SRINAGAR, India (AP) — From Western capitals to Muslim nations, protest rallies over the Israel-Hamas war have made headlines. But a place that is known for it vocal pro-Palestinian stance was noticeably quiet: Indian controlled cashmere.
Indian authorities have banned all solidarity protests in Muslim-majority Kashmir and asked Muslim preachers not to mention the conflict in their sermons, residents and religious leaders told The Associated Press.
The restrictions are part of India’s efforts to curb any form of protest that could lead to calls for an end to New Delhi’s rule in the disputed region. They also reflect a shift in India’s foreign policy under the populist prime minister Analysts say he is distancing himself from his longstanding support for the Palestinians.
India has long walked a fine line between the warring factions and has always maintained close relations with both sides. While India strongly condemned the October 7 attack by the militant group Hamas and expressed solidarity with Israel, it called for compliance with international humanitarian law amid the rising number of civilian deaths in Gaza.
But in Kashmir, the silence is painful for many.
“From a Muslim perspective, Palestine is very important to us and we fundamentally need to raise our voices against the oppression there. But we are forced to remain silent,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a key resistance leader and Muslim cleric. He said he had been placed under house arrest every Friday since the war began to prevent him from leading Friday prayers at the region’s main mosque.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in the Himalayan region, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety. In 2019 New Delhi has revoked the region’s semi-autonomydrastically curb any form of disagreement, Civil rights and media freedom.
Kashmiris have long shown strong solidarity with Palestinians and often staged large anti-Israel protests during previous fighting in Gaza. These protests often led to street clashes demanding an end to Indian rule, leaving dozens dead.
Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist, was one of the first global leaders to quickly express solidarity with Israel and call the Hamas attack “terrorism.” However, on October 12, India’s Foreign Ministry released a statement reaffirming New Delhi’s position supporting the creation of a “sovereign, independent and viable State of Palestine, living within secure and recognized borders and side by side in peace with Israel lives.”
Two weeks later, India abstained from the United Nations General Assembly vote calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, a departure from its usual voting record. New Delhi said the vote did not condemn Hamas’ October 7 attack.
“This is unusual,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.
India “views Israel’s attack on Gaza as a counterterrorism operation aimed at eliminating Hamas and not directly targeting Palestinian civilians, exactly how Israel views the conflict,” Kugelman said. He added that from New Delhi’s perspective, “such operations do not stop at humanitarian ceasefires.”
India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar tried to justify India’s abstention.
“It’s not just a government view. “If you ask an average Indian, terrorism is an issue that is very close to people’s hearts because very few countries and societies have suffered as much from terrorism as we have,” he said at a media event in New Delhi on Saturday.
Although Modi’s government has provided humanitarian aid to the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, many observers saw its ideological alignment with Israel as potentially worthwhile as the ruling party in New Delhi prepares for several state elections this month and key national elections next year.
The change in government is in line with widespread support for Israel among India’s Hindu nationalists, who form a key vote bank for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. It is also reflected in Indian television channels’ coverage of the war from Israel. The report is believed to be broadly consistent with comments made by Hindu nationalists on social media anti-Muslim sentiment This has contributed to the rise of Modi’s party in the past.
Praveen Donthi, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the war, unlike other global conflicts, could have domestic implications because of India’s large Muslim population. Around 200 million Muslims live in India, making up the largest minority in the predominantly Hindu country.
“In this edition, India’s foreign and domestic policies come together,” said Donthi. “New Delhi’s pro-Israel shift gives new ground to the country’s right-wing ecosystem that routinely targets Muslims.”
India’s foreign policy has historically supported the Palestinian cause.
In 1947, India voted against the United Nations resolution establishing the State of Israel. It was the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as a representative of the Palestinians in the 1970s and granted the group full diplomatic status in the 1980s.
After the PLO initiated a dialogue with Israel, India finally established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.
This relationship expanded into a security relationship after 1999, when India fought a limited war with Pakistan over Kashmir and Israel supported New Delhi with arms and ammunition. Relations have grown steadily over the years, with Israel becoming India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia.
After Modi won his first term in office in 2014, he became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to New Delhi the following year and called the relationship between New Delhi and Tel Aviv a “marriage made in heaven.”
Weeks after Netanyahu’s visit Modi visited the occupied West Bank City of Ramallah, a first for an Indian prime minister, and held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “India hopes that Palestine will soon become a sovereign and independent country in a peaceful atmosphere,” Modi said.
However, Modi’s critics are now drawing comparisons between his government and Israel’s, claiming it has taken certain measures such as: Demolition of houses and propertiesas a form of “collective punishment” against Muslim minorities.
Even outside Kashmir, since the start of the war, Indian authorities have largely halted protests expressing solidarity with the Palestinians, citing the need to maintain communal harmony and law and order.
Some people were briefly detained by police even in states governed by opposition parties for participating in pro-Palestinian protests. The only state where there have been massive pro-Palestinian protests is southern Kerala, which is ruled by a left-wing government.
But in Kashmir, enforced silence is seen not only as a violation of freedom of expression, but also as an impairment of religious duty.
Aga Syed Mohammad Hadi, a Kashmiri religious leader, was unable to lead the last three Friday prayers as he was under house arrest on those days. He said he wanted to hold a protest against “Israel’s naked aggression.” The authorities did not comment on such house arrests.
“The police initially allowed us to condemn Israel’s atrocities in the mosques. But last Friday they said it was not even allowed to talk (about Palestinians) in the mosques,” Hadi said. “They said we could only pray for Palestine – that too in Arabic, not the local Kashmiri language.”