When Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister ever to set foot in Israel in July 2017, he made a quick stop at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the World Zionist Organization and spiritual father of modern Israel. The 67-year-old placed a small rock on the black marble tomb at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.
On 14 January, Benjamin Netanyahu became the second Israeli prime minister ever to set foot in India. However, he is unlikely to make a similar visit to the Delhi Mahatma Gandhi memorial. For there is no love lost between Israel and India’s founding father.
— Indian Diplomacy (@IndianDiplomacy) January 15, 2018
Gandhi consistently refused to support the Zionist cause in the Middle East. He laid down his vision on the persecution of the Jews in Germany and the call for a national home in Palestine in a 1938 letter to India’s Harijan newspaper.
“My sympathies are all with the Jews,” he wrote. “But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible…”
“The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract,” he explained. “But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs.”
In the following years, at least four Zionist advocates travelled to India in an attempt to make Gandhi change his mind and obtain a more favourable statement from the little big man. In vain.
“In my opinion, they [the Jews] have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism,” he wrote in 1946.
On 30 January, 1948, less than six months after India’s independence, Gandhi was killed at point-blank range by a Hindu extremist. Yet, his views on Palestine would dominate Indian foreign policy for decades to come. Although Delhi recognised the state of Israel as early as 1950, full diplomatic relations were only established in 1992.
In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first ever Israeli prime minister to visit India.
BJP’s rise to power
The improvement in relations between the two nations coincided with the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Established in 1980, the BJP saw its parliamentary presence grow from two seats in 1982 to 120 in 1991 and 182 in 1999.
It did so with a virulently anti-Muslim agenda epitomised by the destruction of the 500-year-old Babri Mosque, which is said to have been built on the exact birthplace of the divine Rama.
Following a decade of stagnation at the turn of the century, the BJP returned to winning ways in the 2014 national elections obtaining an absolute parliamentary majority. When Modi was inaugurated as prime minister in May 2014, Netanyahu was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate him. Immediately, trade boomed.
In the five months following Modi’s election, Israel exported $662m worth of arms, more than the combined total of Israeli exports to India in the three years prior to that.
While Netanyahu must have been pleased with Modi’s visit to Herzl’s grave, the latter will hardly shed a tear over the fact that his Israeli counterpart is not particularly keen on making a stop at the Gandhi memorial. There is little love lost between Modi and Gandhi.
Tellingly, one of the first things Modi did in his capacity as a prime minister was to pay tribute to the portrait of Veer Savarkar, which is situated right opposite that of Gandhi in the central hall of the Indian parliament. It was hung there on the initiative of the BJP in 2003.
Savarkar is a highly controversial figure. He is India’s very own Herzl, who laid down the founding principles of the Hindu nationalist ideology. While Gandhi went to great lengths to secure a secular state, Savarkar defined India as “Hindustan”, the natural home of all Hindus, the country’s original inhabitants since time immemorial.
According to him, Hindus are all people who accept India as both their motherland and holy land. Naturally, the latter is highly problematic for India’s over 200 million Christians and Muslims, who have been present in India for thousands of years, yet whose holiest shrines are found elsewhere.
Strictly speaking, the country’s most famous monument, the Taj Mahal, represents a foreign element that some Hindu extremists claim “should have no place in Indian history”.
But Savarkar is not only Gandhi’s intellectual opposite. Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s killer, was a great admirer and met Savarkar twice in the weeks prior to the assassination.
Numerous people believe Savarkar was the hand and Godse but a hammer. Following the murder, he and thousands of other Hindu nationalists were imprisoned for months, yet a direct link with the crime could not be proven.
Godse was a lifelong member of India’s main Hindu nationalist outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which the BJP is but the political branch. Likewise, Modi and most of his ministers have been a member since childhood.
A Shared vision
Savarkar and Herzl represent two faces of the same coin: an exclusive nationalism based on a very selective, even mythologised reading of the past.
This in turn helps to produce a shared view on the current state of the world, which could not have been formulated in a better way than by the 2003 BJP statement welcoming Sharon to India: “The entire world acknowledges that Israel has effectively and ruthlessly countered terror in the Middle East. Since India and Israel are both fighting a war against terrorism, therefore, we should learn a lesson or two from them.”
Hence, it should hardly come as a surprise that Israel has become one of India’s main arms suppliers. Bilateral trade between the two nations grew from some $200m in 1992, the year full diplomatic relations were established, to over $4bn in 2016, an estimated quarter of which concerned arms.
On 11 January, India agreed to revive talks to spend $500m on Israeli-made anti-tank missiles battle-tested in Gaza in an apparent reversal of a decision to pull out of the deal weeks ago, according to Indian media reports.
And, if it were up to Netanyahu, business between the countries is set to further boom. For he is not traveling alone. With him are the representatives of no less than 102 Israeli firms, including the crème de la crème of the country’s defense industry.
However, while Israel’s Zionists and India’s Hindu nationalists share a similar ideology, Netanyahu will be dreaming to believe their “special relationship” will somehow become a one-dimensional affair.
While Israel is an increasingly lone soul in the state of the world today, India is a huge and complex country that has to consider other foreign and domestic interests. Iran, for example, is a major trading partner, while Delhi will not want to needlessly inflame its muslim neighbour and arch enemy Pakistan.
More importantly, India is a functioning democracy and the country’s 200 million Muslims remain an important voting block. In January, the Hindu nationalists were given a firm warning that an absolute parliamentary majority does not mean a free reign, as they nearly lost the elections in Modi’s home state Gujarat.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that India recently voted against US President Donald Trump’s decision of recognising Jerusalem as capital of Israel.
Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist who lived in Lebanon for 20 years. He was a correspondent for Trouw and De Standaard, and wrote and co-directed the documentary ‘2000 Terrorists’. He regularly travels to India and has a special interest in how 19th-century writers helped shape today’s conceptions of the Orient.