Hostile ideologies: Hindutva and Zionism march hand in hand

A book cover of Hostile Homelands depicts an abstract map of purple and orange countries drifting apart

Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel by Azad Essa, Pluto Press (2023)

India has become the largest importer of Israeli weapons in the second decade of the 21st century. The world’s largest democracy and a symbol of anti-colonial resistance has turned into a key ally of the Israeli settler-colonial apartheid regime. Journalist Azad Essa traces this transformation through an analysis of the deep changes that have swept India and that have made it turn against Palestine and Palestinian rights.

Vijay Prashad’s book Namaste Sharon, from 2003, had set to address this very matter before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s time, focusing on the love affair between India and Ariel Sharon, one of the biggest war criminals in Israeli history. Though Prashad’s book was groundbreaking at the time – despite some inaccuracies regarding the Israeli side (and his choice of defining Israel’s colonial ideology as “Sharonism”) – it had been in urgent need of an update to cover India’s new political developments: the gradual rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power, especially after winning the most parliamentary seats in 1996; Modi’s election to prime minister in 2014; and the annexation of Kashmir and Jammu in 2019.

Azad Essa’s book is exactly this much-needed update.

Essa, unlike Prashad, focuses his attention on India and the rise of the Islamophobic Hindutva ideology, as well as the geopolitical configuration that drove India to reconsider its position on Palestine.

Essa gets a couple of facts wrong here and there about Palestine, the Nakba and Israel, but his book is not intended as a resource to learn about Israeli colonialism and apartheid. He assumes a great deal of knowledge by readers on the topic already and focuses instead on the Indian side, which is rarely covered by books on Palestine. Next to countless books on US and European complicity with Israeli crimes, a book that sheds light on India’s interests in allying with Israel is very important.

Because of Essa’s focus on Indian politics, he sadly misses the chance to investigate the reasons why the Israeli government has courted India as an ally. Israel’s attitude toward India is conflicted, something that is not highlighted in the book. For example, Israeli arms companies have complained about the Indian requirement that arms deals take the form of technology transfer, with production lines established in India. They bemoan that Indian forces routinely reject training by Israeli “security experts,” which is crucial to the business model of many of Israel’s arms companies.

It would be very interesting if the author had reported on the notorious 2009 promotional video by Israeli weapons manufacturer Rafael, spoofing a Bollywood song and dance scene. The video should have offended the Indian military brass, but somehow it didn’t sabotage Israel’s arms exports to India.

Another point sorely missing from the book is a discussion of corruption. Essa makes an offhand mention of corruption scandals tied to India’s arms deals with Israel, but does not cover the scandals themselves. We hear nothing about the type and extent of bribes paid and how India once blacklisted the state-owned Israel Military Industries (IMI), which was later purchased by Elbit Systems, for bribing an Indian business executive. IMI (now known as IMI Systems) was only removed from the blacklist following quiet lobby efforts by the Israeli government.

Another issue missing from the book is how Israeli politicians consider India to be an alternative market to Europe and a way to avoid the impact of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

In 2013, as the Israeli government panicked about EU guidelines on financing Israeli projects in settlements, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister at the time, traveled to India, claiming that Israeli agricultural expertise had shepherded in a new boom crop of cucumbers in India.

The high point of the book is the comparison of the Indian rule of Kashmir with the Israeli occupation regime in the West Bank and Gaza. The story of Sandeep Chakravorty, the Indian consul general in New York who explained on the record in 2019 that India would use Israel as a “model” for its own policy in Kashmir, is shocking. So is the mass blinding of hundreds of Kashmiris by pellet guns – a so-called non-lethal tactic seemingly straight from the playbook of Israeli occupation forces in East Jerusalem.

Beyond the shock value of these stories, however, the book offers a deep analysis and understanding of how the values of freedom and equality, which were once so strongly tied to India’s anti-colonial heritage, have eroded. This erosion has taken place through the Indian government’s othering of Muslims and its right-wing populism, which, at times, becomes unabashed admiration of fascism by the RSS – a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization – and its vigilante violence, which catapulted Narendra Modi to power.

Azad Essa finds the root of the decline in India’s democratic and anti-colonial values in Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency in 1975. Although she was the leader of the Congress party and a friend to Yasser Arafat, utilizing fear to crack down on freedoms is a door that, once opened, is very difficult to close again.

Dr. Shir Hever is the military embargo coordinator of the Palestinian BNC (Boycott National Committee) of the BDS Movement.