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A group of Indian men wearing white shirts and holding flags marching in unison.
Volunteers of the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh take part in a march in Chennai, India, on April 26 2023. Idrees Mohammed / EPA

India: why Hindu nationalism and Zionism are ideological cousins

The results are in for India’s general election. The country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has won enough seats to stay in charge for a third consecutive term. But his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suffered big setbacks, and is gearing up for coalition talks having failed to win an outright majority for the first time in ten years.

The BJP is premised on Hindutva, a Hindu nationalist ideology. Devised in the early 20th century, the politics of Hindutva insist that the country’s national identity be built around those who consider only India’s geography sacred. Muslims and Christians, whose holy sites lay in the Middle East, were therefore considered second-class citizens.

Modi foregrounded Hindutva in his election campaign. He falsely accused the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, of basing their manifesto on the ideology of the Muslim League, the party that championed the partition of India in 1947. And he weaponised demographic anxieties around marginally higher Muslim fertility rates to claim that the opposition planned to redistribute wealth to “infiltrators” who “have more children”.

But Hindutva doesn’t stop at India’s borders. Hindu nationalists have used the ongoing conflict in Gaza to vilify other Muslims globally. BJP troll farms have spread disinformation and anti-Palestinian hatred online, and Hindu nationalist groups in India have organised pro-Israel marches.

Read more: Explainer: what are the origins of today's Hindu nationalism?

Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu facing each other on a stage in front of Indian and Israeli flags.
Modi addressing the press with Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, Israel, in 2021. YashSD/Shutterstock

Where does this curious Hindutva-Zionist solidarity spring from? One origin is from the earliest Hindu nationalists who modelled their Hindu state on Zionism.

Hindutva’s founder, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, supported majoritarian nationalism and the rooting out of all disintegrating forces. These included Muslims who supported electoral quotas for their community and left-wing internationalists.

As a result, he even condoned the Nazis’ antisemitic legislation in two speeches in 1938 because, as he saw it: “a nation is formed by a majority living therein”. Yet Savarkar was not antisemitic himself. He often spoke favourably of the tiny Jewish-Indian minority because he considered it too insignificant to threaten Hindu cohesion.

In fact, Savarkar praised Zionism as the perfection of ethno-nationalist thinking. The way Zionism seamlessly blended ethnic attachment to a motherland and religious attachment to a holy land was precisely what Savarkar wanted for the Hindus. This double attachment was far more powerful to his mind than the European model of “blood and soil” nationalism without sacred space.

Today, Hindu nationalists perpetuate this legacy and still look to Zionism as a uniquely attractive political ideology. To Hindu nationalists, some Zionists were engaged in a project to reclaim their holy land from a Muslim population whose religious roots in the region were not as ancient as their own.

In a similar way, Hindutva’s supporters saw it as engaged with a Muslim population that it vastly outnumbered, but which had significant cultural power. This power came through the Mughal dynasty that ruled much of India from 1526 to the establishment of the British Raj in the 19th century.

This idea was further popularised by Savarkar’s ideological successor, Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar. In 1947, Golwalkar wrote that Zionism was the “attempt at rehabilitating Palestine with its ancient population of the Jews … to reconstruct the broken edifice and revitalise the practically dead Hebrew national life”.

Delegitimising Muslim citizens

Just as the Palestinians had to make way for those whose claims of ancient sacred space took primacy, so too, in Golwalkar’s view, did “non-Hindu people of Hindusthan” have to be “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation”. Part of this process today has been redefining citizenship.

In 2018, Israel passed a law that rebranded the country as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” and delegitimised its non-Jewish citizens. Similarly, India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 eased paths to citizenship for immigrants from several religious groups, but not Muslims.

Coupled with rhetoric associating millions of Indian Muslims with illegal immigration, human rights groups argue that this law could be used to strip many Muslims of their Indian citizenship.

Read more: India election: how Narendra Modi's BJP uses and abuses religious minorities for political purposes

Hindu nationalists have also stoked a culture war to consolidate “Hindu civilisation” and sweep away symbols of Islam. This is very much in keeping with the wish of Israel’s far right to rebuild Solomon’s Temple on the site of the holy Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where al-Aqsa mosque compound currently sits.

In 1969, a Zionist extremist burned the south wing of al-Aqsa. And in 1980, the fundamentalist group Jewish Underground plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine at the centre of the compound.

A gold-domed mosque sitting on top of a hill in Jerusalem.
The al-Aqsa mosque compound on Temple Mount, Jerusalem. udra11/Shutterstock

A similar project of demolishing mosques and building temples in their place was suggested by Savarkar and Golwalkar. Hindu nationalist organisations focused their attention on Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodha, since this was the mythical birthplace of the Hindu god, Ram.

The co-founder of BJP, Lal Krishna Advani, led a national campaign in 1990 to build a new temple – a proposal that had been prohibited by the Indian supreme court for decades. But the fervour the campaign unleashed resulted in a Hindu nationalist mob demolishing Babri Masjid mosque in 1992. And after a new Indian supreme court ruling in 2019 gave permission, a temple was built on the site of the destroyed mosque, and inaugurated by Modi with great ceremony in January 2024.

Read more: In opening a Hindu temple on the site of a former mosque, Narendra Modi is following an old Hindu nationalist ploy

A few months later, in May 2024, Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir declared from al-Aqsa mosque compound that a Palestinian state would never exist. As he did so, his entourage prayed illegally on the contested site of the Temple Mount.

As Hindu prayers are offered from the site of the demolished Babri Masjid, hundreds of other mosques in India now find themselves under threat. Hindu nationalists are petitioning courts to deliver land administered by Islamic trusts to the majority Hindu community.

As Modi embarks on a third term, he may look to complete the task of making India an exclusive Hindu holy land – albeit with a more powerful opposition than before.

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