New Delhi, India – Israel’s relentless bombing of the besieged Gaza Strip and killing of nearly 6,000 people – a third of them children – in two weeks has outraged people across the world, triggering mass protests and a call for an immediate ceasefire.
However, in India – the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but now seen closer to Israel and its biggest benefactor, the United States – some pro-Palestine protesters reported being targeted by the government.
Less than a week after the Gaza assault began, police in Hamirpur district of India’s most populous Uttar Pradesh state were looking for Muslim scholars Atif Chaudhary and Suhail Ansari. Their alleged crime: putting a WhatsApp display photo that said: “I stand with Palestine.”
The two men were charged with promoting enmity between social groups. Ansari is under arrest, while Chaudhary is on the run, according to the police.
In the same state, governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), four students of the Aligarh Muslim University were booked by the police after they took out a pro-Palestine march on the campus a day after the Gaza assault began on October 7.
However, when the Hindu far-right group Bajrang Dal took out a pro-Israel march in the same Aligarh city, raising slogans such as “Down with Palestine, Down with Hamas”, no action was taken against them by the authorities.
‘As if I have committed some crime’
In the national capital, New Delhi, there have been several examples of people being detained during rallies organised by student groups, activists and citizens for solidarity with the Palestinians since October 7.
In the western state of Maharashtra, also governed by the BJP in alliance with a regional party, two protesters, Ruchir Lad and Supreeth Ravish, were arrested on October 13 for holding a march against the war on Gaza and charged with unlawful assembly.
Pooja Chinchole, member of the Revolutionary Workers Party of India and one of the organisers of the protest held in state capital Mumbai, told Al Jazeera the police “created many hurdles before us when they got to know that we are organising a pro-Palestine protest”.
“They detained one of the organisers a day before the protest and three organisers on the morning of the protest. When we still gathered to protest, they snatched our microphone, placards, and after a while, started using force on some of us,” she said.
The crackdown, however, was not limited to the BJP-ruled states only.
In the southern Karnataka state, governed by the main opposition Congress party, police charged 10 activists with creating a public nuisance after they organised a silent march in support of the Palestinians on October 16 in Bengaluru, the capital of the state.
The Karnataka police also arrested a 58-year-old Muslim man for allegedly posting a video in support of Hamas on WhatsApp. Police also briefly detained Alam Nawaz, a Muslim government employee, for updating his WhatsApp status with a Palestinian flag and “Long Live Palestine” message.
“People started seeing me with suspicion as if I have committed some crime by expressing my solidarity with Palestinian people,” Nawaz, 20, told Al Jazeera.
All this despite the Congress expressing its support for the “rights of the Palestinian people to land, self-government and to live with dignity” as the party called for an immediate ceasefire in a resolution passed by its working committee on October 9.
‘Israel fighting proxy war on behalf of Hindus’
Meanwhile, pro-Israel rallies, organised mainly by Hindu right-wing groups, were seen across India, while many on social media offered their services to the Israeli forces.
On Saturday, dozens of supporters of a retired Indian army soldier travelled 182km (113 miles) to reach the Israeli embassy in New Delhi where they offered to go to Israel to fight against the Palestinians in Gaza.
Last week, one of India’s most influential Hindu nationalists, Yati Narsinghanand, released a video in which he said Hindus and Jews “have the same enemy: Muhammad and his satanic book” as he urged the Israeli government to allow 1,000 Hindus to settle in Israel in order to “take on those Muslims”.
Israel’s ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, on October 8 said he had received several requests from Indians wanting to voluntarily fight for Israel.
Apoorvanand, professor of Hindi language at Delhi University, told Al Jazeera he was not surprised that the Hindu far right, which openly admires Adolf Hitler for his action against the Jews, is now supporting the Zionists in Israel.
“Hindu far-right organisations in India have always supported those who dominate by violence. Hitler did once, so they supported him. Now Israel is doing this, so they are supporting it,” he said.
Apoorvanand said the Hindu right in India thinks there are ideological linkages between them and the Zionists in Israel.
“It looks like Israel is fighting a proxy war on behalf of the Hindu far right. They think Israel is fighting and decimating Muslims on their behalf. The way they want to establish Akhand Bharat [Unified India] by joining Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal together with India, they think Israel is following the same expansionist ideology,” he said.
This was not always the case.
India-Israel ties and Palestine struggle
India’s foreign policy has historically supported the Palestinian cause, which began with India voting against the United Nations resolution to create the state of Israel in 1947 and then recognising the PLO as a representative of the Palestinian people in 1974.
India’s pro-Palestine stand was guided by the shared history of colonisation by the British, Zikrur Rahman, former Indian ambassador to Palestine, told Al Jazeera.
“In the postcolonial era, we identified that this is a colonial attempt to divide the country and to create another country. We were not in favour of the creation of a country on the basis of religion,” he said.
Rahman, however, added that while India’s position on Palestine has not changed, it is not as strong as it used to be.
India recognised the creation of Israel in 1950, but did not establish diplomatic relations until 1992, when the details of the first Oslo Accord were being finalised. Since then, India has tried to strike a balance between its strategic relations with Israel and sympathising with the Palestinian struggle.
Today, India is the largest buyer of Israeli-made weapons, while strategic and security cooperation between them has grown manifold. Comparisons have also been made between Israel demolishing homes of Palestinians in the occupied territories and a similar policy adopted by some BJP state governments mainly against Muslims as forms of “collective punishment” of the community.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he has made public statements, calling his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu a “good friend” on several occasions.
Modi was one of the first global leaders to post his solidarity with Israel after Hamas’s unprecedented incursion on October 7. “Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel,” said his post on X, which came four hours before US President Joe Biden reacted to the event.
Modi also condemned the Israeli attack on al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza on October 18, in which nearly 500 Palestinians were killed, though his message on X appeared nearly eight hours after Biden’s post.
Meanwhile, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement on October 12, reiterating New Delhi’s position of establishing a “sovereign, independent, and viable state of Palestine, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel”.
Last week, Modi posted on X about his phone call with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he repeated India’s “longstanding principled position on the Israel-Palestine issue”. He said his government is sending humanitarian assistance for the besieged residents of Gaza.
Journalist Anand K Sahay, however, thinks India’s response to the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza has not been adequate.
“What India didn’t say is important. India didn’t demand a ceasefire. Historically, India has always demanded a ceasefire in case of a [foreign] war. In this case also we should have strongly said: stop the war,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sahay said Modi’s flaunting of closeness with Israel is also aimed at appeasing his core vote bank: the Hindus.
“Suppose there was another religion in majority in Palestine. Then our stand may have been different. During the Russia-Ukraine war, we said ‘this is not an age of war’. Why couldn’t we say this in case of Israel-Palestine war?” asked Sahay.
“By not asking for a ceasefire, India was also indirectly signalling the US that the Indian position was very close to the US line.”