The world is in turmoil. As if the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not enough, it has now been surpassed by the horror of the Israeli military assault on Gaza. Like the rest of the world, Indians are also fixated on the horrific violence and the humanitarian tragedy in West Asia. Many Indian mainstream media organisations have sent their representatives, masquerading as television journalists, to the region. The predictability of their pro-Israel coverage — perhaps following the cue given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the first day — and their apathetic insensitivity to the suffering of the besieged Palestinians are nauseating.
To blame this on the voyeuristic character of the media — the Indian media is manifold more depraved in that department — is to capture only a slice of the truth. More to blame is the desire to shape a narrative which depicts Islam as a breeder of terrorism and Muslims as the group intrinsically disposed towards violence, extremism and terrorism. That description bolsters the Hindutva ideological framework about Islam and Muslims which was employed over the past three decades by the Indian State to initially target Pakistan and, in the last decade, by the current Indian regime to aggressively demonise Kashmiris and Muslim Indians. If Islamist terror is such a major issue for Modi, why did his government forge close diplomatic ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan, a group widely accepted to be a terrorist organisation that killed Indians?
Then there is the Indian right-wing’s fantastical imagination of Israel as a tough security State, which ruthlessly uses its all-powerful intelligence agency, a professional military, and high-end defence technology against its adversaries both inside and outside the country. Why can’t India be like Israel is a question often heard from such manliness-deficient ignoramuses. Because India is not an Israel and doesn’t need to be one. They don’t get that Israel is an artificial construct in a small sliver of land, an insecure entity that has no Constitution or defined borders, and was created for a single persecuted religious community. India, in contrast, is a strong and secure nation with defined boundaries, occupying a major landmass, boasting of the world’s biggest population, and has a written Constitution which doesn’t discriminate among its citizens on religious grounds.
Hindutva ideologues imagine India as an exclusively Hindu nation; many of them now want to render India as a ‘Hindu homeland’ just like Israel identifies itself as a ‘Jewish homeland’. That fits in with the Savarkar-Golwalkar idea of the Hindu rashtra, which, these ideologues hope, can garner strident Western support just like Israel does. Many Hindutva groups in Western countries have started operating along the lines of hardline Jewish groups, imitating their language and tactics of funding and lobbying in these capitals to influence policy and shape government decisions.
Ironically, in seeking parallels with Israel, Hindutva ideologues are echoing the views of the Pakistani military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq. “Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse,” said Zia in 1981. It was not a one-way street. As per Benjamin Pogrund, newly-formed Israel followed post-Partition Pakistan’s lead when it came to taking lands and property of the Palestinians who had lived there before. A decade back, the Israeli intellectual, Bernard Avishai, warned of the choice before his country — to be either “a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.”
Benjamin Netanyahu has made that choice. And that choice is now before 1.4 billion Indians. Unless their country transmogrifies itself into a version of Hindu Pakistan, instead of the secular, liberal, democratic republic that has made it an exception among all post-colonial countries, India cannot be Israel. Pakistan and Israel are historical twins of the twentieth century, artificially created by erstwhile colonial masters on the basis of religion and religious identity. India is not Pakistan. Indians chose a path in 1947 that was opposed to the one chosen by its blighted neighbour. This path served the country well for seven decades. Why would India want to behave like a Hindu Pakistan now?
Zia put the Pakistan army on a path of puritanical Islam, introducing battles and tactics from Islamic mythology in higher military training. The consequences of that change were to be witnessed over the decades. Recently, the Indian army announced Project Udbhav, an initiative to ‘rediscover’ India’s heritage of Statecraft and strategic thought as drawn from ancient Indian texts. A symposium held in Delhi last month declared that it would study ancient Sanskrit and Tamil texts from the 4th century BCE to the 8th century CE, a period before Muslim rulers came to India. This followed the army’s compilation of Indian battlefield stratagems, based on ancient texts, which was issued in 2021. Detailing 75 past aphorisms, Paramparik Bhartiya Darshan… Ranniti aur Netriyta ke Shashwat Niyam (Traditional Indian Philosophy… Eternal rules of warfare and leadership) has been recommended reading for all soldiers.
Even geopolitically, today’s India seems to be fitting in with parallels from Pakistan. In the previous Cold War, the United States of America exploited Zia’s Pakistan as a frontline ally to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Various administrations in Washington DC overlooked Pakistan’s human rights violations, its targeting of religious minorities, the illicit development of nuclear weapons or promotion of violent, majoritarian religious extremism during that period. Currently, India seems to be the courted by the US in its new Cold War against China. Sharing a disputed border with China, India has interests in containing its northern neighbour that converge with American interests. Even as numerous critical reports from reputed global bodies, including from the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom, point to democratic backsliding and ill-treatment of religious minorities in India since 2014, the Biden administration has chosen to look away.
The price for the US indulgence of Pakistan’s misdemeanours in the 1980s has been paid by South Asia for decades, but the biggest sufferers have been the poor people of Pakistan. The US indulges Netanyahu and may do the same with Modi. But it is for Indians to ponder and decide if they wish their country to go down the Pakistan route, either directly or via Israel.
Sushant Singh is lecturer at Yale University and Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi