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Shifting politics make India a hotbed for Israel-Hamas war misinformation

On October 7, within hours of the armed group Hamas launching a surprise attack on Israel, social media platforms were rife with support for Israel – and also fake news.

What stood out in the clamour was the fact that a fair amount of it was produced and distributed by accounts from India.

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In the days after Israel declared war on Hamas, a blue-tick-verified handle posted a video on the social media platform X of a Pakistani parliamentarian threatening to obliterate Israel with an “atom bomb” if it did not end its atrocities against Muslims. That video received more than 840,000 views. But it was from 2021 and is not related to the current war.

Similarly, Suresh Chavhanke, editor-in-chief of Sudarshan News, a right-wing channel, shared a clip on X of an Israeli representative tearing up a 20-page United Nations report documenting human rights violations. That too was from 2021.

Experts say the Israel-Hamas war has given a massive reach to social media accounts in India – both large and small – that have managed to ride a wave of anti-Muslim and pro-Israel fervour.

Apoorvanand, a Delhi University professor who goes by one name, perceives a link between current “anti-Muslim sentiment” and the rise of Hindu nationalist ideologies like Hindutva, particularly under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Hindutva supporters, he said, “hold Muslims across countries responsible for all the ills and everything bad. They’ve started looking at Israel as an ideal, as a model to be followed because Israel does what it wants to do to Muslims”.

A “generational shift” has taken place in India, said Nicolas Blarel, an associate professor of international relations at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Over the last decade, Blarel has observed that the country has grown more fascinated with Israel, including how it defends itself against attacks from its neighbours.

That situation has particular resonance in India, according to Blarel. In addition to border incursions from China in the east, India has also been subject to attacks on its western flank by what it says are state-supported armed groups in Pakistan. The two nuclear-armed nations have been locked in an ongoing conflict for control of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Those tense international relations have, in part, led Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to seek warmer relations with Israel.

“Terrorism is the thing that’s brought the BJP closer to Israel over the last few years – how to better deal with counterterrorism,” said Blarel.

As a result, India’s political sphere has transformed from “an exclusive pro-Palestine ecosystem to the complete opposite and to one that is completely empathetic with [the] Israeli position” today, he explained.

Changing relationships

Indeed, India had supported Palestine’s right to statehood since 1947, when it gained independence from the United Kingdom.

At the time, the United Nations had proposed a “partition plan” to create separate Israeli and Palestinian states, something India objected to.

The plan never took effect, though. The very next year, Israel declared independence, sparking a conflict that would see the mass displacement of Palestinians.

Still, in 1974, India became the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the “sole and legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people, continuing its pattern of support.

And while New Delhi formally recognised Israel in 1950, it only normalised diplomatic relations in the early 1990s. Even then, it remained committed to the Palestinian cause and continued nurturing its relations with the Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East.

However, in the past few years, India and Israel have started inching closer. The attacks in India’s financial capital Mumbai on November 26, 2008, helped spur the shift.

More than 160 people were killed and over 300 injured. A Jewish centre, the Nariman House, was among the targets: An Israeli American rabbi and his wife were among the six gunned down there. India blamed the attacks on a Pakistan-based armed group.

Trade and innovation have also drawn the two countries together. When Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he displayed his fascination for Israeli technologies including drip irrigation and water desalination, both useful for his state.

Israel has also been a supplier of arms to India, including during its 1999 skirmish with Pakistan in the Kashmiri region of Kargil. Israeli surveillance drones and mortar shells helped India emerge victorious in that conflict.

More recently, India was one of the countries accused of having bought Pegasus spyware from the Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group. Critics accuse the Modi government of deploying the spyware against judges, journalists, activists and political leaders, among others.

Experts agree that the biggest shift in India’s foreign policy towards Israel has happened since Modi came to power in 2014. He became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017.

In the wake of the Hamas attack on October 7, Modi has issued strong declarations in support of Israel. He initially tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel.”

In a follow-up statement later that day, Modi added that “India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”.

But neither statement made any reference to the lives or plight of Palestinians. Only five days later did his government address the question of Palestinian relations: In response to a question during a routine media briefing, a spokesperson for the foreign minister said India’s stance on Palestine had not changed.

“I was struck by Modi’s response to express solidarity with Israel and say nothing about Palestine at all,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC. “Because India’s policy has been balanced so far.”

The statements showed “total support for Israel to defend itself”, according to Ashok Swain, head of the department of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden.

While New Delhi is now trying to maintain a more balanced position, those early statements showed that Modi is more interested in getting votes and appealing to his right-wing constituency, Swain added.

They send the message that Muslims are “the perpetrators of all sorts of crimes and less than human beings. They don’t talk about the Gaza situation or even who created Hamas”.

Swain also sees the statements as a demonstration of the common ground Modi shares with far-right politicians in Israel.

“Hindu nationalists and Zionists have an ideological similarity: They want a strong state and a strong leader,” he explained. “They also have a common factor – Islamophobia – which also binds them together.”

Support ratio of 5:1

Those tensions played out on social media in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

 

At Al Jazeera’s request, the Narrative Research Lab in New Delhi scanned through trending hashtags and phrases in India on the social media platform X, to better understand how political narratives about the war were being shaped.

The phrase “We Indians” stood out partially because of the ongoing Cricket World Cup but also because of the conflict, said Sarabjot Singh, the lab’s co-founder.

“We Indians” is an expression often invoked to stir nationalist pride. Using it as a keyword, Singh’s co-founder Sundeep Narwani used artificial intelligence to analyse a total of 4,316 tweets, of which 2,200 included words about the Israel-Hamas war.

More than 1,250 were pro-Israel, and approximately 250 were pro-Palestine, indicating a five-to-one ratio in favour of Israel.

In an attempt to gauge social media chatter, the lab also analysed two hashtags:  “#IstandwithIsrael” and “#IsraelPalestineWar”. The former was used globally, but the lab found a “substantial” number of Indian accounts using it.

“Issues that bring Modi and Netanyahu together are the same issues that make the Hindutva constituency in India gravitate towards Israel – admiring how Netanyahu has negotiated the neighbourhood with a strong stance,” said Kugelman.

Source: Al Jazeera


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