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A Unity of Supremacy: The Past and the Present of the Indian-Israeli Relations 

India and Israel are related to each other not only through an arms trade. Both countries hold a nationalist superiority approach that is utilised to oppress Muslims, and both misrepresent themselves as progressive and peace-promoting countries. Here LeftEast reprints Guli Dolev-Hashiloni‘s interview with Azad Essa, author of Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel (First published in Hebrew in Sikha Mekomit, 03.08.2023)

In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to India for a diplomatic visit that was declared historic. The warm welcome the Israeli representatives received from the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was a new step up in the tightening alliance between the extreme right governments of both countries. However, this is a bloody alliance, based above all on arms trading. Between 2015 and 2019, for example, the volume of arms sales from Israel to India increased by 175%.

A few months ago, Pluto Press published the book “Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance between India and Israel” by Azad Essa, a senior reporter at Middle East Eye. According to Azad, the reasons for the growing affinity between India and Israel are much deeper than the immediate military needs of the two aggressor countries. The instrumental use of religion – Judaism in Israel, Hinduism in India – as a way to justify Islamophobia; the histories of ethnic cleansing upon independence; the false façade of a peace-seeking country: these are only a few of the historical, political, and ideological similarities that connect Zionism to Hindu nationalism.

Upon the release of the new book, and against the background of the violent ethnic riots taking place in India these very days, I spoke with Azad about the ties between India and Israel, about Hindutva – the ideology of the Indian right, and about the Indian occupation of Kashmir.

Your book explores the reasons that have led to such strong military cooperation between the extreme right-wing governments in Israel and India. But before we dig deep into that, could you perhaps outline for us the current relations between the two countries?

“Today, India buys close to 50% off all arms Israel sells to the world. India has also started co-producing Israeli weapons recently, and this will mark the next stage of the relationship, with India helping to expand the market for Israeli weapons around the world. India will help export Israeli methods to other parts of the world, which makes this alliance particularly dangerous. My book looks at the making of these relations and the military relationship forms the heart of the alliance.”

That explains the smiling pictures of Modi and Netanyahu: one received heaps of weapons, and the other – stacks of money. When did this relationship actually begin?

“Israel first sent weapons to India as early as 1962, when India and China went to war. The two countries did not have diplomatic ties at the time, but it didn’t stop either from working with each other. Also, Israel is not averse to using arms sales as an alternate arm of diplomacy.

Since then, India has routinely purchased weapons from Israel, and Mossad and the Indian foreign intelligence services also began sharing intelligence from the late 60s. But it is only after normalisation of ties in 1992 that the relationship fully takes off.

Ties developed further with the advent of the so-called Global War on Terror following the events of September 11, 2001. Both countries used the War on Terror and the bogey of the ‘Muslim terrorist’ to expand relations and bulk up their weapons arsenal. And after Modi became PM in 2014, the relationship turned into a strategic partnership.”

But according to your book, this is not merely a pragmatic alliance. You point at deep historical similarities between Israel and India and claim that contemporary geopolitics hinge on them.

“Exactly. In fact, the story of the relationship today goes back to the rise of Zionism and Hindutva in the early 20th Century.

The word Hindutva means “Hinduness” or “ways of being Hindu”. The founders of this ideological trend, the right-wing part of the Indian nationalist movement, believed that India was originally a Hindu nation. According to them, the Muslims had contaminated the nation, and India could only return to its former glory if it became a Hindu state once again. So, at the very basic level, both Zionism and Hindutva developed as exclusionary and expansionist political ideologies that instrumentalised religion and demonised Muslims.”

And both did so within the context of British Imperialism.

“Right. But there were also some obvious differences. In Palestine, the project was easier to identify because Zionists came from Europe to embark on their settler-colonial project. On the Indian subcontinent, you had Hindu nationalists and supremacists demarcating an alternate vision for India alongside the Indian National Congress (INC), the main national liberation movement in the region, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who later became the first prime minister of India.

The Hindutva nationalists and supremacists wanted a Hindu state, like the Zionists wanted a Jewish one. In contrast, Gandhi’s INC wanted to build a more inclusive state. It managed to portray itself as secular, democratic, and anti-colonial, but this party as well was dominated by upper-caste Hindus, who were Islamophobic and carried a mythical idea of India as a part of their nation-building vision.

This explains why India, even before Modi, saw the Dalits (the lowest stratum of castes) and the Muslim minority at the bottom of the rung. However, under Modi, Hindutva or Hindu nationalism is now at the very top level of the state, and the project of creating a Hindu State, in the image of a Jewish State, is well underway. 

So in this sense, both Hindutva and Zionism draw on ancient mythology to exert their statehood and entitlement to land and power. They both instrumentalise religion to justify their perspectives.”

But that’s all on the ideological level. How do those parallels look on the ground?

“That’s where Kashmir and Palestine enter our discussion. Because it is in Palestine and Kashmir that the outcomes of Zionism and Hindutva are most visible. The Indian occupation and the Israeli occupation are not the same, but once again, they share many similarities.

Both India and Israel were born with immense acts of ethnic cleansing. In Jammu, an area within Kashmir, historians say that 200,000 Kashmiris were killed, and 500,000 others were displaced. And of course in Palestine there was the Nakba, of which 750,000 Palestinians were expelled. Since then, there has been some form of occupation and settler colonialism in both Kashmir and Palestine.

For both Israel and India, and for both Zionism and Hindutva, controlling Palestine and Kashmir are existential questions. And of course, the tactics are very similar: both Israel and India silence journalists, criminalise civil society, maim protesters, embark on collective punishment, refuse to return bodies of fighters or destroy entire homes belonging to those related to the resistance. Today, Kashmir is known as the world’s most militarised zone, and soldiers and barracks are visible practically everywhere.”

Next to the military occupation, you also write about the soft diplomacy that justifies it. While reading, I was surprised to discover, for example, that the International Yoga-day is an anti-Muslim measure.

“Since Modi became PM in 2014, he has tried to depict yoga as ‘an ancient Indian’ practice and as ‘India’s gift to the world for health, wellness and peace.’ As a part of these efforts, it was his government that introduced a resolution at the UN that called for an International Yoga Day.

While promoting himself as a wise elder, Modi came with a Hindu right-wing supremacist agenda in which Muslims and other minorities have been scapegoated and targeted through public lynchings and intimidation campaigns. So in this way, the issue is not yoga, it is how yoga has been deliberately instrumentalised and weaponised by India and Hindu nationalists to disguise their supremacist project.

Israel does similar things by depicting itself as civilizationally superior, liberal, and peaceful, promoting the rights of LGBTQ people while it oppresses and occupies Palestinians. Israel also does the same when its PR machine portrays Israel as a high-tech hub that is creating innovative solutions for the world – in water management or agriculture. This deliberately disguises the fact that Israel steals land and water, and is a state encroaching on other people’s resources. No wonder, then, that India has such good ties with Israel today.”

Guli Dolev-Hashiloni is an MA student in the Berlin Global History program and a political activist. He is also currently involved in various cinema-related activities, such as Off Screen Film Magazine and Solidarity Tel Aviv Human Rights Film Festival.