Unless more sane voices prevail, certain faith groups will continue to use religion as a tool of political expediency
Perhaps one of the most troubling legacies of the twentieth century is that of fractious identities. The turbulent socio-political exigencies of a post-colonial world demanded a re-evaluation and often re-configurations of ideas of nationhood. India is still in the process of imagining a unified nation-state in a country with a diverse and layered history. Israel is still trying to develop a coherent idea of what underlies its history and future trajectory as a nation-state.
Both countries face mounting pressure from similar movements, which if left unchecked, can only exacerbate sectarian tensions and prevent any semblance of peace in their respective regions. The argument for re-asserting the rights of a ‘lost civilisation’ is shared both by extreme Zionists as well as advocates of Hindutva. Mark Sofer the Israeli Ambasssador in India, in a recent interview, talked of the ‘awe and admiration in Israel for Indian history, culture and mentality.’ The fact is that there is no one Indian civilisation, culture or mentality. The only people who like to make such claims are those groups that are adamant on propagating their version of a ‘Hindu’ India. Perhaps it is with these groups that some people in Israel have found resonance. The Holy Land is seen by some Zionists as exclusively belonging to the Jews. Similarly the ideological progenitors of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group that provides ideological direction to the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing Hindu nationalist main opposition party, wrote about Christians and Muslims that “they are born in this land, no doubt. But are they true to its salt?…No.”
Perhaps the most crucial similarity between the two movements is the effort to sacralise the nation-state and therefore give it divine sanction. Proponents of Hindutva conceive of India as Bharat Mata, Mother India and therefore deify the nation. Zionism argues that the Torah demands that it is incumbent upon Jews to create a sovereign commonwealth in which the Halakha, or ‘sacred law’ is implemented. Implicit in this sacralisation of the nation-state is the tendency to conflate political opposition with anti-nationalism and therefore ‘anti-Hinduism’ or ‘anti-Semitism.’
This is well illustrated by two examples. In India, the house of the author Arundhati Roy was attacked by BJP women activists demanding that she be tried for sedition for her statements about Kashmir. Roy had stated at a conference that Kashmiris have the right to decide whether they should be independent. Branding this statement as anti-national, the BJP in effect has also accused her of ‘blasphemy’ for she had questioned the very integrity of Bharat Mata. Interestingly when the chief of the RSS blamed the Indian Constitution as the root-cause of India’s ills, no charges of sedition were leveled against him. The recent controversy over whether citizens should swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish State is symptomatic of a similar problem wherein, by conflating the identity of the country with being Jewish, any political opposition effectively becomes twisted into a form of religious opposition. Anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism. Thus, the burden of upholding secularism does not fall upon religious majorities but is borne by religious minorities, in this instance, the Muslims.
The proponents of these ideologies make for strange bed-fellows. One of the first proponents of Hindutva, Veer Savarkar, wrote that ‘the Jews are a brave and intelligent people… although their State looks like a child before our great state of Bharat we must emulate its example.’ Today, members of the RSS, the current flag-bearers of Hindutva, like ex-Deputy Prime Minister Advani, are openly courted by organisations like the American Jewish Committee. It is ironic that one of the founders of the RSS, Golwalkar, openly supported the abhorrent treatment of Jews by the Nazis in order to create a pure Aryan state. Even the structure of the RSS was modeled on the Italian Fascist Organisation and the founders had a particularly warped admiration for the SS. Despite this, the ties between supporters of Hindutva and radical Zionists are surprisingly close.
In a joint conference hosted by the US Indian Political Action Committee, the American Jewish Committee and The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Indian and Israeli officials and US politicians discussed the ‘symbiotic’ and ‘unique’ status of Indo-Jewish relations and the similarity of the problems they faced. Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-New York) articulated the fears of the proponents of Hindutva and radical Zionism succinctly. He stated that the real problem was that Israel was “surrounded by 120 million Muslims” while “India has 120 million.” The newfound comfort between the proponents of these divisive ideologies seems to be more to do with politics than religion.
There are major divides within Judaism and within Hinduism. The RSS and BJP are not representative of all the Hindus. Similarly, right-wing Zionists cannot be representative of all the Jews. However, until more sane voices prevail, groups like these will continue to use religion as a tool of political expediency.