The Settler-Colonialist Alliance of India and Israel

The Settler-Colonialist Alliance of India and Israel

The Settler-Colonialist Alliance of India and Israel

Over the decades, the two nations have become closer allies in business and politics. We talked to journalist Azad Essa about the origins of this international relationship.


In 1962, after a series of border conflicts over the disputed territory of Aksai Chin—which both China and India claimed, and still continue to claim, as their own—the two countries fought a one-month war. India’s troops in Namka Chu Valley were considerably weaker and the state of Israel quickly responded to India’s request for assistance. Then–Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote to his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, emphasizing his country’s “fullest sympathy and understanding” and offering to provide weapons to Indian forces. Nehru requested that the weapons be sent in unmarked ships, aware that accepting Israeli assistance could affect India’s relations with Arab nations. Ben-Gurion declined and said, “No flag. No weapons.” Eventually, India relented and accepted arms transported in ships with the Israeli flag. And though India lost the conflict, the country was now aware that in times of need, Israel could be counted on as a potential ally.

The two countries have only grown closer since then, as their military and business interests have aligned. Just this year, for example, Indian tycoon Gautam Adani, chairman of the Adani Group, recently acquired the Israeli port of Haifa, where 50 percent of Israeli cargo is handled. Privatizing the port has been a topic of conversation since the early 2000s and was finally completed when Adani submitted his bid, which was supported by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Just days after the acquisition, however, Hindenburg Research released a report accusing the Adani Group of financial malpractice, fraudulent transactions, and share-price manipulation. Modi and Netanyahu spoke days after the release of the report, and Modi emphasized the importance of “the multifaceted India-Israel friendship.” The purchase of the port launched a new chapter of the Israel-India alliance, with some commentators referring to it as the largest deal between the two nations in the private sector.

This image of India as a close collaborator with Israel is not one we hear of often: The story of the Indian independence movement emphasized its anti-colonial stance. The Indian state strategically established itself as a leading actor in the trade boycott of South Africa and later increased the scope of the boycott by issuing additional sanctions. While India maintained a hostile public stance toward Israel, internally there was a lot more interest in collaboration with the state. India was ultimately aware that its position on Israel would affect its relationship with the Arab world. This relationship had great significance, not only because of India’s competition with Pakistan but also because India was concerned that its allies in the Arab world might side with Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

In Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, journalist Azad Essa examines the history of the partnership between Israel and India and the ways in which both states learned from the other in brutally policing borders and suppressing dissent. Both states are engaged in their own violent, settler-colonial projects in Kashmir and Palestine, legalizing the eviction of indigenous communities in the process. By passing the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third Order in 2020, the Indian state gave Indian citizens the right to purchase Kashmiri land. Similarly, in Palestine, Israel targeted the Bedouin communities of Naqab and gave their land to Jewish settlers and the military. The story of Israel’s occupation of Palestine is well known, but what Essa’s book reveals is the way in which Israel exported its techniques of oppression to India, ranging from arbitrary detentions and surveillance to restrictions on mobility and extrajudicial killings.

The Nation spoke with Essa about the nuances of Indian American identity and how Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians has become a model for oppressors around the world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Deeksha Udupa

Deeksha Udupa: When did you first get the idea for this book?

Azad Essa: Being from South Africa and growing up towards the end of apartheid, I was enamored by the concept of international solidarity through boycotts and the very idea that people around the world were thinking about us.

And since I am of Indian origin (with the caveat that there was no India, as we now know it, when my grandparents had come to South Africa), I was told stories about how India had been instrumental in standing up to apartheid government. Later, as a graduate student, I was introduced to the story of Kashmir, and I was struck by how a country that positioned itself as anti-colonial, anti-apartheid, and a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement could also have a colonial project of its own. I subsequently went to Kashmir and was shocked by the militarization. I also traveled to Palestine and immediately felt the connections between the two.

Then Narendra Modi came to power in 2014—and when he did, the floodgates opened. Just like when Donald Trump came to power, it was as if the US had been unmasked; likewise, the Indian and Israeli relationship, too, was unmasked under Modi, and they soon became even closer strategic partners. When the Indian consul general spoke in 2019 about replicating Israeli-style settlements in Kashmir, I was convinced that this was a project I wanted to pursue. This is a book, then, about how oppressors work together.

DU: You write that as India was fighting for its independence, many of its leaders established an anti-colonial and specifically pro-Palestinian stance, which you say was driven by self-interest. What is the history behind that? Why was that stance taken?

AE: When the British Mandate in Palestine was issued in the 1920s, the Indian National Congress looked at the Arab world and saw a similar struggle for independence playing out. India saw partners in the region and saw that they shared a similar type of foe. When Jewish Zionist settlers began arriving in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, Jawaharlal Nehru and, to some extent, Gandhi looked upon those settlers as being agents of the British state. So naturally they veered towards the Palestinians, because they saw the Zionist project as inherently colonial: Nehru and Gandhi made many public statements in support of the Palestinian state, and anti-colonialism became inherent to the INC’s party platform.

But around World War II, things begin to change: The Holocaust changed the world’s relationship to the idea of a Jewish state, and Gandhi’s views evidently changed, too. He told an American journalist in 1946: “The Jews have a good cause…if the Arabs have a claim to Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim.” Yet India also understood at the time that it was in the country’s self-interest to continue being pro-Palestine. The Arab world had the oil that Delhi needed, so why tamper with that? Then there is the matter of Kashmir. When India began its project in Kashmir, it understood that being pro-Palestine, at least publicly, would ensure that partners in the region wouldn’t take Pakistan’s side on the matter.

DU: India’s and Israel’s emphasis on defense and security is animated by a fear of outsiders shared by both Hindu nationalists and Zionists. Can you say more about how the relationship between Israel and India evolved as ideologues in both states increasingly focused their attention on security and defense?

AE: For this answer, we have to go back several decades to the 1960s, to the Sino-Indian War in 1962, and India struggling in the Himalayas. India called upon several countries for assistance, and David Ben-Gurion offered Nehru help, which came in the form of covertly shipped arms. Even though India lost the war, the state still remembers that during a time of need, Israel came forward to help, despite them not having diplomatic ties.

Things further developed in 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. That’s when US involvement in Israel deepened, too: Israel was seen as a reliable outpost in the Middle East that the United States could work with. India looked upon Israel in a similar way and realized that it wanted to emulate Israel in some sense. Dealing with threats from Pakistan and China, the Indian state changed its rhetoric, aligning itself more with strong states like Israel and, to an extent, the US.

The military relationship flourished, in part because of India’s desire in the 1980s to move towards a capitalist, neoliberal economy. For decades, India received most of its arms from the Soviet Union, but it didn’t want to be held hostage to one country when it came to the serious business of weapons. India understood that if it wanted the most advanced technology, Israel would be its ticket to the future. The sharing of technology between India and Israel became an immense part of the relationship. Today, India coproduces drones, assault weapons, and other military hardware with Israel.

DU: In the mid-1970s, there was a wave of Indian migration to the US during the so-called “Emergency Years.” You explain how these Indian migrants to America were also the ones who consolidated the Hindu nationalist project in the US. What was their agenda? What has come out of their project?

AE: In 1975, India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency, and many opposition parties and groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were subsequently banned. Several Hindu nationalists traveled to the US and began building a life here. And a part of building a life here involved exporting the RSS to the United States.

They began building organizations and a community here. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the predominantly caste-privileged Indian population in the US had grown in numbers and had also become quite affluent. Naturally, those Indian Americans who left in the 1970s now wanted to influence the brewing Hindu nationalism back home in India while also being a part of the privatization that was set to take place. They also had the dollars to take part in the neoliberal party that was about to start in India.

In the early 1990s, with the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the communal riots that followed, and with Kashmir reaching a boiling point, Hindu nationalists in the US felt as if they needed to “defend” India and the new project unfolding back home. So they became the defenders of “Brand India.” They did so by invoking memories of Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence, and they downplayed the growing Hindu nationalism in India.

But they also recognized they needed help to have their voices heard by the US government. And this is where the Zionists come in. The Zionists desperately wanted India as an ally to Israel, because this would give Israel further legitimacy in the international arena. And so they helped Indian Americans navigate the political landscape, showing them how to fundraise, lobby, reach the US political establishment, even arranging internships for younger Indian Americans on Capitol Hill.

The Indian American lobby—or, more accurately, the Hindu nationalist lobby—literally modeled itself on organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as they looked to replicate their methods in hustling for influence over the US government.

Another thing the Hindu nationalist lobby accomplished during the 2000s—which is very important given the War on Terror—is that they managed to distinguish themselves from Muslims so they could earn the trust of the American political establishment. Islamophobia was part and parcel of their alignment with the global elite, so to speak.

Another element is caste. Since most of these lobbying organizations are led by upper-caste Hindus, they built the organizations primarily in their own image. In other words, they utilized their upper-caste privilege here to feign whiteness. They also depended on American ignorance about caste and religious differences in India to make sure they could push their own Hindu nationalist agenda in the name of all Indians. The US has become a playground for caste-privileged Hindus.

As Hindu nationalists and Zionists became closer over the years, the Hindutva lobby also began to emulate Zionist tactics in protecting their project or preserving it from criticism. The Hindutva lobby is not very original: They have tried to interfere with US school curriculums; they create blacklists of activists, label all criticism of Hindutva or even India as Hinduphobic—just as the Zionist lobby condemns all criticism of Zionism and Israel as anti-Semitism. These are straight out of the Zionist playbook in the US.

Ultimately, Hindu nationalists have tried to align Indian interests with US power—and given the silence in the media and among US lawmakers about the rise of Hindutva, the occupation in Kashmir, and the attack on India’s minorities, including Muslims and Christians, I’d say they have been pretty successful.

DU: In your book, you emphasize the similarities between India and Israel in how they carry out ethnic cleansing in Kashmir and Palestine, respectively. You mention the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third Order in 2020, which modified or repealed over 400 long-standing laws about union territories. How does ownership of land factor into ethnic cleansing?

AE: In August 2019, the Indian government revoked Article 370 and Article 35A from the Indian Constitution. Article 370 provided the state of Jammu and Kashmir with semi-autonomy, while Article 35A protected the demographic integrity of the state by defining who was a resident and who could purchase land in the state. This is part of a long-standing promise by Hindu nationalists to take control of Kashmir as part of their myth of an undivided India, or Akhand Bharat. For Hindu nationalists, this expands the country’s reach from Afghanistan to Myanmar.

Now when you consider the decades-long Indian occupation and heavy militarization in Kashmir, in which the army has already taken large swathes of land—some of the best land, too—the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, as well as the passing of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, India has opened the floodgates towards demographic change in Kashmir.

This would mean bringing Indians into Kashmir and granting them residency rights, pushing Kashmiris out of their homes or land, and building Hindu-only settlements, like Israel does in occupied Palestine. They have already arbitrarily labeled certain areas “strategic” and taken them away from locals. They have cleared forests and evicted nomad tribal communities. The end goal is to invite big business in and to replace the population. In doing so, India will seek to change the facts on the ground and almost guarantee that should Kashmir ever have a vote or an election, the outcome will be in favor of India. Of course, all of this is being done under the rubric of “development” and “stability” when the objective is very different. And there are many dimensions to the method. For instance, India has now brought Israeli agriculture “experts” to Kashmir, saying they are coming to teach Kashmiri farmers—who have worked the land for centuries—how to improve their yield. But Kashmiris know that the best land will be given to settlers and the army will take whatever they want. And the Israeli “experts” will help India change the geography of the valley to suit India’s interests.

DU: In the final pages of your book, you mention how Israeli weapons have been used in several episodes of ethnic cleansing in places like Rwanda, Cameroon, and Sri Lanka, and you also note that “the Israeli occupation of Palestinians has served as a model for others.” Can you elaborate on this?

AE: Palestine is often referred to as a “laboratory” because Israel depends on its military-industrial complex for its economy and sustenance, and Palestine is the place in which those technologies are first deployed. Israel then depends on authoritarian regimes around the world to use that technology.

In other words, Israeli technology offers an opportunity to replicate the Israeli method—be it surveillance, controlling a population, or quashing dissent. It is a full package.

Kashmir is a perfect example of another region being turned into a sort of testing ground. Both India and Israel already share many tactics. They both attack journalists and criminalize civil society. They both exercise collective punishment on Palestinians and Kashmiris. They both maim protesters. In Palestine, protesters are shot in the limbs. In Kashmir, protesters are blinded by lead pellets. Israeli drones, sensors, surveillance, and machine guns are all there, and Israeli methods of controlling the population have long existed in Kashmir—so much so that India is now producing some of these Israeli weapons in factories across India.

The knowledge—in tech, in policies—shared between these two countries will not just be limited to them; it is being primed for export elsewhere.

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