How Hindu Nationalists Became Best Friends With Israel
Essa’s Hostile Homelands incisively probes this shift in India’s stance through a keen analysis of the history of the India-Israel relationship as well as the current ideological affiliation between Zionism and Hindutva. A deathly combination of geopolitics, trading relations, and ethnonationalism, Essa demonstrates, has enormous implications for the occupations of both Kashmir and Palestine.
India’s first prime minister simplistically reduced the conflict in Palestine as parallel to Hindu-Muslim relations in India, calling it a British ‘imperialist diversion.’
Probing the genesis of India-Israel relations, Essa begins with India’s anti-colonial journey and the role that the partition of Palestine played in Indian nationalist debates on the partition of India and Pakistan. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, simplistically reduced the conflict in Palestine as parallel to Hindu-Muslim relations in India, calling it a British “imperialist diversion.” On this reading, Zionists in Palestine and the Muslim League in India were said to have fallen prey to divisive British tactics in asking for separate homelands.
Essa unpacks this fallacious reasoning to point out the difference between the Zionist settler-colonial imperative for an ethnonationalist Jewish state and the Muslim League’s demand for a state of their own. The latter was, after all, based on the fear of being a persecuted minority in a Hindu-majoritarian state, given the presence of Hindutva ideology even among members of the secularist Indian National Congress (INC) of the time.
Essa examines India’s public record of support for Palestine with a critical lens, probing the role of India’s own political interests beyond any apparent ideological investment in anti-colonial solidarity. For Nehru, support for Palestine was also a consolidation of the INC’s “brand of international solidarity with anticolonial movements worldwide.” Yet, by 1950, India had recognized Israel. And despite public support for the Palestinian liberation movement, a dance of covert relations characterized India-Israel relations even in the early years of India’s independence. These relations included India’s purchase of arms from Israel for the 1962 war with China and the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
God, or the Devil, is always in the details. And so, through the thesis that India’s relationship with Israel is also a history of perception management and the pragmatism of political interests, Essa charts the complexities of this long and winding alliance. India’s anti-colonial solidarity, in the form of public condemnation of Israel, was also coupled with admiration for Israel’s aggression and military might, as demonstrated by the 1967 war. By the 1980s, a young Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of India included embarking on the “modernizing” path of neoliberalism by building closer relations with Israel and the United States. What the INC regarded as a “closer relationship” has transformed into today’s Hindutva-Zionist alliance, which proclaims a “civilizational affinity” between the two states.
In tracing the more recent history of this affinity through burgeoning trade relations, a strong military alliance, and ethnonationalist ideology, Essa puts his finger on the contradictory nature of Hindutva’s kinship with Zionism. Hindutva emerged from its admiration for European fascism, which targeted Jewish peoples. Hindutva leaders saw “the Jewish question” in Europe as akin to “the Muslim problem” in India. Yet Hindutva’s admiration for Zionist ethnonationalism is based on its “religious backbone,” a statecraft fronted by a mythical, hyperopic past that conjures up visions of an ancient civilization.
This statecraft dovetails with the clout exerted through lobbying abroad. Hostile Homelands is particularly useful in shedding light on diasporic Hindutva organizations and their connections with US-based Zionist groups. Indeed, the Hindutva diaspora has built its own influence in the corridors of power in the United States. Accompanying this lobby work is the labor of silencing those who protest Hindutva’s casteist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian violence in India and in the diaspora. Cast in the progressive language of anti-racism, diasporic Hindutva organizations have taken a page from the playbook of Zionist organizations, which direct claims of antisemitism against anti-Zionist and Palestinian activism. Hindutva organizations now often allege that critics of Hindutva ideologues or the Indian state are “Hinduphobic.”
Essa pulls no punches in speaking of India and Israel’s respective settler-colonial occupations of Kashmir and Palestine. In particular, Kashmir is placed within Hindutva’s larger project of ethnonationalism in India, involved in everyday violence against Muslims more generally. In Kashmir, the rule is settler colonialism through land dispossession and demographic change.
Essa does note that the occupations of Kashmir and Palestine are not the same — and, indeed, their histories must be differentiated. As Fayez Sayegh, a stalwart of the Palestinian liberation movement, has illustrated, early Zionists explicitly pursued their vision of building a homeland through colonization. For example, the World Zionist Organization, a federation of societies and councils, established bodies such as the Jewish Colonial Trust (1898) and the Colonization Commission (1898). Kashmir has a different history. Regions that comprised the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir were sold by the British to alien rule in 1846.
In 1947, during the partition of British India into the newly created nation-states of India and Pakistan, Kashmiris were fighting a freedom struggle against the Maharaja of Kashmir. Given that the British offered the option of accession to either India or Pakistan, Kashmir became subject to contestation between the two nation-states, as it was a Muslim-majority state with a Hindu ruler. The Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to India in exchange for protection against an invasion from tribal frontiersmen who had come to support the rebellion against the Maharaja. However, the accession was temporary — and based on the condition that the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir would decide their political future. Pakistan and India officially went to war in 1948.
A UN-mediated cease-fire the following year resulted in the partition of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. UN Security Council resolutions called for an impartial plebiscite to ascertain the will of the state’s peoples. Yet this plebiscite never came. By the 1950s, India incorporated the Kashmir regions it controlled through a constitutional process, granting them autonomy. Yet, as scholars argue, this autonomy was only nominal, and a settler-colonial logic has governed India’s desire to control Kashmir ever since.
While their histories are different, there are parallels between Kashmir and Palestine. Both share a record of British colonial maneuvers that facilitated the catastrophes of settler colonialism and occupation. Both Kashmir and Palestine were raised as issues in the early years of the formation of the United Nations. While the UN partitioned Palestine, it was unable to implement the conditions for a plebiscite in Kashmir.
In Hostile Homelands, Essa focuses on how the current alliance between India and Israel links the two occupations as “oppressive methods” are shared and justified on comparable grounds. These are similar methods, Essa points out, to ones used by China in Tibet or Morocco in Western Sahara. But the Indian-Israeli arms trade; its partnership in the making of weapons, surveillance techniques, and technology; and its joint training exercises build mutual support for the occupations of Kashmir and Palestine.
Essa articulates the post-2019 acceleration of settler colonialism in Kashmir in stark terms as a neoliberal takeover in the context of military occupation. This has included significant changes to land laws and the land rights of the peoples of Kashmir. Changes to these laws have meant non-Kashmiris can apply for domicile rights and buy land where these rights were once reserved for Kashmiris. By 2021, four million non-Kashmiri settlers were issued domicile certificates. Demographic change is thus materializing. In 2021, the Indian government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Dubai government “for real estate development, industrial parks, IT towers, multipurpose towers, logistics, medical college, super specialty hospital and more.” This March, the Indian ministry of mines signed off on a ninety-nine-year lignite mining lease with the Israel-based company Arava. According to Greenpeace, lignite is much more harmful than coal, generating more CO2 emissions and increasing the risk of lung cancer, bronchitis, and heart disease.
The transfer of agricultural land to the Indian state and private corporations, the diversion or sale of forest land for military and corporate uses, the eviction and dispossession of people from their houses and lands, the silencing of Kashmir’s once vibrant media that thrived despite being in a conflict zone, the criminalization and arrests of journalists and human rights defenders, including the globally renowned Khurram Parvez — all of this has been a rapid assault on Kashmiri communities already bearing the brunt of decades of human rights violations. Kashmir’s Muslim majority provided an alibi for Indian secularism. For the Hindutva regime, Kashmir is touted as a cornerstone of Hindu civilization, one that warrants the elimination (through assimilation or minoritization) of Muslims. A Hindu Rashtra — or Hindu polity — has been integral to Hindutva’s idea of India, modeled on a muscular, masculinist racial and fascist European idea of the nation-state. Essa emphasizes that Kashmir has been “fundamental to India — be it secular or a Hindu Rashtra.”
Since 2019, India has drawn on Israel’s playbook through the discourse of a “civilizing quest” in Kashmir. Settler colonialism has been pink-washed and gender-washed through the argument that the removal of Kashmir’s nominal autonomy brought equal rights for women and LGBTQ communities. These arguments are disingenuous. The Indian Supreme Court’s decriminalization of homosexuality was already applicable in Kashmir before 2019. Gendered violence in Kashmir, scholars have argued, must be understood in the context of India’s military occupation. In the same way that queer rights and gender rights are used to launder settler colonialism, development and democracy provide ideological justification for India’s rule in Kashmir. While India and Israel each claim to be democratic states, Essa exposes their right-wing ethnonationalisms that support each other’s settler-colonialist endeavors.
Hostile Homelands ends with a sense that Indian soft power has been dented by its descent into a “proto-fascist” state, especially through the efforts of transnational anti–arms trade activism. In touching upon this activism, the book also raises questions beyond its particular scope. In what historical light should we place the anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles of the twentieth century given the settler colonialism of postcolonial states like India, recently branded the “mother of democracy”?
Sumit Ganguly’s recent review of Hostile Homelands argues that Essa offers a “one-sided account” of Kashmir. In making this argument, Ganguly appears to parrot the Indian government’s narrative that the indigenous Kashmiri struggle for self-determination can only be labeled Pakistan-sponsored “terrorism.” Pakistan, one must remember, has been a stakeholder in the Kashmir dispute since 1947. Ganguly suggests that the Indian government simply makes rational choices regarding its national security interests when it buys arms from Israel because of its two-front border with Pakistan and China. The two borders that Ganguly speaks of are, in fact, partially the borders of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, India’s border issue with Pakistan and China is about the unresolved issue of Kashmiri self-determination. In the context of the Indian-Israeli arms trade, Ganguly suggests that the ideological affinities of Hindutva and Zionism are merely coincidental. Yet such an approach to questions of settler colonialism and occupation is shockingly impervious to the violence of military occupation and questions of democracy.
A more careful reading of Hostile Homelands, I suggest, necessarily sets us on the path of thinking through what the practice of democracy means in a militarized world of networked ethnonationalisms, settler colonialisms, and occupations.