Holding pro-Israel banners aloft, some 70,000 people assembled in the center of Calcutta on Wednesday to mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of the far-right, anti-Muslim Hindu Samhati nationalist movement.
The rally, which organizers are claiming is the “largest pro-Israel rally in history,” eclipses a similar demonstration held in 2014, which saw a reported crowd of 20,000.
Wednesday’s rally included speeches by nationalist figures such as Maj. Gen. Gagandeep Bakshi, a decorated career soldier expert in counter-terrorism, from a stage in the heart of one of the poorest areas of India. The event culminated in a celebratory presentation to the crowd of a family of 14 former Muslims who converted to Hinduism.
Banner slogans included, “Jerusalem: Eternal Capital of Israel,” “India-Israel: Ancient Cultures, Modern Miracles,” and the inclusive “India-Israel Represents Honoring Women’s rights, Freedom of Speech, Respect for Human Rights, Liberty and Equality for All, Democracy.”
According to a press release, Hindu Samhati founder Tapan Ghosh passed a resolution “by voice vote” urging the Indian government to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Ghosh told the large Hindu nationalist crowd, “Moving our embassy to Jerusalem will honor Israel’s long-standing commitment to peace and strengthen the bond between our two ancient peoples.”
Ghosh compared the millennia-long struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland in Israel to the battle Hindus now wage in India, according to the press release. “In West Bengal… Hindus are being attacked by hostile neighbors just as Jews are fighting for their existence in little Israel. This struggle for survival unites Hindus and Jews, apart from the 2,500 years of glorious history that unites both the communities,” according to the release.
The rally ended as violence broke out among Hindu Samhati members and journalists after the on-stage presentation of the family of converts.
According to The Indian Express, Hindu Samhati leader Ghosh told the crowd, “Hussain Ali and his wife Moyna Bibi, as well as 12 family members, have been reconverted. Their ancestors were converted, and now we welcome them as Hindus on stage. Earlier we used to do this (conversion) secretly, but now we will do this in public.”
According to The Hindu, when journalists attempted to interview the family, Hindu Samhati supporters attacked and pushed them.
Among the detained or arrested Hindu Samhati members was Ghosh, who was taken for questioning, according to online news site The Hindu.
Joint commissioner of Kolkata police Praveen Kumar Tripathi told The Hindustan Times that “Hindu Samhati chief Tapan Ghosh and three other activists have been arrested in the case of assault on media persons in Kolkata on Wednesday evening.”
What is Hindu Samhati and what does it stand for?
Ghosh founded Hindu Samhati in West Bengal after leaving the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) Hindu nationalist movement in 2008. The RSS supported the establishment of Israel in 1948. West Bengal has seen increased Hindu-Muslim tensions in recent years.
According to news source NDTV, “Till recently, the Hindu Samhati was viewed as a fringe group and, politically, largely ignored. But over the last couple of years, it has grown a public profile by being vocal and active during the communal tensions at Bashirhat and earlier at Dhulagarh.”
Ghosh describes himself on Twitter as an “Uncompromising Hindu activist of Bengal. Determined to fight against Islamic aggression & expansion.” In its media material following Wednesday’s rally, the movement states it was founded “to serve the poorest of poor Hindus in rural heartland of Eastern Bharat, which is plagued by Islamist violence, insecurity and thereby poverty.”
“It has emerged as a powerful voice for human rights. Today’s turnout is testimony of the fact that Hindus believe in the India-Israel alliance. The Hindu Samhati leadership promise to work towards closer India-Israel relations in times to come, as these two ancient cultures become modern miracles which together can make the world a better place.”
In October, Ghosh made headlines in London when he was invited to speak in the House of Commons complex by Conservative party MP Bob Blackman, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Hindus.
According to The Hindu, Ghosh is accused of making anti-Muslim statements during a session called “Tolerating the intolerant: The abuse of Hindu human rights in Europe and India.” During his London trip, Ghosh was photographed on a social call with British far-right nationalist Tommy Robinson.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Cabinet Minister Damian Green, who attended a Diwali celebration with Ghosh in October, distanced themselves from the event. The Home Office issued a statement that was quoted in The Middle East Eye, saying Rudd “fundamentally disagrees with Mr Ghosh’s views on Islam… The Home Secretary accepted an invitation from the Hindu Forum of Britain to attend an event in Parliament last week to celebrate Diwali. She did not speak to Mr. Ghosh and was not present when he spoke.”
At Wednesday’s rally, Ghosh appeared unaffected by the London rebuke.
Addressing the crowd, he is quoted in The Indian Express as calling on all Muslim Indians who had converted or reconverted to Hinduism, “When you return, initiate this movement in your districts and blocks — let us welcome all Muslims to Hinduism.”