Does India love Israel or is India scared of showing dissent? You decide.
If you were watching yesterday’s India-Australia World Cup final match on television, you would not have seen an Australian man invade the field. He wore a t-shirt with two pro-Palestine messages on it: “stop bombing Palestine” and “free Palestine”.
Despite the blanket coverage of the match by a battery of cameras of all kinds, including drones, the incident did not make it to the live telecast. Commentators pretended not to have seen it, because they did not utter a word. No footage of the incident was shown at any time during the match.
The quiet around the incident underlines the public silence in India over Israel’s brutal retaliation in Gaza to Hamas’s October 7 terror strikes that killed over 1,200 people. Hamas also took more than 200 people hostage; they still remain in custody of the Islamist group.
In Gaza, over 11,000 civilians – more than a third of whom are children – have been killed in merciless bombardment by Israel. This is the first modern war that is being livestreamed. Around the world, people are downloading distressing images and footage of children, women and men killed and injured; of children screaming in pain, lost and wandering in search of their parents.
It has been enough to bring people out on the streets in every city of the democratic world, voicing their demands for a ceasefire in defiance of their own leaders’ support for Israel. In Tokyo, Manila, Canberra, Melbourne, Johannesburg, New York, Boston and the capitals of Europe, there has been a massive outpouring of outrage against Israeli actions. In London, three lakh people turned out for a march, the largest ever in the city’s recent memory.
But in India, there have been few public expressions of distress at what is happening. A mammoth rally in Malappuram in the opposition-govened Kerala prompted calls from the BJP for an investigation because Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal addressed it virtually. Kerala has seen other rallies, for instance on Yasser Arafat’s birth anniversary on November 11 in Kozhikode, which was addressed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
But other than these, and small protests in Chennai and Kolkata, India does not figure as a country where people are outraged, angry and grieved at how Israel is treating the Palestinians. Going by social media posts, you might imagine Indians are just the opposite: happy to cheer on Israel to kill more Palestinians, willing to replace Palestinians dismissed from their jobs in Israel, even ready to go and fight on the Israeli side.
It’s as if Hindutva’s subordination of the Palestinian cause to build India’s friendship with Israel has percolated deep into the minds of people, to a point where Indians are unable to empathise with the suffering they see on their social media feeds.
This was not always the case, as most Indians over the age of 55 might know. From the 1950s to the 1990s, India hosted a Palestinian embassy in Delhi, but not an Israeli one. University students wore the chequered PLO scarf with pride. Events were held to mark solidarity with Palestinians.
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Today, this would be called “appeasement politics”. The present-day consensus in favour of Zionism is in your face. The wholesale shift towards the Hindu right in the polity, and Hindutva’s aspiration to mould India as a strong state in the image of Zionist Israel, is certainly influencing how Indians view the crisis in Gaza.
But is that the whole story for the missing Indian voice on the atrocities inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza? Or is there also an active attempt to prevent people from coming out and speaking their minds on what’s happening in Gaza? That is of course true In Kashmir, where the Palestinian intifadas were once much celebrated, but there is now a silence. Clearly, the authorities have further tightened the lid on the valley so that no pro-Palestinian political expression takes place.
But police crackdowns are happening in other places too. According to journalist Geeta Seshu of the Free Speech Collective, it’s not true that few in India feel for the Palestinians. The “backlash is so challenging”, she said – like police summons and repeated questioning – that “people who would normally be articulate about such an issue in the public domain prefer to remain silent”.
Seshu spoke about a meeting she attended on November 14 in Mumbai, part of a multi-city call for a prayer vigil by a group named Solidarity Collective. In Mumbai, the meeting was held at Juhu Beach after the police refused permission at the originally planned venue in Bandra. In low voices, the gathering recited the names of children killed in Gaza as a commemoration of Children’s Day.
Seshu said about 40 people attended. They sat in groups of threes and fours to avoid penalties under Section 144 that prohibits gatherings of more than four people – a semi-permanent feature of Mumbai public life since the 26/11 attacks. It’s often used to crack down on public protests.
As it turned out, the police detained 13 people – all Muslims – who participated in the Mumbai vigil. They were charged under sections 37(1), 37(3) and 135 of the Mumbai Police Act for alleged violation of prohibitory orders. All of them, including four who were minors, were taken to Juhu police station and were let go only late evening.
In a statement, the Maharashtra unit of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties said the Mumbai police had “in effect imposed a de facto ban on any form of peaceful public protest by citizens demanding an end to the violence” in Gaza, “including the holding of peace gatherings and prayer meetings, even candlelight vigils in public places like the Azad Maidan”.
Meanwhile, the Mumbai-based India-Palestine Solidarity Forum, a long-standing organisation which has organised public meetings in the past, has not held a single one at this time, preferring instead to hold a panel discussion behind closed doors.
But being seen as “anti-national” or supportive of Hamas is not an allegation that Muslims alone are facing. Well-known political scientist Achin Vanaik, was asked to express regret by OP Jindal Global University, a liberal arts institution, for his remarks on Hindutva and Zionism. IIT Bombay then cancelled Vanaik’s proposed talk on the Israel-Palestine conflict last week.
At the same IIT, the faculty recently put out a press release in defence of a colleague who was denounced as a “terrorist” and “Hamas supporter” on social media for screening an Israeli film on the healing of children who have experienced trauma, with a stalwart of the Jan Natya Manch as a discussant.
India's leadership loves to flaunt the country's democratic credentials. But consider what happened in Britain earlier this month. Suella Braverman was sacked as the UK home secretary because she described the pro-Palestine protesters in London as “hate marchers” and accused the London Metropolitan Police of bias in their favour. The police commissioner was asked by Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to stop a protest march in London from taking place. The police chief refused, saying there were no grounds to disallow the march and stop people from exercising their freedom of expression.
As Avinash Paliwal, who teaches politics at SOAS, told me an interview, this speaks to the strength of British institutions and its democratic traditions, including a long history of public participation in a number of international causes.
“The fact that the police commissioner stood up and maintained institutional integrity and professionalism in the face of such partisan onslaught by his own boss has really instilled people's faith in the police,” Paliwal said. The march, organised by Stop The War Coalition, went on to make history for another reason. It attracted at least 300,000 participants.
This is not to say that there is a whole-hearted embrace of pro-Palestinian sentiments in the UK. A London gallery cancelled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s show for his pro-Palestine tweets. Indian art critic Ranjit Hoskote resigned from a committee at Documenta, the prestigious contemporary art exhibition in Germany, after he was asked to dissociate himself from a petition he had signed in 2019 that described Israel as an apartheid state. At The New York Times, a journalist resigned over her signing of a petition that criticised media coverage of the war, including an editorial in her own newspaper that supported Israel’s right of self-defence.
In India, meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally condemned civilian casualties in Gaza at the Voice of the Global South Summit, held in online format. It was a bit late in the day, considering that the 125 participating countries were hardly waiting for India to show the way in this matter, having voted for the ceasefire resolution at the United Nations General Assembly (India had abstained)
Still, Modi's words have given hope among civil society groups that now that the top leader has voiced concern, the police will permit members of the public too to speak their minds on the issue.
And maybe more people can wear “Stop Bombing Gaza” t-shirts instead of just one person who, as it turned out, is not even Indian.