he Narendra Modi government insists that it is still honoring India’s historical support for Palestinians, even as it continues to try to thwart any pro-Palestinian action among its own citizens.
But many Indians are still standing up and pushing back, arguing that the authorities have crossed the line in attempting to silence those speaking up – and even praying – for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire in Israel’s war with Hamas.
Indeed, just as Israel ended its truce with Hamas and resumed its attacks on Gaza early this month, hundreds of academics, university students, and journalists signed a “Statement of Solidarity with Palestinians and Condemnation of Attacks on Academic Freedom Related to Palestine.” It read in part: “As academics and other concerned persons, we, the undersigned, are outraged at the manner in which discussions on the ongoing war against Palestine are being silenced on Indian campuses, and in the public sphere more broadly. We are issuing this statement to call upon university administrators and the government to respect our academic freedom.”
In November, Indian trade unions also issued a joint statement condemning any plans to have Indian workers replace sacked Palestinian colleagues in Israel. It described Israel’s assault on Gaza as “genocidal” and demanded “an immediate halt to Israeli aggression against Palestine…and that the Palestinian demand for a sovereign homeland be upheld.”
There have been public pro-Palestine protests as well, but most of them were either ordered to cease almost as soon as they began or had participants being hauled off by police. The title of a recent piece by AwaazSouthAsia.com founding editor Nirupama Subramanian captured the current situation perfectly: “Pro-Palestine protests in India: The sentiment exists. Authorities just don’t want you to see it.”
Last Oct. 20, for example, one such protest was organized in Tumkur, a city in the southern state of Karnataka. Yet even though the event had managed to secure police permission, its five organizers were issued an FIR or First Information Report, a basic document in India’s criminal justice system, a few days later.
Tajuddin Sharif, joint secretary of the Association of Civil Rights (APCR) and one of the five accused, says, “The protest was against the bombing of Al-Ahli hospital and to mourn for the dead. Around 11 a.m., a limited number of people gathered and protested peacefully. We were charged with the non-bailable Section 295a.”
Section 295a lays down the punishment for the deliberate and malicious acts that are intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. It is one of India’s hate-speech laws.
At least Sharif and company got to protest. On Oct. 23, around 250 students from different universities tried to stage a demonstration outside the Israel Embassy. But the participants were all detained even before they reached their protest site.
Says student activist Aishe Ghosh: “India has sent aid to the people of Gaza, whereas as an Indian, if you try to show any kind of solidarity toward Palestine, the stance of authorities changes toward you. We have been questioned on the phone by the Intelligence bureau for merely organizing protests, where they asked about the sole purpose of raising our voices for Palestine.”
“I have been trolled and threatened by right wing accounts on the platform X (formerly Twitter), for showing empathy for people of Gaza,” Ghosh adds. “The Israeli ambassador with the help of Indian authorities has made sure that there is no kind of student discussion in the college campuses by intimidating them with FIRs. The nature we have observed is purely Islamophobic from the government.”
History vs. Hindutva
All these are happening in a country that had its founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru against the formation of a Jewish nation-state, as was the leader of India’s independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi. India’s support for the Palestinian cause is in fact “an integral part of its foreign policy,” according to an official Ministry of External Affairs note. In 1974, India became the first non-Arab state to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In 1988, India became one of the first countries to recognize the State of Palestine
“Since its independence, India has always upheld the cause of Palestine, be it any UPA (United Progressive Alliance formed by Indian National Congress) or NDA (National Democratic Alliance formed by the current ruling BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party) government,” remarks Zia Us Salam, an author and social commentator. “India has never moved away from the idea of a free democratic Palestine. Even now our prime minister is tilted on those lines.”
But there has been a significant pivot in this stance under the Modi administration. Us Salam says, “In India now rather than it being a Palestine cause, it has more become an Islamic and non-Islamic cause and decisions are made on those bases, not for the freedom of expression.”
Although Israel has become one of India’s major trade partners, observers like Us Salam say that is not the driving force in Modi’s apparent bias for it.
“It has very little to do with economics and more to do with the ideology of the ruling government at the center,” explains Us Salam. “Hindutva forces have always been close to Zionism in Israel; they regard it as an inspiration. Even in the 1930s, Golwalkar (then the leader of Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) was inspired by the ideas of Hitler and Mussolini. Their support for Israel is perfectly understandable and it has more to do with the BJP and RSS ideology.”
Hindutva, the core ideology of the BJP, asserts that Indian nationalism is inseparable from Hinduism and culture. Many believe that Modi and the rest of the BJP see the Zionist administration of Benjamin Netanyahu as a model worthy of emulation. They say the two governments have similar political motivations and objectives, and are now starting to have similar tactics to achieve their goals, such as the demolition of homes of minorities.
Thus, even a violent conflict outside of India’s borders that is claiming many lives by the day has apparently become a weapon for Hindutva supporters to further their cause. India is now the top source of anti-Palestine and Islamophobic content on X.
The statement from the academic community had pointedly said, “We strongly condemn the hijacking of the Palestine issue to further Islamophobia within India. In all the attacks on campus events on Palestine, we see the Hindutva ecosystem at work – known Hindutva individuals who tweet against the faculty members concerned, groups which organize protests against them on campus, and a pliant media which engages in defamation of the academics as terror supporters.”
Pledges of allegiance?
So far, only a few states have seen huge gatherings and numerous protests regarding Palestine. The southernmost state of Kerala is among them: ruled by the Left Democratic Front, a collective of left-leaning parties under current Chief Minister Pinayari Vijayan, it has been opposing Hindutva politics.
But many of India’s 28 states and eight Union Territories are toeing the BJP line on Palestine – whether or not local authorities belong to the party.
In Uttar Pradesh (UP), which has the largest Muslim population among India’s states, at least four FIRs have already been issued on students of the Aligarh Muslim University over a pro-Palestine protest. UP State Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (BJP) has also directed the police to take “stern action” against actions or social media posts in support of Palestine. A Deccan Herald report said that senior district police officials have been directed as well to make it clear to Muslim clerics that “any attempt to incite passion on social media or a similar call from the religious places will not be tolerated.”
Authorities in Karnataka have acted in a similar way, despite the state being ruled by the opposition Indian National Congress. There, calls for special prayers in mosques have been denied permission by the police, and those who have dared to protest have been issued FIRs. Us Salam says of such local authorities, “Chief ministers of many states are acting like they are pledging their loyalty to the monarch.”
Back in New Delhi, some of the bigger mosques are hosting prayers for Palestine. But Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, spokesperson of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, says that the smaller ones are hesitating to do so after news spread recently that a police officer had told an imam not to pray for Palestine.
Authorities later said that a lone policeman had warned an imam not to do so, and that it was not an order. But after years of Muslims being questioned by the police for the littlest of matters, and being lynched over cows and accused of sedition, some imams may be playing it safe. Moreover, since the Oct. 7 heinous attack of Hamas in Israel on revelers at a music festival and several kibbutzes, police presence has built up around mosques in India during Friday prayers.
“Generally intelligence bureau personnel are present in jama masjid during Friday prayers,” comments Us Salam.
Referring to the infamous warning issued to an imam, he says, “Things like this, they usually pass it as an appeal because nobody would love to get into any legal hassle. (But) I feel these are the pressure tactics used by the government. What they are asking is practically impossible, what someone prays is between him and his god.”
Grocery store keeper Nadeem Khan says that after the news spread about the warning, several mosques skipped prayers for Palestine out of fear of getting into trouble with authorities. But air conditioner technician Nazir Khan says that he has no qualms about praying for Palestine himself. “We have a right to pray, and we will pray,” he says. “They are our Muslim brothers.”
For his part, storekeeper Nadeem says that he has been taking part of a global boycott of Israeli and products for the last several weeks. His stance has cost him money since he is stuck with inventory that he will no longer sell. Nadeem reasons, though,“I feel this is the best I can do because I can’t go there and fight, but can fight where I am.”◉