Warnings of rising fascism have emanated from India for years as the Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, movement under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unleashed escalating religious and caste-based violence in “the world’s largest democracy.” Throughout, India’s fascists have found a fellow traveler, a collaborative partner, and a state model to emulate in Israel’s ethno-nationalist apartheid regime. How deep does the India-Israel relationship go? And how can Hindu and Jewish progressives be part of the solution? Aparna Gopalan joins The Marc Steiner Show to discuss her explosive investigation for Jewish Currents, “The Hindu Nationalists Using the Pro-Israel Playbook.”
Aparna Gopalan is the news editor at Jewish Currents.
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino, David Hebden
Post-Production: David Hebden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to another edition of The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. Good to have you all with us. And as many of you know, we have two series rolling. One is, Not In Our Name, which is conversations with mostly Jews from across the globe saying no to the occupation and the Farrah government in Israel, and The Rise of the Right, which looks at the rise of the right-wing and neo-fascism nationally and globally and what we can do about it. Well, today’s conversation is like an intertwining of those two themes. I’m sitting down with Aparna Gopalan, who was a news editor at Jewish Currents and wrote an article for them called “The Hindu Nationalists Using the Pro-Israel Playbook.”
Now, this is a strange but not surprising synergy between Israel and India, the rise of neo-fascist movements in both countries, both of whom have far-right governments now, both having important diasporic communities in this country in the US, both countries with deep alliances with the US, and the ties between India and Israel are deepening as they become two of the most oppressive right-wing governments on the planet. So we’re going to look at all that. And so one of the questions I had reading this article and I’ve been thinking about a lot is how did two peoples who lived under oppression, who fought for liberation, be represented by such far-right governments and movements now?
In her article, Aparna Gopalan tackles the complex issue with depth and clarity. She’s the news editor of Jewish Currents, she’s a social anthropologist PhD candidate at Harvard University, and editor at In These Times and Boston Review before and was the lead organizer of the Harvard Graduate Students Union. And Aparna, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Aparna Gopalan: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Marc Steiner: So when you look at the rise and the power of the right-wing world on our planet at the moment, everywhere, you can’t look at any nation on the planet or anything in our own country here in the US where you don’t see the rise of the right. So I was thinking as I was reading your piece, what your analysis is about how in India and in Israel both, the rise of the right has taken over. And what that dynamic was that allowed both peoples rising out of oppression, throwing off yokes of colonialism, post-Holocaust but clearly there’s a lot of complexity there and led to this moment of Modi in India and the right-wing government in Israel. How do you explain that?
Aparna Gopalan: That’s an interesting question. Post-2016 in this country, there was a lot of interest in looking at all the right-wing regimes across the world and talking about how all of them are coming up at the same time. But I feel like this story, with regards to India at least, and also with regards to Israel and other places is much longer. So in India, the right-wing movement that I’m looking at started in the 1920s with European fascism. So there were these right-wing leaders who were visiting Italy under Mussolini and who were visiting Nazi Germany. And they were learning, they were reading Hitler and Mussolini’s writings and they were learning this ideology of racial pride and how to articulate it and what movement to build. And they were looking at the successes of European fascism and thinking we want to build something like that.
And that is the movement that is in power today in India that has finally, after a hundred years, won political office, they have taken over the judiciary, they’ve taken over the executive branch and they’re making laws. And so in some sense, this is a fruition of a very long-standing effort that has been on pause at different moments. So during the independence struggle, for example, there was a very strong push to create a Hindu India that came out of British independence but it was foiled by secular forces which were stronger at that moment. And that kept happening throughout the history of modern India, that there was a Hindu right push and there was a balancing force. And what’s happened recently since the 1990s is that the balancing force has gone away or has weakened. And the Hindu right force has become so strong because they have systematically in a very grassroots fashion, something that we need to look at and learn from.
They’ve built a ground game and so they have branches in every village, in every small town, and they are going and talking to people, they’re doing the things that we on the left say we want to be doing. It’s reaching everyday people, working people. They’ve done that and they’ve done that for decades. And so right now, what’s happening in India is the most complete success of fascism. It’s in some sense, unlike what was happening in the US because people would say Trump doesn’t represent the working man or whatever. And maybe to some extent that was true but in India, Modi does represent the working man. They truly have built it from the ground up. So that’s what’s very terrifying about it. And I feel like that long history is important to understand, to contend with what’s happening,
Marc Steiner: The movement, and if I mispronounce this, please correct my pronunciation, Hindutva, is that right? Hindutva, which is a larger right-wing sensibility and movement in India. But when you look at the history and you know that it was a Hindutva activist who assassinated Gandhi, right? And now they’re in power. And if thought about the parallels with the US that the right wing in this country has been organizing intensely since the early seventies and built the power that they have where they control 26 states in our country now, literally, growing power. It’s similar to what happened in India. What you were describing about how they amassed this power over the years with the fall of the Congress party and what was left in India, which seems to have dissipated.
Aparna Gopalan: Precisely. Yeah. To whatever extent there was a left in India, the Congress party, which is the secular party that opposes Modi’s BJP, the Congress party has done its share to crush the left in India for many decades since independence. So they have been arresting [communists] and they have been crushing unions and they’ve been taking over tribal land and doing development work on it. And they’ve been doing that for so long that they’ve erased any base that we would have for a working-class movement. And then the far-right, Hindutva, comes in and takes advantage of that. So it’s not unlike what’s happening in this country where the Democrats, they waffle and they don’t go far enough and they make it impossible for working people to organize. And of course, who takes advantage of that, but the far-right. So it’s a very similar dynamic.
Marc Steiner: As I was reading the pieces you wrote and some of the attachments that you linked to, the question is when you look at India now and look at the power India has and the growing relationship between the US government, Israel, and India in this weird triad that’s taking place, that’s taking on, a, the Muslim world, but also taking on the post-communist world as well. So let’s talk a bit about those roots and how you see that playing out in India in terms of the population and the people’s political attitudes.
Aparna Gopalan: Yeah, a lot of the geopolitical strategy that’s involved in this alliance is coming out of 9/11, like you mentioned, taking on the Muslim world, but some of it actually predates that. So this is an excellent book that I cite in my piece extensively by this journalist called Azad Essa, the book is called Hostile Homelands, and it’s about India and Israel’s relationship over the decades starting in the twenties and all the way down to now. And India actually used to be one of the most pro-Palestine forces in the world standing with the colonized people. And that changed in the ’70s and ’80s, and especially the ’90s when India realizes that, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, we want to be closer to the US. To be closer to the US, we have to be closer to Israel, we cannot be anti-Israel or we won’t be allowed into the US’s orbit.
And that’s when this switch happens of inviting Israeli leaders to India, going to Israel, having these trade deals, and there’s a weapons boom in India, basically, India’s buying weapons and frantically expanding their military. They’re doing nuclear tests and Israel is, of course, key to a lot of that. And so that’s the moment at which the partnership intensifies. And it comes to a head, I talk about in my piece, around 2005 when India wants to be exempted from nuclear non-proliferation across the world. They want to develop nukes and nobody else is doing that and they want the blessing of the US to do that. And who helps them achieve that goal is the Jewish lobby in Washington. So there are leaders from the American Jewish Committee, there are leaders from APAC who are writing op-eds, who are writing letters, who are giving informal advice to their Indian Hindu nationalist counterparts to help them secure this nuclear deal.
There are actually certain members of the India caucus in the US Congress who are longstanding Jewish lobby members as well and they go and talked to President Bush at the time and they convince him that we need India to be strong to counter Pakistan and to shore up the whole area. And then India wins this nuclear deal which is a game-changing win for India. And it changes the dynamic in the subcontinent altogether and flexes the muscle. And who’s behind that is Jewish groups in the US. So the partnership has this geopolitical root and it’s only growing. India and Israel have arms deals worth billions of dollars now. And we saw Modi visiting Washington recently and the welcome he got here matches the welcome he’s getting when he goes to Israel. So that’s the answer to the question of why is this happening.
In terms of the political attitudes of everyday people, I don’t know that everyday people are saying we need to buy arms from Israel or we need to develop nukes. That’s not how they’re being pulled in. They’re being pulled in with this question of national pride. Are you proud to be a Hindu and we’re going to do you proud on a global stage? The way that Modi marketed his US visit to India is incredible. If you were in India, if you were reading a newspaper there, you would think that no other political leader in the history of the world has ever been welcomed to the US the way that Modi has. No one else has ever had a state dinner, no one else has ever walked on a red carpet. So I feel like that marketing campaign is being done well and it’s a year ahead of India’s general election next year. So it’s all very strategically done but I don’t think everyday people are as invested in the actual defense goals as in being proud Hindus or something.
Marc Steiner: So after reading your piece, what I was thinking about is how you analyze the importance and depth of the Israeli-Indian relationship and what that means for the future, but also how it plays out here. Because Indians are the second largest diasporic group in the US, immigrant group in the country. The ties between the right-wing parts of the Indian community, and right-wing parts of the Jewish community are intense in this country. Much of it builds around anti-Muslim fervor. So I’m curious how you analyze that in terms of what all that portends both internationally and here in our country.
Aparna Gopalan: Yeah, this is one of the things working at Jewish Currents, we’ve as an outlet, Jewish Currents covers the dangers of the pro-Israel playbook in the US. And I feel like we’ve been saying for a long time that this is a very dangerous strategy they’ve developed in which you have this whole propaganda machine and any activist who speaks out against Israel’s human rights violations is on Canary Mission the next day and has trouble getting jobs and is struggling to enter Israel. And it’s this machine that’s working very effectively to stop people from talking. And we’ve been saying for a long time that this is dangerous. And I feel like now with this development with Hindu right groups, we have proof that it’s dangerous because it can be exported. It’s a strategy that you can copy and paste into a completely different context and it’s working as well.
So after my article came out, my name was in the Hindu Canary Mission, and it’s like the army of internet trolls, they come after you. There are people who are making note of you to make sure that next time you want to enter India or next time you want to go speak about this issue or get a job or something that they’ve made note of it, that you are anti-India, you’re anti-national. And it’s very reminiscent of what’s been happening with Israeli critics. But it’s not reminiscent, they’re actually talking to each other. I talked to a lot of Hindu nationalists in reporting the piece, and I would ask them, do you see any parallels between what you’re doing and Israel advocacy?
And I thought that they would shy away from it but they proudly would declare, we talk to Israel advocates, we talk to the ADL all the time. They actually taught us how to make this concept of Hinduphobia because we saw what they were doing with antisemitism and we were like, we want to be like that. And then we had meetings with them, and then we have this thing Hinduphobia. And look, it’s like antisemitism. They would show a point-by-point comparison of both definitions and explain how they’re mapping what they’re doing onto the Israel advocacy.
So the ramifications are huge because if tomorrow there’s another ethnonationalism movement that has a diaspora in the US and that diaspora wants to make sure that what’s happening in the homeland is left alone, that the US supports it, the US doesn’t intervene, all they have to do is copy this playbook and they have to go talk to the Israel groups. They have to go talk to the Hindu groups and they will be in on the action as long as all the geopolitical incentives line up. So it’s very worrying that the Israel playbook has proved itself to be so versatile and that the Jewish groups have proved themselves to be so willing to help other far-right movements.
Marc Steiner: So it also makes me wonder about a couple of things. Let me take one at a time. How that plays out here in this country, in the U, inside the Indian community. It’s not unanimity. It’s not a monolith where everybody supports Modi, right? And clearly one of the things you linked to was the Carnegie Poll, which showed the divide inside the Indian community about supporting Modi or not supporting Modi. So how does that dynamic figure into this, do you think, and how does it play out?
Aparna Gopalan: So one thing that’s very interesting about what I’m calling the “Hinduphobia Strategy” is it’s drawing on a real experience that a lot of Indian Americans have, which is we all experience US racism in some way or the other, right? We’re called names. We are Brown people. As soon as you move to the US and you are on that rung of the totem pole. Even though Indian Americans are relatively wealthier and more highly educated and stuff like that, there are still everyday experiences of racism and feeling alienated from this country. What is remarkable about Hinduphobia is that it acts upon that fear. So the people who are worried about Hinduphobia will tell you, and they told me, my sources, my Hindu national sources tried to scare me when I was reporting the piece. And they would tell me, they’re coming for you. And they would talk about experiences of racism, they would draw some religious symbols on their doorstep and then the neighbors would complain that this shouldn’t be here, or something like that.
Marc Steiner: That actually happened?
Aparna Gopalan: Those are stories that they would tell me in reporting.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aparna Gopalan: But yes, the interviews were a recruitment pitch for them because they were like, you’re a young Hindu, this is what’s going on in our community. You should be really, really afraid right now. And because everything is in danger, what we need to do is band together and support our movement. And our movement, of course, is Hindu. They wouldn’t say that but that’s the way in which they’re recruiting American Hindus because American Hindus, like you said, are very divided. American Indians are divided. They don’t all support Modi, but the more that you are able to connect to their everyday lived experience of racism and tell them that that’s going to keep getting worse until, and unless you join this Hindu movement globally that we are all creating to protect ourselves and protect our children, then you’re in danger. And so that’s a very effective recruitment pitch. It didn’t work on me but I could see it working on somebody else.
And it’s remarkable because the they who’s coming for you is not like white nationalists, which is who you would think you’re in danger of, but it’s actually Muslims who are going to come for you or lower cast people, oppressed cast people who are going to come for you. And so that’s what I was told over and over again: I need to watch out for all those Indian minorities in the US and how they might become too powerful unless I join these groups that I’m interviewing and become an activist and become a Hindu nationalist. So that’s the way in which the Hindu nationalist groups are trying to bridge the divide within the Indian community by politics of fear. And again, very similar to antisemitism and how it’s being used to recruit Jews for the cause of Israel. So if there’s an attack in New York, the ADL will say, look, Jews are in danger, donate money to us so we can defend Israel. Yeah.
Marc Steiner: And it becomes complex and difficult because antisemitism is real and it runs deep. And anti-Hindu feelings can run deep as well on lots of racist levels in this country and across the globe. So if you play on that reality and use it to not unite people against their oppression and to fight for a better world, but if you use that to unite people out of the fear, which is what you’re seeing is happening, that builds a different movement and a dangerous movement.
Aparna Gopalan: Precisely. They’re not saying that, look, there’s a rise in anti-immigrant violence so we need to all unite against, again, against white nationalism, against Christian nationalism. That’s not what their goal is. They don’t want to unite with other working people. They don’t want to unite if there’s anti-Chinese violence. Hindu nationalist groups told me that anti-Hindu violence is completely different from any other anti-Asian violence.
Marc Steiner: You’re special.
Aparna Gopalan: Right, exactly. We are in unique danger. And so we have to act as Hindus. We don’t have to act as Asians, as people of color. Those are not the identities. You are a Hindu first and that’s the foundation of the Hindu nationalist movement.
Marc Steiner: So on the other side of that, you wrote about, if I have this, remember correctly, Hindus for Human Rights and the interaction that organization, that group of advocates has with things like JVP, Jewish Voices for Peace, and others. So what about that dynamic is, A, significant? And, B, is it growing and how do you think that fits into this?
Aparna Gopalan: It’s definitely significant. I, in the process of reporting, found out that not only is Hindus for Human Rights, which is a progressive Hindu group, talking to Jewish Voice for Peace, they’re literally modeled on Jewish Voice for Peace. One of the people who founded the group went to Jewish Voice for Peace and said, I want to found a group which is Hindus who are speaking out as Hindus against Hindu nationalism. Will you help me? And Jewish Voice of Peace said yes and so they helped. And so this group is modeled on the image of the Jewish Voice of Peace. And that’s important because like I said, the same playbook is being used against both of these progressive groups. And so they are, by uniting, they’re like bringing together, we as progressive Hindus now are able to draw on the expertise that a group like JVP has in dealing with this repressive and silencing playbook.
And it’s interesting how the collaboration works because when Modi came to visit, the very same people who would speak up against Israel in Congress, for example, are the same people who spoke up against Modi. So Rashida Tlaib said, I’m not going to attend Modi’s congressional address. Ilhan Omer said, I’m not attending that address and I’m actually having a briefing on human rights right after the address so senators and Congress people can learn more about what’s happening in India. So it’s very clever in some ways by progressive Hindus because we’re able to draw on an existing political formation, and we don’t have to start from scratch. And we shouldn’t have to because it’s the same struggle on both fronts. So it’s very important.
One thing I will say, which again, as Azad Essa, the journalist, pointed out to me and is exactly right, is that anti-Zionist groups like JVP, are coming from a long tradition of working-class activism, whereas groups like Hindus for Human Rights are very new still, and there actually isn’t a huge Indian diaspora working-class movement. Most of the people who are speaking up are still people who are relatively upper caste. They’re still upper class. And so we still are struggling to engage with working people within our community and that’s where the fight will be won. We need to engage the people who do everything in India, who are the farmers and the laborers. And so that ground game that is still absent both in the US and in India. And unless that is built, I don’t see how Modi gets taken down by a movement like this, for example.
Marc Steiner: So that leads me to where you think your analysis takes you and us when it comes to this far-right government in India that has literally attacked the Muslim population, burning down mosques, and the riots that have taken place over the last 30-odd years in India. And what’s happening in Israel with the rise of the far-right government and that powerful synergy with the alliance with the US? This is almost one of those hidden dangers that our future faces that we don’t put together in this puzzle that you were doing in this article.
Aparna Gopalan: Yeah, one thing that I was impressed by when my sources were telling me about the reason that there is this huge effort to call any criticism of Hindu nationalism as Hinduphobia, the reason that there’s that effort is that the risk is great. So India stands to lose a lot if the US actually acts against India and India’s human rights violations. For example, the US has this report that an independent government agency releases every year. And for the past four years, this religious freedom report has said India should be on a blacklist for violations of religious freedom. That’s been the recommendation being made to the State Department. The State Department hasn’t acted on it yet. They could though, tomorrow they could wake up and say, we are going to act on this because our own agencies are recommending this. And if that happens, India stands to lose a great deal.
They stand to face sanctions if the US wants to go that far. But before that, they stand to lose their arms deals with US companies, they stand to lose their trade and technology deals with US companies. And all of those threats are why there’s so much activity to stop that outcome. And I feel like, what I’m saying is the situation, like you said, is very grim in both Israel and India. In India, there are 10 stages of genocide, and India is at stage eight according to a report by Georgetown University. So we’re two stages away from a complete genocide of Muslims in India, and in Israel, we’re seeing a very similar situation where Palestinians are literally being expelled from the West Bank. So the situation’s grim but at the same time, the amount of activity that’s happening in the US to silence speech about the situation gives some degree of hope that there’s still a chance that the US could act. Both against India, much more easily actually against India, because India and the US don’t have a special relationship, but also the US could act against Israel.
There are efforts to do that also. There are efforts to take out US government money from settlements and that’s a signal that this is not okay. So in both cases, there is real potential for change but it’s urgently needed because in both cases we’re almost at the end of the road in terms of how bad things could get. They almost couldn’t get any worse in both places.
Marc Steiner: And to conclude, I was thinking about a couple of things here. One is, and you touched on this a bit in the article, but I’m really, really interested in how you see it playing out domestically in the US within the Indian community. Because when you look at the Jewish community in America, you see this divide, and part of it’s generational or there’s a political divide. It’s built around Israel and the occupation and the right-wing government. How do you see that playing out here in this country with the Indian population in America and the battle around Modi and the right wing in India?
Aparna Gopalan: A big part of both of these fights is young people and college campuses. And in the Hindu diaspora and the Indian diaspora, really, there are groups on both sides. So there are Hindu nationalist groups who heavily recruit on college campuses and they recruit through holding cultural events. They’ll be like, this is a Diwali celebration. And then you’ll show up there and you end up on a mailing list, and then the mailing list invites you to progressively more Hindu right events. And pretty soon you’re a Hindu right activist. And then they’ll try to position you in a Capitol Hill internship. They’ll try to connect you to the RSS, which is the paramilitary group that’s at the heart of Hindu nationalism in India. And before you know it, you’re a Hindu nationalist leader. So that’s the effort on the Hindu nationalist side. But there are counter efforts by people who are opposing Hindu nationalism and that’s where all our hope lies.
So there are student groups who have decided that at every Indian festival, we’re going to have some event of our own. We’re not going to be silent. We’re not going to give up on Hinduism, we’re going to enter the fray, and we’re going to say here is a progressive interpretation of Diwali. Or here is Holi, which is an Indian holiday, but on this Holi event we’re going to talk about political prisoners and we’re not going to let ourselves off the hook. And so again, not in our name is what these student groups are saying. And so it’s hard to predict where the balance of forces is. To be frank, right now, the Hindu right on campus game, in the US ground game, is much stronger. They’ve been doing it for decades. And these other groups are just forming. During the pandemic, they’ve started.
Hindus for Human Rights was founded in 2019 and their most direct rivals were founded in 2002. And of course, the RSS was founded in the 1920s. So we’re catching up to hundreds of years. So yeah, if this trend continues where there are student groups and anti-cast groups which are forming, especially, again, among high school students and on campus, by the next generation we’re going to see a very different Hindu-American population. But there’s every effort being made to make sure those groups don’t succeed because they’re called Hinduphobic immediately as soon as they come into existence. So that’s the contour of the struggle right now.
Marc Steiner: That’s interesting. And as we wind out here that what you’ve described is two things. A, a hopeful look at where both Indian and Jewish populations in America could go in terms of fighting for progressive change, both in the Middle East and in India, and in this country. And the coming together of these groups is something we have not heard about, I’ve not heard about until I read your article. And then that’s also confronted by the immense power of the right-wing political movements in India and in Israel. Contradictions are coming to a head here.
Aparna Gopalan: And again, in both cases, again, also, this is the same with groups that are pro-Palestinian, right? They don’t have the money on their side. The group that has the money is APAC. APAC has money. The rest of us, what we have is we knock on doors or whatever. That’s all that there is. So the tool that’s in the hands of the progressives in both India and Israel is raising consciousness to the point that you have enough people knocking on doors that you can defeat the APAC candidate in every town race and state race and federal race. And that’s how you make the change that’s necessary. So it’s like an arduous fight against impossible odds. But again, that’s the fight against the right in any context.
Marc Steiner: This popped into my head as you were saying that. You describe what was happening in Teaneck, New Jersey, in places like that. It is possible. Movements are building and they’re growing to actually make these things happen, to build something different.
Aparna Gopalan: There was actually this recent study, I’m going to get the number wrong, but somebody did this report and they found out that maybe 40% or maybe 60%, which is different, but 40% or 60% of Americans have never heard of Modi. And that’s a golden opportunity because that means that 40% or 60%, let’s say 50% of Americans can still be educated about this by us. So we can start that conversation right now and we have to get there first. We have to get there before the Hindu right groups get there and say, this guy is the savior of the Hindus, and that’s what needs to happen. I’m sure the state visit that Biden did will have changed that number and will have made things worse. So that’s why we need to fight back against all these efforts to legitimize Modi because lots of people are still on the fence or have no idea who this is. So that’s where the fight is, is to make sure that we get there first and we get there with the full truth about what’s happening.
Marc Steiner: I want to say, Aparna, it has been great to meet you and to have this conversation, and I want folks to check out this article. It will be linked here, that the Hindu nationalists using the Pro-Israel Playbook in Jewish Currents. It came out June 28th by Aparna Gopalan, their news editor. A deeply thorough article that I’m not sure I did justice to but it was an amazing piece of work. And I appreciate you taking the time here on The Marc Steiner Show, on The Real News, and we should move forward to create this American-Jewish-Indian alliance for real change and make that happen. That’s got real potential for the future.
Aparna Gopalan: That’s the hope. If my article could have gotten us 1% closer to that alliance, that’s all that’s needed.
Marc Steiner: I think it did.
Aparna Gopalan: Thanks for having me though. This is great.
Marc Steiner: Thank you, Aparna. I hope you enjoyed our conversation today with Aparna Gopalan. Her article in the Jewish Currents is called “The Hindu Nationalist Using the Pro-Israel Playbook.” Now, we’ll be linking to the article so you can read it. It is well worth the read. And I want to thank you all for joining us today. Please let me know what you think about what you heard today, and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at email@example.com and I’ll write right back to you. And while you’re there, go to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us. For Cameron Grandino, David Hebdon, Kayla Rivara, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved. Keep listening, stay in touch, and take care.
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