Just a few hours after Hamas launched its assault on Israel, India’s prime minister was among the first world leaders to respond. In a strongly worded statement, Narendra Modi condemned the “terrorist attacks” and said India “stands in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour”.
The Indian foreign minister retweeted the comment almost instantly. Another state minister from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) warned in a tweet that India “may face the situation that Israel is confronting today if we don’t stand up against politically motivated radicalism”.
Though Modi’s words chimed with the messaging of most western governments, for India they marked a departure from the past. It was not until a few days later that the foreign ministry quietly reminded the public of India’s historical commitment to the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
On Friday, India was among the countries that did not back a UN resolution for a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza, instead choosing to abstain.
For many, the immediacy of Modi’s comments and the UN resolution vote symbolises just how significantly the India-Israel relationship has shifted since he came to power in 2014, notably demonstrated by the public bonhomie between the two countries’ prime ministers.
Nicolas Blarel, associate professor of international relations at Leiden University and author of The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy, said: “Modi’s position has been openly supportive of Israel but this is the first time that you had an immediate pro-Israel reaction without a balancing statement that immediately follows it up.”
Israel appeared to take Modi’s statement as unequivocal backing. Speaking to reporters in Delhi last week, Israel’s ambassador, Naor Gilon, thanked the country for “100% support”.
Yet it was not a sentiment restricted only to the upper echelons of Indian government. As Azad Essa, a journalist and author of Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, said: “This messaging gave a clear signal to the whole rightwing internet cell in India.”
‘We both are victims of Islamic terror’
In the aftermath, the Indian internet factcheckers AltNews and Boom began to observe a flood of disinformation targeting Palestine pushed out by Indian social media accounts, which included fake stories about atrocities committed by Palestinians and Hamas that were shared sometimes millions of times, and often using the conflict to push the same Islamophobic narrative that has been used regularly to demonise India’s Muslim population since the BJP came to power.
BJP-associated Facebook groups also began to push the message that Hamas represented the same Muslim threat facing India in the troubled, majority-Muslim region of Kashmir and Palestinians were sweepingly branded as jihadis.
Messages widely forwarded on WhatsApp urged Hindus to arm themselves and boycott Muslims, reading: “In the future, India could also face conspiracies and attacks like Israel. The possibility of Hindu women facing cruelty cannot be ruled out.”
The same narrative also made its way on to some of India’s most inflammatory news channels, with Arnab Goswami, the rightwing firebrand presenter on India’s Republic TV, telling viewers: “The same radical jihadist Islamist terrorist thinking that Israel is a victim of, we are a victim of as well … Israel is fighting this war on behalf of all of us.”
Some Hindu nationalist groups appeared to heed this as a call to arms. Last week, groups gathered outside the Israeli embassy in Delhi, offering their services to fight Hamas. Among them was Vishnu Gupta, 58, the national president of Hindu Sena, who said he was among 200 men who had volunteered for the Israeli army, adding that his confidence had been boosted by Modi.
“We both are victims of Islamic terror, that is why we have been supporting Israel from the beginning,” said Gupta. “Just like Jerusalem was overtaken by Muslims, holy places in India were also invaded by Muslims. Like Hamas, there are militants from Kashmir supported by Pakistan who would carry terror attacks across India. The only fortunate thing about us is that we are not in the minority.”
Historically, India had a very different relationship with Israel. Its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the influential Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi had opposed the creation of an Israeli state, fearing it would disfranchise Palestinians, and India voted against it at the UN.
India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the legitimate representative of Palestine in the 1970s, giving the group full diplomatic status in the 1980s and inviting PLO’s long-serving leader Yasser Arafat to visit several times, and consistently maintained a pro-Palestine position at the UN. It was only after the PLO began a dialogue with Israel, and as US pressure began to build, that India finally established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992.
Potential friction with India’s valuable Gulf partners
A turning point came in 1999 when India went to war with Pakistan and Israel proved willing to provide arms and ammunition. It was the beginning of a defence relationship that has grown exponentially. India buys about $2bn-worth of arms from Israel every year – its largest arms supplier after Russia – and accounts for 46% of Israel’s overall weapons exports.
But it was the election of Modi that marked a fundamental sea change. While previous governments had kept their dealings with Israel largely quiet, due to concerns of alienating foreign allies and its own vast Muslim population, Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government had very different priorities.
In 2017, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, which was reciprocated months later when Netanyahu travelled to Delhi. The images of the pair strolling barefoot with their trousers rolled up along Haifa beach in Tel Aviv, described by Indian media at the time as a “budding bromance”, were later used by both leaders in campaign material.
Essa said: “The narrative they were pushing was clear: that India and Israel are these ancient civilisations that had been derailed by outsiders – which means Muslims – and their leaders have come together, like long-lost brothers, to fulfil their destiny.”
The ideological alignment between the two leaders was certainly more apparent than in the past. The BJP’s ideological forefathers, and its rank and file today, have long regarded Israel as a model for the religious nationalist state, referred to as the Hindu Rashtra, that the Hindu rightwing in India hope to establish.
While Modi was also the first Indian prime minister to visit Ramallah in Palestine, much of the focus of his government has been on strengthening ties with Israel, be it through defence, culture, agriculture and even film-making. This year, Gautam Adani, the Indian billionaire businessman seen to be close to Modi, paid $1.2bn to acquire the strategic Israeli port of Haifa.
Nonetheless, Modi’s foreign policy has also overseen a transformation in ties with Arab Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which has been of great financial benefit to India and laid the foundation for a groundbreaking India-Middle East economic trade corridor, running all the way to Europe, which was announced at the G20 forum for international economic cooperation this year but has yet to be built.
While the Gulf has also been working to normalise ties with Israel, analysts said should the Israeli-Hamas conflict continue to escalate, it was likely that India would quieten its pro-Israeli stance to prevent friction with its valuable Gulf partners.
Alvite Singh Ningthoujam, a fellow at Middle East Institute in Delhi, said since Modi’s initial comments, there had been a “calculated silence” from the government.
“While Modi is comfortable making statements that condemn cross-border terrorism, if this conflict escalates, and other countries that his government has relationships with get involved, it will be a big test for India,” he said.