By Girish Linganna
Just hours after Hamas initiated its attack on Israel on October 7, India’s Prime Minister was one of the first global leaders to react. In a strongly worded statement, Narendra Modi condemned the “terrorist attacks” and expressed India’s unwavering support for Israel during this challenging time.
The Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar promptly retweeted the statement. A state minister from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also cautioned in a tweet that India could potentially face a situation similar to what Israel is currently dealing with if it doesn’t confront politically motivated radicalism.
While Modi’s words aligned with the messaging of many Western governments, they signified a shift in India’s stance from its past positions. It took a few days for the foreign ministry to subtly recall India’s longstanding dedication to the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. On Friday, India opted not to support a UN resolution for a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza and chose to abstain from the vote.
For many observers, both Modi’s prompt comments and India’s stance on the UN resolution underline the substantial shift in the India-Israel relationship since his assumption of power in 2014. This transformation is prominently exemplified by the cordial relations between the two countries’ prime ministers.
According to Nicolas Blarel, an associate professor of international relations at Leiden University and author of “The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy,” Modi has consistently expressed support for Israel, but this is the first time there has been an immediate and unbalanced pro-Israel response without a subsequent statement to balance it. Israel seemed to interpret Modi’s statement as strong and unwavering support. Israel’s ambassador, Naor Gilon, expressed gratitude to India for its “100% support” during a conversation with reporters in Delhi last week.
This sentiment wasn’t limited to just the upper levels of the Indian government. Azad Essa, a journalist and the author of “Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel,” noted that this messaging sent a clear signal to the entire right-wing online community in India.
Following the aftermath, Indian internet fact-checking organizations, AltNews and Boom, started noticing a surge of disinformation being spread by Indian social media accounts. This disinformation included fabricated stories about actions attributed to Palestinians and Hamas, which were sometimes shared millions of times. Furthermore, these false narratives often exploited the conflict to promote Islamophobic views, a trend that has been used to marginalize India’s Muslim population since the BJP came into power.
Facebook groups associated with the BJP also began to promote the idea that Hamas represented a similar Muslim threat to what India faced in the troubled, primarily Muslim region of Kashmir. Palestinians were broadly labelled as jihadists. Messages circulated on WhatsApp encouraged Hindus to arm themselves and boycott Muslims, warning that “in the future, India could also face conspiracies and attacks like Israel, and the possibility of cruelty against Hindu women cannot be ruled out.”This narrative also found its way onto some of India’s most provocative news channels. For instance, the right-wing host of India’s Republic TV, told viewers, “The same radical jihadist Islamist terrorist ideology that Israel is a victim of, we are also victims of… Israel is fighting this battle on behalf of all of us.”
The Hindu nationalist groups seemed to respond to this as a call to take action. Recently, these groups gathered outside the Israeli embassy in Delhi, offering their assistance in fighting against Hamas. Among them was Vishnu Gupta, the national president of Hindu Sena, who claimed that he and around 200 men had volunteered to support the Israeli army. He attributed his confidence to the leadership of Narendra Modi. Gupta stated, “We both are victims of Islamic terror, which is why we have been supporting Israel from the beginning.” He drew a parallel between the historical takeover of Jerusalem by Muslims and the invasions of holy places in India by Muslims. He also pointed out the existence of militants in Kashmir supported by Pakistan who could carry out terrorist attacks across India. He emphasized that, unlike some other countries, India is not in the minority in this context.
Historically, India had a different relationship with Israel. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the influential Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi had opposed the establishment of the Israeli state, fearing it would lead to the disenfranchisement of Palestinians. India voted against the creation of Israel at the United Nations. During the 1970s, India made history by becoming the first non-Arab country to acknowledge the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of Palestine. In the 1980s, India extended full diplomatic recognition to the PLO and invited its longstanding leader, Yasser Arafat, for several visits. Throughout this period, India consistently upheld a pro-Palestine stance at the United Nations.
It wasn’t until the PLO initiated dialogue with Israel, under increasing pressure from the United States, that India eventually established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.The turning point occurred in 1999 when India found itself in a conflict with Pakistan, and Israel demonstrated its willingness to provide arms and ammunition. This marked the beginning of a rapidly growing defence relationship. India now annually purchases approximately $2 billion worth of arms from Israel, making it Israel’s largest arms supplier after Russia and accounting for 46% of Israel’s total weapons exports.
However, the election of Narendra Modi marked a significant shift. Previous governments had maintained discreet dealings with Israel, out of concerns about alienating foreign allies and India’s substantial Muslim population. In contrast, Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government had different priorities. In 2017, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, and this was reciprocated when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu travelled to Delhi. The images of the two leaders casually walking barefoot with rolled-up trousers along Haifa beach in Tel Aviv, described as a “budding bromance” by the Indian media at the time, were later used in campaign materials by both leaders.
This narrative conveyed a clear message: that India and Israel, as ancient civilizations, had been disrupted by external influences—implying Muslims—and their leaders had come together, akin to long-lost brothers, to fulfill their shared destiny. The ideological alignment between these two leaders was notably more visible than in the past. The BJP’s ideological roots, as well as its present membership, have long viewed Israel as a model for the religious nationalist state, often referred to as the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ that the Indian right-wing seeks to establish.
Although Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Ramallah in Palestine, his government has primarily focused on enhancing relations with Israel, spanning areas such as defence, culture, agriculture, and even film production. Notably, this year, Gautam Adani, the influential Indian billionaire with close ties to Modi, invested $1.2 billion to acquire the strategic Israeli port of Haifa.
Nevertheless, Modi’s foreign policy has also overseen a transformation in relations with Arab Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. These relationships have brought significant economic benefits to India and have laid the groundwork for a pioneering India-Middle East economic trade corridor, extending all the way to Europe. Although this corridor was announced at the G20 forum for international economic cooperation this year, it has yet to be realized.
Should the Israeli-Hamas conflict continue to intensify, experts suggest that India may adjust its pro-Israeli stance to prevent tensions with its important Gulf partners. Alvite Singh Ningthoujam, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Delhi, mentioned that there has been a “calculated silence” from the Indian government since Modi’s initial comments. He also noted that while Modi is comfortable condemning cross-border terrorism, if the conflict escalates and other countries with which his government has relationships become involved, it will pose a significant challenge for India. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)