Anti-Soros Conspiracy Theories Are Going Wild Among India’s Hindu Nationalists
These tropes are finding growing resonance in a country with no history of antisemitism
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Harald Dettenborn
Conspiracy theories about billionaire philanthropist George Soros were not particularly pronounced in India—until recently, that is. Smriti Irani, the minister of minority affairs in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accused Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi of having “hobnobbed” with people connected to Soros. “When it is clear to every Indian what George Soros intends to do, why is Rahul Gandhi hobnobbing with those who are funded by Soros?” she demanded to know at a press conference.
Amit Malviya, also a prominent BJP official, tweeted, “Rahul Gandhi must explain why he met Sunita Viswanath, an associate of George Soros, who has publicly vowed to destabilize India’s democratically elected Govt.” Viswanath, incidentally, is a New York-based human rights activist who has co-founded Hindus for Human Rights, an organization that seeks to reclaim Hinduism, her religion, from the Hindu nationalist ideology advanced by the BJP.
Soros, meanwhile, has certainly criticized Modi—but not “publicly vowed to destabilize” India. To the contrary, in fact. For example, speaking at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, he said India is a democracy but “Modi is no democrat” given that “inciting violence against Muslims was an important factor in his meteoric rise.” He predicted that Modi’s ties with the Adani group, a commodity trading company that has been accused of manipulating share prices and inflating its worth, “will significantly weaken Modi’s stranglehold on India’s federal government and open the door to push for much needed institutional reforms.” And then he added, “I may be naïve, but I expect a democratic revival in India.” Hardly the words of a man who wishes India ill.
But Soros’ actual words or wishes hardly mattered to former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal who noted in a tweet— subsequently deleted—after reading a Wall Street Journal article that criticized Modi: “WSJ is owned by Soros. Explains the anti-Modi virulence of article. No effort to introduce any balance in it. Strings together a litany of smears. No honesty, only hate.”
When it was pointed out that, in addition to being factually incorrect (Soros does not own The Wall Street Journal; media tycoon Rupert Murdoch does along with a whole galaxy of right-wing outlets in many countries including, most prominently, Fox News in the United States), he was playing on an antisemitic conspiracy theory of an all-controlling Jewish person, Sibal asked, “How does antisemitism come into all this?”
I, too, had a question similar to Sibal’s, though not in the same way. Given that Soros conspiracy theories are often antisemitic, and that antisemitism is less prevalent in India than it is elsewhere, how, exactly, does antisemitism “come into all this” in India?
Antisemitism Sans Jews
Soros conspiracy theories—that is, not pointed criticism of things he has actually said or done, but overstated assignment of blame and agency—often rely on antisemitic tropes. This is true even if the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are never uttered, and even if the person spewing the conspiracy theory protests that they don’t think of Soros first and foremost as Jewish.
Take, for example, the idea that Soros is flooding a country with migrants, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has claimed. This not only plays on the idea of Jews as all-powerful and all-controlling, but also the notion that Jewish people are perpetually other and foreign, seeking always to corrode and degrade a nation for some personal agenda. Irani went so far as to accuse Soros of wanting a “government that is pliable to his need.” But, often, the conspiracy works not only because of what is said, but because of what does not need to be said.
Many Modi boosters in the BJP habitually treat any and all criticism of the prime minister’s illiberal policies as an insult to the Indian nation itself. They go after his critics with a vengeance. After Barack Obama gave a televised interview during Modi’s recent U.S. visit, raising concerns about the treatment of Indian Muslims under him, Modi’s ministers went on a warpath. They accused the former president of “hypocrisy,” pointing to his own record of drone bombing of Muslim nations.
But there is still a difference: Their criticism of Obama is based on his record—or at least their read of it. The attacks on Soros, on the other hand, have little resemblance to reality. They turn him into a boogeyman through innuendo and all out fabrications, using “Soros” as a sort of slur, a way to discredit views and people who associate with him.
A Hospitable Country for Jews
India does not have the same history of antisemitism as other parts of the world such as Central and Eastern Europe or the United States where Soros conspiracy theories have taken off. India’s Jewish population is small (an estimated 5,000 Jews live in India today, down from 50,000 or so at their peak in the 1960s), but it has long roots. One of the oldest Jewish communities is in the southern state of Kerala in a neighborhood literally called Jew Town. It got this name, as per legend, when the local raja in the Middle Ages offered Jews independent rule “for as long as the world and the moon exist.”
The Baghdadi Jewish community in Mumbai dates back to around 1730. India was also a haven for Jewish people during World War II: At least 5,000 German-speaking Jews sought—and found—refuge in India from 1933 to 1945, according to historian Margit Franz. Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first prime minister, worked to obtain visas on humanitarian grounds for Jewish refugees. Nehru also sponsored a resolution welcoming Jewish refugees, but it was blocked by Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian freedom fighter who was seeking Germany’s help in ejecting the British from the country at the time.
Closeness between India and Israel has grown after the end of the Cold War. Before that, India, despite its official commitment to non-alignment, leaned toward the Soviet Union and Israel toward the United States. Since then, the two countries have actively pursued diplomatic, commercial and military relations. Modi visited Israel in 2017, the first Indian prime minister to do so, to mark 25 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Resorting to Antisemitic Tropes
That has not made India immune to antisemitism, however. For example, in 2018, Rutgers University’s Audrey Truschke, a historian of South Asia with a Jewish-sounding name, wrote of being the target of vicious antisemitic attacks from Hindu nationalists. “I hope another Hitler comes back and finishes off your people,” someone tweeted, evidently upset because she has challenged the commonplace notion in India that Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed thousands of Hindu temples and forced millions to convert to Islam. Her research found Aurangzeb killed both Hindus and Muslims.
Still, India’s Jewish history, and its history with antisemitism, does not loom as large as that of, say, Austria or Poland or Hungary or even the United States. One could argue that the tropes of “the Jew” as perpetual outsider or manipulator or all-controlling force are less in the air and water in India than they are in other parts of the world where anti-Soros conspiracy theories have taken hold. But because they are in the air and water of the world, it is easy to pull them and use them for the Indian context when politically convenient.
What is remarkable about antisemitic conspiracy theories is that they can function whether or not the tropes that they rely on are innately understood to be about Jewish people or not. Let us pretend that any of the aforementioned figures had never heard the charge that Soros conspiracy theories were antisemitic. Let us imagine that they did not know that language similar to that used against Soros has appeared in violent manifestos. Let us say that they and those listening to them did not know that Soros was Jewish, or, even if they did, that they had no idea that, for example, a line like “this Jewish person controls the newspaper and that’s why it is so negative toward the government” was an antisemitic trope.
How Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories Work
Even if all of that were true, the function of the conspiracy theory would be similar. It still relies, after all, on an all-powerful outsider who seeks to destroy and degrade for sinister, self-serving reasons. This outsider is still assigned too much agency, and what he has actually said and done is still wildly overstated. And those associated with this outsider, either in reality or in the mind of the conspiracy theorist, are still turned into mere puppets who—again, by association—have been given nefarious aims against the state.
The reason that Soros conspiracy theories are so powerful and popular in the first place—so much so that they have traveled all the way to New Delhi—is in no small part because antisemitic tropes allow them to work as a kind of shorthand. They are potent precisely because antisemitic tropes are potent. The very use of these conspiracy theories, then, cannot be separated from antisemitism, which is partly why the theories are being trotted out in the first place. They would work nearly not as well if they were lobbed against a new or unfamiliar group or if they weren’t of a kind always used against the particular group.
In the United States, Soros is accused of hijacking democracy. In India, he is charged with trying to destabilize India. People in the United States may be more familiar with antisemitism than in India, but, in both cases, those spewing this rhetoric inflate Soros’ power. In both cases, anyone with a perceived connection to him is depicted as anti-national. That is how antisemitic conspiracy theories function. Whether or not these theories are actively understood to be antisemitic by their proponents does not change this logic.
So, to answer Sibal’s question, how does antisemitism come into all this? In much the same way that it does everywhere else.
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