Hindutva for Zionism

Narendra Modi's visit to Israel was historic in every sense

By Worm's Eye ViewManini Chatterjee
  • Published 10.07.17

The penchant of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, for turning every meeting with a world leader into an over-the-top bromance is by now well known. So is his ability to blur the lines between friendly and over familiar.

We have seen him swaying on a traditional Gujarati swing with Xi Jinping; taking Malcolm Turnbull for a metro ride in Delhi; steering the French president, Emmanuel Macron, through the gardens of the Elysee Palace as though he were the host and Macron his acolyte; and famously referring to the former American president, Obama, by his first name, Barack, not once or twice but 22 times in course of a single radio broadcast.

Since many countries covet India's expanding markets and eagerly eye big ticket defence deals that New Delhi dangles before them, world leaders too have reciprocated Modi's hyper-friendly gestures, albeit a little gingerly. And every time Modi goes on a foreign trip, there is no end to gushing media coverage describing his sojourn as "historic" - even when it is, more often than not, just a continuation of India's engagement with the world that has steadily expanded over several decades past.

Yet, even his critics will concede that Modi's visit to Israel last week and his excessive camaraderie with Benjamin Netanyahu were on a different plane altogether - and the trip was, in every sense of the term, historic.

The P.V. Narasimha Rao government may have established full diplomatic ties with Israel back in 1992 and cooperation between India and Israel in many fields may have grown over the last 25 years.

But Modi was absolutely right in describing his July 4-6 visit to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the first ever by an Indian prime minister, as "path breaking"; just as Netanyahu was spot on when he referred to 2014 as the turning point when "we had decided to tear down the final walls dividing our countries".

That Modi and Netanyahu enjoyed a great chemistry was there for all to see - the frequent embraces; Modi's calling the Israeli prime minister by his pet name, "Bibi", and being referred to as mere dost in return; the private dinners; the schmaltzy meeting of the two with 26/11 survivor, Moshe Holtzberg; the walks on the beach.

But it was not this personal chemistry or the decision of the two countries to elevate their relationship to "a strategic partnership" that made Modi's trip path breaking. What made it so lies in two profound decisions - a refusal and an acceptance - taken by Modi. His refusal to visit Palestinian territories such as Ramallah which all visiting Indian and world leaders make a point to do, and his acceptance of Netanyahu's "impromptu" proposal to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, together underscore why exactly Modi's visit was so significant.

The two decisions not just broke with India's long tradition of supporting the Palestinian people who were forced out of their homeland in 1948 and continue to be homeless or occupied, but they also reflect a much greater bond rooted in a common sense of history and ideology between the right wing leaderships currently ruling both India and Israel. Modi and Netanyahu were well aware of this historic shift.

Within minutes of Modi landing in Israel, Netanyahu declared: "We love India. We view you as kindred spirits in our journey." A day later, Modi told the Israeli president, "I for I, when I say it, doesn't mean an eye for an eye. It means India for Israel."

That was a deliberate rhetorical flourish to gloss over the fact that not all of India supports Israel unconditionally and from the time of Indian Independence in 1947 and the formation of Israel less than a year later in May 1948, India had been a resolute defender of the Palestinian people and a steadfast critic of Israeli aggression.

Instead of "I for I", the more accurate description of what took place in Jerusalem would be "H for Z" - or Hindutva for Zionism. For the truth is that Hindu nationalism championed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha has always been supportive of Zionism and Israel for reasons both political and ideological.

One key reason is that the RSS greatly admires Israel's success in fighting the Muslim countries that surround it. For RSS followers, a "Hindu" India and a "Jewish" Israel have long been regarded as natural allies in the fight against Islam - with occasionally a "Christian" America thrown in to make a more formidable troika.

But the bonds between Zionism and Hindutva go much deeper. Zionism, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897, was a political movement dedicated to the creation of a Jewish state and nation. The fusion of religious and cultural identity with a "holy" geographical entity is common to both Hindutva and Zionism. The Zionist idea, encapsulated in the Israeli declaration of Independence, states: "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped... After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion... Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland..."

In light of Europe's long history of anti-Semitism that culminated in Hitler's horrific Final Solution in the last century, the desire of the Jewish people to have a safe homeland gained much sympathy after the Second World War - not least from the guilt-ridden Western world that had failed to prevent the Holocaust.

But much before Hitler came on the scene, V.D. Savarkar - in an echo of the Zionist creed - declared that Hindus alone were the legitimate people of India because their pitrabhoomi (fatherland) was the same as their punyabhoomi (holy land). In his book Hindutva, first published in 1923, Savarkar wrote: "... no people in the world can more justly claim to get recognized as a racial unit than the Hindus and perhaps the Jews."

Elsewhere, in the same book, he wrote: "Look at the Jews; neither centuries of prosperity nor sense of gratitude for the shelter they found, can make them more attached or even equally attached to the several countries they inhabit. Their love is, and must necessarily be divided between the land of their birth and the land of their Prophets. If the Zionists' dreams are ever realized - if Palestine becomes a Jewish State and it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends - they, like the Mohammedans, would naturally set the interests of their Holy land above those of their Motherland in America and Europe..."

The RSS ideologue, M.S. Golwalkar, may have been less explicit in his admiration for Zionism and he even extolled Germany for showing "how well nigh impossible it is for Races and Cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one unified whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by."

But Golwalkar's appreciation for the "race spirit" of the German people was in keeping with his belief that the bedrock of nationhood is religion, language, race and culture; not a shared citizenship based on universal values. In fact, Golwalkar's writings, too, borrow heavily from Zionist and Judaic exhortations. If orthodox Jews believe they are god's "Chosen People", Golwalkar has described India as the land of the Hindus or "The Chosen Land".

He has written, for instance, "Our forefathers were of the conviction that throughout the world this is the holiest of the lands where the least merit will bear fruit a hundred or thousand-fold... It was given to the great sons of this soil to see and realize God in His full effulgence."

Imbued with great pride in their ancient roots and their holy lands, and fed by centuries of real and perceived persecution, both Hindutva and strong strands within Zionism today seek to champion a muscular militarized nationalism that is exclusionary to the core and has no place for the un-chosen Other.

No wonder Netanyahu and Modi bonded so well together. It was a meeting of hearts and minds, certainly - between a Hindutva hardliner and a zealous Zionist.