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How the Indian Far-Right is Using the Israeli Conflict to Spread Islamophobic Disinformation

How the Indian Far-Right is Using the Israeli Conflict to Spread Islamophobic Disinformation
10th November 2023 Roshan M
In Insights

The ongoing hostilities between Israel and Palestine have brought several aspects of the conflict into sharp focus. One critical dimension of the war includes the proliferation of disinformation campaigns, from which several threads of antisemitism and Islamophobia have surfaced. There is substantial evidence of disinformation campaigns originating from India, a country largely disconnected from the conflict. This Insight provides a brief examination of the Islamophobic rhetoric and disinformation relating to the conflict being disseminated by right-wing Indian (dis)influencers and the impact this has had on the wider online information ecosystem. 

Mapping the Disinformation: Part of a Larger Trend 

Far-right accounts based in India, including verified users on X/Twitter, have been sharing significant numbers of fake posts targeting Palestine and supporting Israel throughout the current escalation of hostilities. For example, one video claimed to be proof that dozens of Israeli girls had been taken as sex slaves by Hamas fighters, despite the footage being of Israeli children on a school trip entirely unconnected from the conflict. This video accrued millions of views before it was fact-checked. Similarly, a post circulating on Telegram listed the names of ten Indians killed by Hamas, resulting in a deluge of abuse and hatred towards Muslims around the world, specifically in India. Responding to the video, one user claimed that he would like to erase all Muslims from India if he got the chance. Later, channel members pointed out that the people killed were Nepali workers, not Indians. 

As investigative reports have pointed out, Indian WhatsApp and Telegram groups are currently replete with Islamophobic content comparing the situation in Gaza to the Indian context. For instance, a message on a Telegram group points to protests by Indian Muslims against Israel’s military response and states that “only terrorists will support other terrorists and thus India should focus on cleaning out Indian terrorists [referring to Muslims] rather than focussing on terrorists outside”.  In addition, there are instances of WhatsApp messages warning that future attacks could take place in India by “Islamist terrorists” and that Hindus should be carrying weapons to protect themselves. Other posts mock and celebrate the deaths of Palestinians, blaming Islam for the conflict in the region.  

Certain users circulating this content on X living in Bahrain and Kuwait are being investigated for their comments supporting the death of Palestinians. At least one such case resulted in the firing of an Indian doctor in Bahrain – an incident reminiscent of the spate of terminations that took place across the Gulf in 2021/2022 when Indian Hindu Twitter users shared Islamophobic posts blaming Muslims for the spread of COVID-19. 

Most Hindu right-wing channels and users across social media have expressed unconditional support for Israel and its response to Hamas’ attacks, contributing to the #IStandwithIsrael hashtag trending across the nation. These instances illustrate how this multi-faceted and highly nuanced conflict can be reduced to the unwarranted harassment and abuse of a demographic with no direct involvement. Yet, this is not a new phenomenon in India, a country that grapples with more mis/disinformation than anywhere else in the world. Right-wing groups have mobilised online in IT cells run by members of political parties like the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to churn out both fake posts and Islamophobic content in India. 

The surge in such content from India can be attributed to several key factors. Firstly, the online right-wing machinery has strong incentives to propagate anti-Muslim hatred, both in India and on a global scale. Secondly, a shift in Indian foreign policy has fostered closer ties with Israel, resulting in improved relations between the nations. Many Hindu right-wing accounts online have long celebrated Israel’s approach to handling Palestinian resistance, advocating for the Indian state to apply similar methods in Kashmir. Furthermore, the prevailing stereotype that portrays Muslims as terrorists leads many to extend this misconception to all Palestinians; this bias is closely linked to the support of the Hindu right wing for the Israeli cause as expressed online over the last decade. 

Inconsistencies: Pro-Israel Antisemites 

Despite the professed support for Israel by Hindu right-wing users, they display a significant undercurrent of antisemitism, creating a contradiction in their overall narrative. They frequently criticise Judaism for being one of the three Abrahamic religions, which some users claim turn humans into beasts. Other users criticise the fact that Judaism, like other Abrahamic religions, disapproves of Hinduism’s pantheist approach to God. 

Secondly, large numbers of right-wing groups have also expressed admiration for Hitler and Nazism due to the brutal methods that Hitler adopted to eliminate opposition. The case of a pool parlour in Nagpur replete with Nazi insignia named ‘Hitler’s Den’ was one such example of such blind adoration for Nazism.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz carried an opinion piece highlighting the high level of admiration for Hitler and Nazism in India as recently as 2017.  In an ironic twist, an account named ‘Adolf Hitler’ run by a far-right user in India professed its support for Israel in light of the recent hostilities, revealing significant inconsistencies in and complex dynamics among different right-wing groups. 

As the current situation unfolds, it is likely that Indian right-wing accounts will continue to amplify both disinformation and Islamophobic content. Targets of such campaigns are likely to extend beyond  Muslims in Palestine, impacting Muslims around the world. It is imperative for tech companies to note this phenomenon and take appropriate steps to moderate and remove such content both in public and encrypted spaces. A failure to do so would further embolden such actors and lead to a further spillover of such negativity into other spheres. 

Roshan N is an independent analyst studying propaganda in South Asia.