A Tale of Two Bulldozers

A Tale of Two Bulldozers

What India’s demolition of Muslim homes reveals about the India-Israel relationship.


Twitter feeds in India and around the world were recently inundated with heartbreaking scenes of citizens in North Delhi’s Muslim-majority Jahangirpuri neighborhood weeping over the remains of their destroyed homes. Aerial images of the scene showed piles of wood and scrap metal that had once been houses and businesses reduced to rubble and surrounded by hundreds of heavily-armed soldiers and police officers.

Looking at these images, it is not difficult to believe that they depict the aftermath of some sort of violent attack. In fact, however, the destruction in Jahangirpuri was not the result of a terrorist bombing or a riotous mob, but rather was the work of government-owned bulldozers, sent in to demolish homes and shops that were “illegally encroaching” on public land. The demolitions took place in the wake of communal clashes over the previous weekend, sparked when a procession of Hindus celebrating the festival of Hanuman Jayanti marched through the predominantly Muslim area, brandishing weapons and shouting the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” (“Glory to Lord Ram”)—a rallying cry of Hindu extremists—as they neared a mosque. The procession was met by thrown stones, and violence soon broke out, resulting in several injuries and dozens of arrests.

In response to the violence, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation—the local governing body, controlled by India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—moved in with bulldozers and hundreds of police officers; the destruction continued for hours even after the Supreme Court issued a stay order. The demolitions in Jahangirpuri came just days after the BJP government in the state of Madhya Pradesh similarly bulldozed the homes of suspected “rioters” in the city of Khargone, and echo the tactic of demolishing homes belonging to accused criminals that has been championed by Yogi Adityanath, the far-right chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

If the scenes from Jahangirpuri, Khargone, and Uttar Pradesh seem familiar, that’s because they are. We’ve seen these same images 2,500 miles away in Palestine, where the demolition of Palestinian homes and businesses by Israeli authorities—using, in many cases, the same make of bulldozers that tore down Muslim homes in Jahangirpuri—is an ever-present reality. It is estimated that in 2021 alone, Israeli forces demolished 937 structures, displacing nearly 1,200 people. These demolitions are so prevalent that for many Palestinians, the bulldozer has become a symbol of the Israeli occupation. As in Jahangirpuri and Khargone, where BJP leaders justified the demolitions on the grounds that the structures being torn down were “illegal encroachments,” Israeli officials fall back on the paper-thin justification that the homes in question were built “illegally,” without proper permits—never mind the fact that Israeli authorities approve just 1.5 percent of building permit applications made by Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the construction of blatantly illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues at a record pace with the explicit sanction of the Israeli state. As in India, where bulldozers have been used as a way of sending a message to suspected “rioters” and “criminals,” Israel routinely uses house demolitions as a form of illegal collective punishment, targeting the homes and families of Palestinians who are accused of engaging in armed resistance.

The fact that bulldozers have cropped up in both India and Israel as a chilling symbol of state repression is no coincidence. On the contrary, the nature of the repression itself is common to both cases: In both India and Israel, the far-right regimes that govern the two countries share a common vision of a ethnic-majoritarian apartheid state, and are willing to go to extreme lengths to realize that vision. As they both seek not only to make that nightmare real but to do so while still maintaining some semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, it is not surprising that they have found natural allies in each other.

The affinity between India and Israel has deep roots. The most notorious example is, of course, the close security relationship between the two nations. India accounts for 46 percent of Israel’s total arms exports, making it the largest buyer of Israeli weapons, and the Modi government recently made headlines for purchasing Israeli spyware that it then used to illegally surveil and target journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition leaders. This affinity extends to the relationship between the countries’ leaders, as well—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are famously close, so much so that in the run-up to the September 2019 Israeli snap election, a 10-story banner depicting the two leaders shaking hands was displayed at the Tel Aviv headquarters of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. Even since Netanyahu was ousted in June 2021, Modi has demonstrated a similar closeness with his successor, Naftali Bennett—when the two leaders met in Glasgow last November, Bennett described Modi as “the most popular man in Israel” and jokingly entreated him to “come and join my party.”

The affinity between India and Israel’s far-right regimes, however, goes far beyond surface-level issues like the arms trade or even the personal relationships between their leaders. In fact, it extends back to the very roots of the two regimes, and more importantly, to the ideologies that motivate them: Hindutva and Zionism. Both movements are fundamentally ethno-nationalist in their orientation, and seek the establishment and perpetuation of a majoritarian state in the supposed “homeland” of the national majority—for Hindutva, this means a Hindu state (or “Hindu Rashtra”) on the Indian subcontinent, and for Zionism, this means a Jewish state in historic Palestine. Of course, the two movements have achieved varying degrees of progress toward this goal—while Zionists succeeded in establishing the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 and are now primarily concerned with maintaining its security, India has remained since its independence a nominally secular, liberal democracy, for which the primary objective of contemporary Hindu nationalists is to hijack and transform into the Hindu Rashtra of their dreams.

Beyond this parallel broader vision, both ideologies also share a number of key ideological themes that highlight the close entanglement between the two movements. These include territorial maximalism (the Hindu nationalist vision of “Akhand Bharat,” or “Undivided India,” closely echoes the “Greater Israel” vision that is closely associated with the Revisionist Zionist movement), a politics of national renewal (both movements present the establishment of a majoritarian state as key to restoring the past glory of their respective “nation” after centuries of domination and oppression), and the weaponization of victimhood claims (those who speak out against these ideologies, particularly in the West, are invariably met with cynical claims of anti-Semitism and “Hinduphobia”).

The most important commonality between the Hindutva and Zionist projects, however, is the fact that both movements have been forced to contend with a large national minority—Indian Muslims in the case of Hindutva, Palestinians in the case of Zionism—who are, rightfully, unwilling to submit quietly to these movements’ majoritarian aspirations. In order to overcome this inconvenient reality, both governments have adopted an exclusionary approach to national minorities, turning them into scapegoats on which the majority’s discontentment can be easily blamed. The nature of this scapegoating varies—in Israel, for example, nationalist politicians blame Palestinians for undermining the peace process and refusing to recognize Israel, while in India Muslims are blamed for everything from spreading Covid to seducing Hindu women—but in both cases, it serves the same purpose of legitimizing oppression. Moreover, both India and Israel weaponize national security concerns against predominantly Muslim national minorities, casting suspicion on them as actual or potential terrorist threats. In both cases, the purpose of this majoritarianism is the same—to send the message to minorities that regardless of what commitments might exist on paper, neither country is “a state of all its citizens.”

When we see heartbreaking images of Palestinian and Indian Muslim civilians crying over the wreckage of their demolished homes, it is all too easy to view them in a vacuum—disparate scenes in countries located thousands of miles apart. In fact, however, these images are much more closely connected than they may initially appear. The ideologues who first sketched out these philosophies were certainly aware of these connections, which is why Hindutva’s founding fathers—V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar—both spoke favorably about the Zionist movement and expressed their hopes that it would succeed in establishing a Jewish state.

Highlighting these connections is not just a valuable method of analysis—it is a critical tool in the fight for human rights. Transnational oppression requires a transnational struggle for liberation, and it is only by shedding light on the connections between seemingly disparate cases of oppression that we can begin the difficult but crucial task of building international solidarity between all oppressed peoples and their allies in the struggle—from Jahangirpuri to Palestine.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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