Sometime this year, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is slated to visit Israel, making him the first sitting Indian prime minister to do so. The event, which will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries, will be enormously significant—more for what it signals than the trade and military agreements that will inevitably come from it. It will mean the end of the India that led the Non-Aligned Movement, and mark the climax of a new type of Indian nationalism. There have been signs of the coming rapprochement in the populace for some time now, such as in August 2014, when a reported 20,000 people took to the streets of Kolkata to protest in support of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, holding signs saying Hindus and Jews—united against terrorism. Still, the symbolism of the upcoming visit is unprecedented.
This shift in Indian foreign policy isn’t entirely unexpected. In the increasingly unipolar world that came into being after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ties of third worldism that held together the Non-Aligned Movement, already slack, began to fray irremediably. And with the advent of the “war on terror,” much of the Indian defense establishment shifted toward a friendlier policy toward Israel and America. There were geopolitical reasons for this: as an extension of its conflict with Pakistan, India has a massive diplomatic and intelligence presence in Afghanistan, where its embassy has been bombed twice. And as talks of divestment and boycotts resound in Europe, Israel has been turning toward China and the rest of Asia for future capital. India, in turn, looks to Israel not for capital, but for expertise in low-cost infrastructure and high-tech development.
These economic ties are secured by more than economic agreements. The perception of both Israel and India having a common enemy in Islamic terrorism colors much of their relationship, and the past five years have seen transformations in both countries that have brought them together and caused them to shape each other in multiple ways that go beyond the purely instrumental.
Part of the convergence of both countries has to do with their drastic changes in political orientation in the last three decades or so. Nominally committed in their founding to some form of socialism, both are now paragons of neoliberalism, characterized by continued inequality and the consolidation of oligarchy. Religious revanchism—rightwing Zionism and Hindu nationalism—has accompanied, even galvanized, the attack on institutions of welfare and mechanisms of redistribution.
The rightward drift of both India and Israel—two countries that routinely describe themselves as “the world’s largest democracy” and “the only democracy in the Middle East”—is a problem that continually arises for political scientists to “solve.” One of the more recent attempts is Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation, where the philosopher and former Dissent editor attempts to explain why, not long after very sincere secular national liberation movements came to power in both countries, they were replaced by religious reactionary movements opposed to secularism. (Walzer also discusses Algeria, but his focus is on the Indian and Israeli experience.) In other words: Israel and India went through parallel paths, at roughly the same time, and appear to be reaching the same outcome.
Walzer argues that secular liberationists, by campaigning to end traditional societies, produced a categorical rejection of secular values, rather than a synthesis that incorporated both secularism and tradition. Perturbed by the fact that “the dialectic doesn’t seem to be working these days the way it used to,” Walzer concludes that left-liberals ought to stop trying to negate, abolish, or ban traditionalist worldviews—indeed, “they have to be engaged.” “Giving up negation doesn’t mean acceptance,” Walzer says, as he lays out his program for a productive discourse to combat religious nationalism, “it means, again, intellectual and political engagement.” Essential to this view is the idea that there is a radical difference between the secular liberation movements and the religious reactions that followed them. In Israel, India and Algeria, Walzer writes, “their original commitments, their political programs, were significantly different from those of the religious nationalists who came later.” This argument is an attempt to counter various Marxist and postcolonialist critiques, which hold that states like India and Israel, despite the claims of their early leaders, never really were secular.
An entirely different argument can be found in the Oxford historian Faisal Devji’s recent book Muslim Zion. There Devji makes the powerful argument that Israel bears deep structural similarities to India’s national twin, Pakistan. For Devji, the two countries are homologous—rooted in the same formative ideology and born out of the same historical moment. Israel and Pakistan have a common origin in the national projects of the 19th century, and each was founded on a conception of a shared ancestral relation to a homeland. And in each case, the divisions between nation and minority were seen to be intractable, and new national homelands had to be imagined. But the relation of the two states runs deeper than that: The foundation of Pakistan decoupled India from the politics of British colonial holdings in the Middle East, and was cited as precedent in the UN General Assembly for the founding of Israel a year later (to the chagrin of Pakistan’s representative).
Like Walzer, Devji finds a paradox at the center of these nationalist movements. The Jewish nationalism that led to the state of Israel and the Muslim nationalism that led to the foundation of Pakistan were formulated with the presumption that empires were lasting. The Aga Khan III, the first president of the All-India Muslim League, petitioned the Turkish sultan asking for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine within the Ottoman Empire. (The Aga Khan was influenced by Jews who had fled Russian pogroms in the late 19th century.)1 But these movements only came to fruition not as “national homelands” inside an empire, but as “nation states” once the British colonial system collapsed. This temporal lag dissolved the imperial and international identities Jews and Muslims had developed in favor of national and religious identities to which they had only a tenuous connection. The effects can be seen in the tragicomic decades-long court battle that followed Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s death—a year into Pakistan’s independence—over his property, in which the High Court of Sindh tried to discern which Islamic sect the founder of Pakistan actually belonged to.
By linking Israel and Pakistan, the perspective on national liberation and partition changes dramatically. The foundational moment in the counter-narrative is not the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, but the demographic fights around separate electorates that culminated in the Poona Pact of 1932, when Gandhi threatened to fast to death unless Dalits—people of the oppressed castes—were included in the general Hindu polls, rather than be given special protections like Muslims. From that moment on, an emergent Hindu majority would control the electoral politics of India. This situation was further solidified after Independence, when the Muslims remaining in India lost the separate electorates created under the British Raj. In the first past the post electoral system of India, this meant an effective effacement of Muslim political power in favor of “secular” national democracy. National independence is as much about forming a majoritarian ideology as it is about independence from colonial rule.
What is also clear is that many of the people who make up the political and cultural organizations that Walzer calls “religious reactionaries” are not especially religious. For these movements, religion is a flexible, functional category. It has real value as a shibboleth: calls to build new temples on the sites of the Babri Masjid and the Dome of the Rock are made in sincerity. But at important political junctures it often takes a back seat.
Walzer consciously glosses over the influence of the million or so Soviet immigrants to Israel after 1989. This group, shaped by simultaneous inclusion and exclusion in the Soviet system, tends to be fiercely atheistic, reflexively modern, and also the strongest supporters of a Jewish ethno-nationalist state that excludes Muslims. This is the group that propelled Avigdor Lieberman—who campaigned on the slogan “No loyalty, no citizenship”—to become minister of foreign affairs in 2009. If secular liberalism was never quite what secular liberals made it out to be, neither is religious nationalism. What makes the so-called “religious reactionaries” in India and Israel so powerful is that they do not propose a purely theocratic state.
On the Hindu nationalist side, we find many of the people who would normally be lumped together under the catchall “Hindutva” in a similar position. It is important to take the stories these people tell about themselves seriously, and—given the nature of nationalism—many of their stories will consciously be told in a language other than English. On the eve of Modi’s visit to Israel, Indians are talking seriously about Israel and Jewish nationalism in all sorts of Indian languages. Today, more Indians and Israelis are meeting each other in the crucible of the global diaspora, and Hindu nationalist groups are noticing. They have started to seriously grapple with the Jewish and Zionist experience in a complex and intimate manner.
Hindu nationalists have long looked to Jewish nationalists for inspiration, albeit in a haphazard fashion. Atal Bihari Vajpeyi, who visited Israel in the 1960s before he became the BJP prime minister of India, wanted to have his poetry translated into Hebrew, and his right-hand man L.K. Advani has often been known to quote from Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1985 book Terrorism: How the West Can Win. V.D. Savarkar, the man who coined the term “Hindutva,” simultaneously praised Zionism and German National Socialism—both forms of Mazzinian ethnonationalism he found attractive—and declared to the February 1956 meeting of the Hindu Mahasabha, “If tomorrow there breaks out a war between Pakistan and Bharat [i.e. India], almost all Muslims will be arrayed on the side of Pakistan in opposition to us, and their enemy Israel will be our only friend. Therefore I say that Bharat should give unequivocal recognition to Israel.”
Compared with these initial forays, contemporary Hindu nationalist attempts to make sense of Jewish nationalism are much deeper and more systematic. Of the twenty-one Sanskrit biographies the international Sanskrit revival organization Samskrita Bharati publishes, one stands out from the rest. Amidst hagiographies of the expected national heroes Adi Shankara, Chadragupta Maurya, Tukaram, and Swami Vivekananda, is a slender 167-page Sanskrit book about a European, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew. The book—Bhuvamānītā Bhagavadbhāṣā—was written by H.R. Vishwasa, the chief of publishing of Samskrita Bharati (SB), and in this, the diasporic phase of print capitalism, is available anywhere in the continental United States in 8-10 business days for the low price of $10 plus $6 shipping and handling.
Founded in 1981 as a wing of the Hindu Seva Pratishthana—a Bangalore-based organization affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the largest Hindu nationalist cultural organization—Samskrita Bharati was spun off and reorganized in the mid-’90s as it incorporated a number of other Sanskrit revival organizations across India. After Modi’s election in 2014, both the goals and the methods of SB have been integrated into mainstream education goals. Krishna Shastry, the founder and leader of SB, currently acts as a senior consultant on language to the Human Resource Development Ministry, and his method of teaching Sanskrit is being introduced in Kendriya Vidyalayas—schools run for the children of central government employees.
Samskrita Bharati walks a thin line between tradition and modernity: their beginners’ learning camps teach a simplified version of the language, focusing on words to use in a corporate setting, while they also sponsoring traditional competitions and displays of Sanskrit knowledge. Some criticize their modern Sanskrit as inauthentic, but SB helps neutralize this criticism by generating money for more traditional pandits, publishing their work and hosting traditional conferences and competitions. Though it supports a few Sanskrit-speaking villages in Karnataka, SB mostly aims its efforts at an urban, white-collar middle class. Sanskrit is seen as a way to access tradition, but it is not mired in the past.
The logic of printing a Sanskrit biography of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is part of a larger program to divest Sanskrit of its associations with a dead past. “Hebrew was a dead language till 1880 but today it is the official language of Israel,” Krishna Shastry told the magazine India Today in 1999. “If the Jews could revive Hebrew why can’t we resuscitate Sanskrit?”
The reader of Bhuvamānītā Bhagavadbhāṣā is invited to draw multiple sets of comparisons: between Hebrew and Sanskrit, India and Israel, Hindus and Jews. H.R. Vishwasa writes, “There are many similar parts in the path of revival of Hebrew and Sanskrit. These parts become evident with the careful reading of this little story.” As a new Sanskrit book that circulates globally, it creates the condition that it points to, and by doing so, provides a guide for both how Sanskrit should be written in the modern world, and how and where it should be used through the invocation of Zionism as a model. In so doing, Sanskrit and Hebrew are both cast as modernizing languages, able to produce a new type of homogenizing social equality, while redrawing the boundaries of who can count within the social.
The text engages the Jewish experience deeply but also uses it for its symbolic value. It is close enough and sufficiently distant from the Hindu experience to render it a powerful analogy. The Hebrew and Yiddish words of European Jewish experience are not transliterated—they are fully translated into Sanskrit. “Rabbis” become yahūdya-dharma-gurus, “daven” becomes pūjādi, and “synagogues” and “shuls” become prārthanā-mandiras. There are only a few times when Vishwasa finds it necessary to gloss Hebrew ritual words, but when he does, he does not simply explain them, but draws parallels between them and Hindu ritual words: Ben-Yehuda is described as having a “bar mitzvah” but it is glossed as “upanayana-saṁskāra-sadṛśaḥ,” that is, something that is similar to the Upanayana saṃskāra. Each of these phrases has deep connotations for a Hindu audience, and the foreignness and uniqueness of Judaism is erased to render Judaism understandable and relatable. The author never breaks free of a strictly Sanskritic Hindu lexicon, referring in the introduction to Hebrew by Sanskrit’s usual epithet: the language of the gods (devānāṁ bhāṣā). What is in many ways the distinguishing mark of Jews—their monotheism—is thus glossed over and replaced with the Hindu worldview, allowing the Jewish experience to be fully integrated into the Hindu one. Judaism becomes a screen on which to project Hindu experiences, while Israel becomes a model to be followed in forming a new type of nation grounded in a pre-colonial culture.
This is a type of Hindu nationalism that looks to Zionism for inspiration, but not merely the later Zionism of Menachem Begin or Benjamin Netanyahu. Rather, it looks to the earliest days of pre-state Zionism, a Zionism that was explicitly anti-religious. The story is remarkable because it records Ben-Yehuda’s markedly heretical path to Jewish nationalism. We follow Ben-Yehuda as he is kicked out of Jewish institution after Jewish institution for profaning a sacred language. While Walzer makes a comparison between early Zionism and early Indian nationalism and between contemporary Zionism and contemporary Hindutva, certain contemporary Hindu nationalists see much in common with early Zionists. Religion as a category flows in and out of the picture depending on its usefulness in a new vision of the world.
Hindu nationalism is increasingly convergent with Jewish nationalism, exchanging structures and ideas, accelerating the course of its own transformations. While the modern states of Israel and India both vigorously enforce their national borders (at the same time remaining unclear as to the actual extent of those borders), they look beyond their own borders for the contours of their respective nationalisms, which ebb and flow across transnational networks, and are then reshaped to fit local circumstances. As the countries move closer together diplomatically, their citizens are drawing connections in an ever-tighter web, and creating organizations to accelerate those interactions.
An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to “Jews who had escaped the horrors of Europe in the early 19th century.” ↩