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India’s Hindu Extremists Are Trolling the Israel Conflict

Shortly after midnight on October 8, Mohammed Zubair, a fact-checking journalist based in Bangalore, came across a video on Twitter. Less than a day had elapsed since the Hamas attacks in Israel, but the caption on the post claimed that Palestinians had shot down four Israeli helicopters in Gaza. Zubair had seen similar footage dozens of times before—from the simulation video game Arma 3, passed off as visuals from the Ukraine war.

Zubair lives in close quarters with his parents, wife, and children; his only time for solitary concentration is when his kids are asleep. As part of his daily work routine, he scours the internet for fake news and propaganda for an hour after midnight. To him, October 8 felt different: The deluge of disinformation he spotted on Indian social media left him stunned. “The scale of misinformation this time was horrific and unimaginable,” Zubair told me.

A grim video of a beheading by a Mexican drug cartel was shared as an attack on Israeli citizens. A nine-year-old photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son, taken before the latter departed for his military service, was portrayed as the leader sending his offspring to war. Footage of a funeral staged in Jordan to evade a pandemic lockdown was misrepresented as Palestinians faking deaths in Gaza. A 2014 video of the Islamic State destroying a mosque in Syria was labeled as the Israeli bombing of a Palestinian mosque.

For the next few nights, Zubair found himself staying up until well after dawn, debunking the cascade of disinformation through his Twitter account, which has close to 1 million followers. According to him, roughly two-thirds of the disinformation about the conflict was coming from the Hindu right, which is one of the most formidable purveyors of propaganda in the world. Dispensing with complexity and real-world consequences, the disinformation machinery of the Hindu right has been operating in an amoral zone, treating the Israel-Hamas war as little more than an entertaining spectacle happening somewhere far away, and as a windfall for its Islamophobic agenda.

The Hindu-nationalist movement has for decades complained of alienation from India’s largely liberal press, where, it claimed, its ideological vision was given short shrift. With the advent of social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and messaging applications such as WhatsApp, the Hindu right had the tools to undercut the mainstream press and eventually overwhelm it.

The Hindu right’s communications machinery is extensive and organized. A digital army numbering in the tens of thousands imprints the movement’s desired narrative on India’s public, regardless of the facts. In 2018, while addressing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s social-media conclave, Amit Shah, then the president of the party and the country’s home minister since 2019, boasted, “We could make any message go viral, whether sweet or sour, real or fake.”

Zubair told me that the party’s famed information-technology cell was undergirded by a much larger unofficial trolling universe. The party taps low-paid techies with Hindu-nationalist sympathies to spread its message, for example. “For them, it’s additional pocket money to communicate ideological convictions they already share,” he said.

In 2017, Zubair, along with Pratik Sinha, founded Alt News, an independent website dedicated to combatting disinformation in India. Zubair and Sinha had both trained as engineers, and they shared an obsession with the seemingly uncontrollable epidemic of fake news in the country. What began as a three-person enterprise now has close to 20 employees and bureaus in two Indian cities.

As the website’s influence has grown, Alt News has attracted the ire of the Hindu right. In the summer of 2022, Zubair was imprisoned for more than three weeks on a government charge that a satirical tweet he’d posted several years prior had hurt Hindu sentiments. Sinha, who has been a strident critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his role in the 2002 violence in the western state of Gujarat, left the province fearing for his personal safety. The group has nevertheless carried on with work that has become perilous in India; according to Time magazine, Zubair and Sinha were among the favorites to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

Since the Hamas attacks, Hindu nationalists across India have held rallies in support of Israel, while in states governed by the Hindu right, pro-Palestine demonstrators have been arrested. The pattern is a striking anomaly for a country historically sympathetic to the Arab nation’s cause. In the Hindu-nationalist imagination, Israel and India occupy parallel positions—surrounded by Muslim enemies within and without. And the Hindu right approves of a country it perceives as a hard, militaristic, technologically advanced power that is ruthless in dealing with its Muslim foes.

The movement’s identification with Israel is, in many ways, perverse. Hindu nationalism took root in the 1920s, inspired by the rise of European fascism. In 1931, B. S. Moonje, the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, was deeply impressed by Benito Mussolini, whom he met on a visit to Italy. M. S. Golwalkar, the chief ideologue of the Hindu right, thought the “Final Solution” was a good lesson for Indians “to learn and profit by.”

The timelines of India and Israel track closely with each other: India gained freedom from British colonial rule in 1947, and the creation of Israel came a year later. Both countries were gripped with anxiety upon their founding, as civil conflicts raged in the background. But India and Israel were estranged for more than four decades; formal diplomatic relations would not be established until 1992.

As the largest nation to have shaken off colonialism, India saw itself as the leader of the postcolonial world. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first and longest-serving prime minister, viewed the Palestinian cause through the prism of that wider anticolonial struggle. India had little history of anti-Semitism: A smattering of tiny Jewish communities had prospered in the country for centuries without facing any form of persecution.

In the decades following its independence, India remained militantly allied to the Palestinian cause. In 1975, India became the first non-Arab country to grant the Palestine Liberation Organization full diplomatic status. In 1983, Yasser Arafat, the charismatic leader of the PLO, received a rapturous reception during a visit to New Delhi.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought an era of free-market economics to India and a warming of its relationship with the United States. This shift in orientation set the conditions for India and Israel to establish diplomatic ties in 1992. Since then, the two countries have moved closer. “Over the years, we have seen a shift from India being pro-Palestine to more pro-Israel today,” Suhasini Haidar, the diplomatic-affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper, told me. “The relationship has been on an upswing.” More and more Indian Jews have been exercising the right to return; direct flights to Tel Aviv began in 2018.

Last year, India joined a Middle East partnership, comprising Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, that pledged to address shared environmental and economic goals while reaffirming support for the Abraham Accords and other normalization arrangements with Israel. (The move led to a significant worsening of the country’s long-friendly relationship with Iran.) Defense ties are central to the entente between India and Israel. India is, by some distance, the largest buyer of arms from Israel; the country is seen as a dependable source of high-grade military technology. During the 1999 Kargil War—India’s brief conflict with archenemy Pakistan—Israel came to New Delhi’s rescue with immediate military assistance. (Israel has no diplomatic relations with Pakistan.)

Over the past decade, a close personal relationship between Netanyahu and Modi, both right-wing populists embodying a muscular nationalism, has strengthened the ties between the two nations. Haidar covered Modi’s first state visit to Israel in 2017. “It was a five-day lovefest,” she told me. “Netanyahu greeted Modi at the airport. They spent every waking moment together.”

Modi has borrowed from Netanyahu’s bold national-security doctrine. In 2019, a suicide bomber attacked an Indian paramilitary convoy, killing 44 people. Modi responded by striking deep into Pakistani territory. Later that year, during a national election in Israel, Netanyahu sought to buttress his foreign-policy credentials by putting up giant banners flaunting his relationship with Modi, an honor previously reserved for American presidents.

“Israel knows that the Hindu right glorified Hitler,” Haidar told me. “Both sides try to ignore that.”

Hindu nationalists have sought to use the October 7 attack on Israel to further their own domestic ideological ends. They point to the violence in Israel to emphasize the menace of Islamic terrorism, a theme they believe will play in their favor in national elections next year. The subject has proved politically beneficial for Modi in the past: The 2019 military strike against Pakistan, undertaken on the eve of the last election, transformed a sputtering campaign.

Now the Hindu right’s media actors, from national news anchors to itinerant social-media trolls, are playing their domestic political games in a volatile global context. To an inflamed and polarized conflict in the Middle East, the Hindu-right media ecosystem contributes mislabeled videos and fake stories, further muddying the distinctions between true events and motivated falsehoods.

Not surprisingly under these circumstances, the claims that Hindu nationalists put forward are getting taken up by interested actors in other countries. Zubair, who spars online with the Hindu right all the time, now finds himself battling far-right influencers in Israel and the United States who peddle false information originating in India. Five days after the Hamas attacks, Sinha, Zubair’s Alt News co-founder, reflected on Twitter, “Hopefully the world will now realise how the Indian right-wing has made India the disinformation capital of the world.”

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