Hostile Homelands: The new alliance between India and Israel
India and Israel currently have a close relationship that might appear surprising from a historical perspective. After all, India is a country born out of an anti-colonial struggle against British imperialism.
In contrast, the path toward the emergence of Israel was paved by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the British Mandate in Palestine that preceded the Nakba and the creation of Israel in 1948.
India was actually one of only three non-Muslim countries that voted against the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine – alongside Greece and Cuba.
"Essa examines how Hindu supremacism or Hindutva... has had a major role in driving the current ties between India and Israel"
In his book Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, South African journalist Azad Essa recounts how the India-Israel alliance, which a priori would have appeared unlikely, came into being.
Although India and Israel did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1992, both countries were drawn closer by secret military cooperation. Israel provided weapons to India for its wars against China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
With the normalization of relations, India’s reliance on Israeli weapons increased. Other factors facilitated the progressive rapprochement, Essa explains.
For instance, Israel, which possesses nuclear weapons despite never having acknowledged it, did not join the widespread international condemnation of India’s nuclear tests in 1998.
Moreover, after the terrorist Islamist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba killed 195 people in Mumbai in 2008 – including nine Israelis – the Indian state came to see collaboration with the Israeli counterterrorism and arms industry as more important than ever.
Essa examines how Hindu supremacism or Hindutva, as articulated in the writings of politician and writer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in the 1920s, has had a major role in driving the current ties between India and Israel.
Hindutva is the belief in the hegemony of Hinduism in India, an ideology with fascist elements such as its concern for racial purity and intolerance of minorities. Although there are differences between Hindutva and Zionism, they both put forward exclusionary national projects.
— HindutvaWatch (@HindutvaWatchIn) April 16, 2023
The rise of Hindutva has been progressive. In the 1980s and 1990s, the ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continuously increased its parliamentary presence. They would finally be in power between 1998 and 2004. However, Hindutva reached a new level of radicality and influence with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, the candidate of the BJP.
Modi’s past already presaged what was to come. In 2002, when Modi was Chief Minister of the Western Indian state of Gujarat, at least 1,000 people were killed in an anti-Muslim pogrom. A fact-finding report by the British Foreign Ministry at that time blamed Modi for the police’s lack of response to the violence taking place.
The content of the report was first revealed to the public in a BBC documentary released in January 2023. The BBC investigation unnerved the Modi government to the extent that it banned access to the documentary and Indian authorities conducted a raid on the BBC offices in India.
Once in power in New Delhi, Modi adopted some of the most damaging practices in Israel’s repressive playbook. These include the bulldozing of Muslim homes after protests against the government or the implementation of restrictive citizenship laws that promote the rights of Hindus over religious minorities.
The echoes of the forced evictions of Palestinians in the Jerusalemite neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah or the Jewish nation-state law enshrining discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel could not be louder.
Gone are the days of military shadow cooperation. India is currently the biggest market for Israeli weapons companies and receives 37% of their exports. Modi found in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a wilful partner, which led analysts to write about the Bibi-Modi “bromance”. As Essa comments, “Netanyahu saw in Modi a leader who wasn’t just unafraid of being associated with Israel but relished the opportunity to emulate it.”
"Palestine and Kashmir are targets of the ethnic-nationalist ideologies of Zionism and Hindutva that seek their eradication"
The author remarks that both leaders have used “the liberal lexicon of democracy as well as a religious, right-wing civilizational argument to justify ethnonationalism.”
This could be observed when, during a visit to India in 2018, Netanyahu spoke about the Israel-India relationship in the following way: “We’re two of the oldest cultures on earth. We are democracies (…). We are truly your partners. This is a partnership made in heaven. Let us now consecrate it on earth.”
During the same visit, Netanyahu added that Israel and India’s quest for modernity and innovation were “being challenged by radical Islam and its terrorist offshoots from a variety of corners.”
— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) September 28, 2022
In one of its most interesting chapters, Hostile Homelands examines how the Indian state and Americans of Indian origins have sought to replicate the success of Israeli and American Zionists in establishing powerful lobbying organizations in Washington.
During Modi’s premiership, the connections between ultra-nationalist Hindu lobbying groups and pro-Zionist organizations have been institutionalized. And as Essa explains, Islamophobia has often been a powerful glue binding them together.
These lobbying organizations have followed a common strategy that demonizes legitimate protest against the Indian and Israeli states as terrorism, something made easier by the context of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11.
A further parallel between Modi’s India and Israel is to be found, particularly in recent years, in the situation of India-administered Kashmir – the region as a whole is contested and administered by India, Pakistan, and China.
In August 2019, the Indian government suspended the autonomy of India-administered Kashmir and deployed thousands of extra troops to what was already one of the world's most militarized zones. Modi’s move directly succeeded his re-election in May 2019, when he renewed his large majority in parliament.
Modi’s government is facilitating the arrival of Hindu settlers in Kashmir to change the demographic makeup of the area, where Muslims are the majority. Essa remarks that “Palestine and Kashmir are targets of the ethnic-nationalist ideologies of Zionism and Hindutva that seek their eradication.”
Kashmir is in the process of becoming for India what the West Bank is for Israel. Kashmiris are losing agricultural land to Indian corporations and the army and with them their economic self-sufficiency. Essa writes that “it is of course, only when Kashmiris are economically devastated that India’s job in securing the land will be made even easier.”
Essa does not have many reasons to end his book on a positive note. Nevertheless, he notes that in recent years “there has been an increased awareness among grassroots activists, organizations, academics, and journalists about the close relations between India and Israel and what it portends.”
Hostile Homelands will greatly contribute to this awareness, as it constitutes the first up-to-date book adopting a critical stance towards an alliance with ominous consequences.
Essa’s work is not only original but also well-researched and presented in a fluid style. Considering that the book is relatively short, the reader is likely to be left with the desire to know more. Future critical research on the topic can now build on Essa’s volume.
Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East Blog, Middle East Monitor, Inside Arabia, Responsible Statecraft and Global Policy.
Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3