six million members. Modi and many other leaders of the BJP got their initial training in politics and mass mobilization as members of the RSS. The BJP is often described as just “a project of the RSS;” and even after the founding of the BJP, the RSS continued its operations throughout the country.

RSS intellectuals and teachers are on the forefront of the cultural aspects of the Hindutva movement. Their writers make mind-boggling claims about ancient Hindu history, such as that satellite communications existed and were used during the era described in the Sanskrit epic poems (13th or 14 century BCE.) They also keep alive a vivid narrative of Hindus as chronic victims of the actions of others, particularly of Muslims. Their teachers put constant pressure on school systems to change curricula to more Hindutva-aligned content. Activists at many levels engage in anti-Muslim actions or attacks against anyone alleged to have challenged Hindu teachings on the sacredness of cows. RSS activists and organizers were deeply involved in the 1992 demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya. It was a former RSS member who assassinated Gandhi, in 1948.

The relationships among the RSS, the BJP, and the Indian state are slightly different than those among Zionist grassroots groups, Zionist political parties, and the Israeli state. In Israel, explicitly Zionist parties have dominated the state since the very beginning, and the state itself has always been a Zionist project. In India, that was not the case. The Indian state was founded, as noted above, as an explicitly secular, diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious entity, as advocated by the Congress Party. Supporters of Hindutva felt they needed, after Independence as before it, to build strong networks of grassroots organizations to push their agenda at the local level before they could try to push it participation in party politics at the national level. In Israel, by contrast, advocates of the exclusivist Zionist agenda have had full control of state budgets and patronage opportunities from the very beginning, whereas the advocates of Hindutva in India have only recently started to gain access to that largesse.

Nonetheless, Zionism, seen as a supranational phenomenon that exists far beyond the boundaries of the State of Israel, also relies on broad networks of grassroots (or Astroturf) organizations to continue to push or defend its agenda globally. And at the grassroots level inside Israel, groups like the East Jerusalem settler organization Ateret Cohanim or the anti-miscegenation group Lehava engage in forms of basically Zionist actions that are more extreme and violent than what the government or the big political parties feel comfortable undertaking.

Luckily, in India, there are still many millions of citizens—including many who are adherents of the Hindu faith—who have actively resisted the allure of Hindutva and have been struggling to maintain the country’s expressly democratic Constitution. We should give them all the support we can. Meantime, India’s Prime Minister Modi, his ruling BJP party, the RSS movement, and their intertwined actions can teach us all a lot about what Zionism is and how it has been so effective until now.


Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.


Comments (1)

  • Aatkutri Noydirja says:

    JVL web writes:

    We had a comment from the person above which we posted earlier.

    But receiving exactly the same comment from a different person at a different email address suggests with this an orchestrated attempt to impose a particular interpretation on our readers. We have therefore deleted the comment and will not be reposting it.

Comments are now closed.