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The Craven Alliance of Hindu Fundamentalism and Zionism

A Review of Azad Essa’s Hostile Homelands

November 15, 2023

The Cover of Hostile Homelands by Azad Essa
Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel
by Azad Essa
Pluto Press

Last year, Bollywood director Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files topped box office charts in India and abroad, earning $43 million worldwide against a budget of $2 million. The film depicts the exodus of Hindus from Indian-administered Kashmir in the early 1990s, centering around a college student who learns about the gruesome deaths of his Hindu Kashmiri Pandit parents at the hands of Islamist militants at the time.

The Kashmir Files is proudly heavy-handed about its thesis: that Section 370, which granted a degree of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir from India, has resulted in wholesale, barbaric violence against Kashmir’s Hindu population at the hands of bloodthirsty Islamic militants. India is not violating the human rights of Kashmiri Muslims or engaging in a colonial project by revoking section 370. Rather, India’s occupation of Kashmir, and the 2019 revocation of section 370, is a project to defend human rights.

In this view, India is reclaiming its rightful homeland and defending its true oppressed people: Hindus. The film wades into right-wing culture war tropes, which will be familiar to US audiences, including an unpatriotic professor who indoctrinates her students in a left-wing college campus, and the protagonist’s impassioned speech imploring his classmates to pay attention to the plight of Kashmiri Hindus.

The film was roundly excoriated as blatantly Islamophobic, Hindu Nationalist propaganda designed to provoke violence against Muslims and ramp up support for increased Indian aggression in Kashmir. It specifically uses the word “genocide” to refer to the treatment of Hindus in Kashmir—a response, perhaps, to the fact that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the broader Hindutva, or Hindu Nationalist, movement has been consistently charged with fomenting violence towards Muslims in India and Kashmir.

Indeed, the BJP provided substantial funding for the film; it granted generous tax breaks, and government employees received time off to watch it. According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the film “rattled” an “entire ecosystem” in exposing the supposed “truth” about the conflict: that India’s occupation of Kashmir is a just mission to restore the noble Hindu people to their rightful homeland, as opposed to a project of violent demographic replacement and capitalist extraction.

India’s rightward turn has been reflected in its film industry for some decades, taking the form of American blockbuster-style military action flicks. But The Kashmir Files is notable in that it was the first Bollywood movie to be screened in Israel, with Hebrew subtitles. This premiere is the product of an alliance between Zionists and Hindu nationalists that has been long in the making, despite the strong influence of European fascism upon the development of Hindutva ideology and the earlier sympathy between Hindu nationalists and the Nazis.

The alliance between Zionists and Hindu nationalists has been long in the making, despite the influence of European fascism.

This history is cogently narrated in Azad Essa’s new book Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel. As described in the Foreword, “Zionism and Hindutva are both predicated on creating a supremacist nation built upon a single, united identity.”11. Azad Essa, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2023), 9. Essa’s book does not just describe the relationship between India and Israel but calls into question how we think about national identity, home, and the state—particularly when it is a formerly colonized, marginalized people that in turn embarks on a project of occupation and subjugation.

Nehru’s Congress Party, with a vision of a nominally secular India, was not inclined to support the Zionist project. As Essa relates, “for Nehru, Third World solidarity was more important than a diplomatic alliance with Israel.”22. Ibid., 15. This was largely a matter of perception and politics. It was at that time essential to maintain positive relationships with the Arab world at large as well as with the Muslim elite within India.

Open support for the Zionist project would likely jeopardize these relationships with little benefit to India’s development. And the settlement of European Jews in Palestine was itself a British project. On Palestine Day, September 27, 1936, Nehru delivered a speech in Allahabad—now officially Prayagraj, the Hinduized name that the BJP-led government of Uttar Pradesh imposed on the city in 2018—in which he located India’s fight for independence as “part of a world struggle against imperialism and fascism [including] the struggle that is going on against British imperialism in Palestine.”33. Cited in ibid., 5.

Post-Independence, many of India’s Hindu elite with socialist or liberal leanings, like Rabindranath Tagore, admired Israel’s kibbutz project, and thought India had much to learn from the Zionist project. This had much to do with Israel’s apparent democratic agrarian collectivism which many socialists and leftists envisioned for India. Jyoti Basu, one of the most prominent figures within India’s Communist history, both pre- and post-Independence, openly admired Israel as an existing democratic socialist model. But official policy was still one of indifference, which, as Essa writes, had much to do with “maintaining a self-image for the sake of realpolitik.”44. Ibid., 14.

This bifurcated state of affairs continued into the 1970s, when tensions with Pakistan sent Indian officers into a shadowy alliance with Israel to negotiate arms deals, often through third parties. In 1968, Indira Gandhi’s administration launched RAW, the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s analogue of the CIA. RAW and Mossad began developing defense ties, though an open diplomatic relationship did not exist. Essa points out that India was particularly eager to learn electronic warfare techniques from the Israelis, a developing technology at the time.

Despite this burgeoning military relationship with Israel, in 1974 Indira Gandhi’s administration recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) “as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” making India the only country to do so.55. Ibid., 20 India was officially a supporter of the Palestinian cause and part of the Non-Aligned Movement, supposedly in solidarity with oppressed and colonized societies. This may have been partially because of Third World solidarity with colonized peoples, but it also largely had to do with the need to form alliances with the Arab world, lest Pakistan develop and edge India out of these relations.

Essa asks:

How did India, the first nonArab state to recognize the … PLO and one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement that opposed colonialism and apartheid, simultaneously maintain its colonial occupation of Kashmir since 1947 and metamorphose into extolling Israel’s settlements as a model to colonize Kashmir with its own Indian settlers?66. Ibid., ix.

To answer this question, we need to travel back to the pre-Independence period. India’s ruling Congress Party had a vision for a nominally secular nation-state. But many within the movement envisioned India as a nation for Hindus, and the Independence struggle as restoring the faded glory of a previous unified Brahmanical Hindu society, dominated by the upper castes. Indeed, this struggle displaced Independence as their motivating cause.

In 1911, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was sentenced to two fifty-year prison terms for supplying the weapon used to assassinate a British officer. During his jail sentence, he shifted his focus to what he perceived to be a greater threat to India’s liberation: Muslims. His 1923 booklet, Essentials of Hindutva, can be equated to Mein Kampf in its significance and themes. The mighty Hindu race—masculine, warlike, and all-powerful, and yet humanistic and enlightened—was the wellspring of all civilization but had fallen short of its former glory. India, as the rightful historical home of the Hindus, needed to be returned to their dominion—the dominion of upper-caste Hindus—to restore its former glory.

As the Hindutva movement grew, with organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a paramilitary organization closely allied with the BJP, its followers openly expressed their admiration for European fascists, including the Nazis, and publicly declared their support for the Nazi Party’s plan for Germany. In 1939, the Hindu Mahasabha issued a statement saying, “Germany’s solemn idea of the revival of the Aryan culture, the glorification of the Swastika, her patronage of the Indo-Germanic civilization is welcomed by the religion and sensible Hindus of India with a jubilant hope.”77. Ibid., 82.

Savarkar likened India’s Muslims to Germany’s Jews: “India’s Muslims are on the whole more inclined to identify themselves and their interests with Muslims outside India than Hindus who live next door, like Jews in Germany.”88. Cited in ibid., 85. At the same time, the Hindutva movement felt great sympathy with the burgeoning Zionist project as a mission to similarly restore the glory of the “Jewish Race” by returning them to their homeland. “Israel was [seen as] a device for holding Islam—and later the Soviet Union—at bay,” as Edward Said writes, quoted by Essa.99. Ibid.

The Hindu right’s simultaneous admiration for both Zionism and Nazism seems contradictory, but less so when one considers that this elision revolves around nationalism and a theory of the state as allowing for only one ruling ethnic group. These right-wing nationalists imagined a state where the “true,” “original” people of the nation (increasingly, fascists around the world today have appropriated the term “Indigenous” to describe this demographic) reclaim the prosperity due to them and cast out the usurpers, the interlopers, the outsiders; or otherwise, humanely “allow” them to remain as a perpetual marginalized and persecuted underclass.

Fast forward to the Emergency, the period during Indira Gandhi’s administration of the 1970s marked by horrific intercommunal and interreligious violence, a media blackout, and mass detentions without charges or trial. The Hindu right had until this point existed mainly underground, growing and gathering strength. The Emergency, as Essa points out, revealed the inherent brokenness of the liberal project that the Congress Party had undertaken.

Nominally secular but in fact led by upper-caste Hindus, the Party was deeply corrupt and unable to tackle pervasive unemployment, hunger, and interreligious, intercaste violence. A raft of executive orders like MISA (the Maintenance of Internal Security Act) had also given the government unprecedented powers of surveillance and detention. A generation of Hindu nationalists were newly activated, ready to capitalize on the horror and destruction that the Emergency brought to the surface. In 1980, the Bharatiya Janata Sangh merged with a number of other Hindu Nationalist parties to form the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP—India’s current ruling party.

Congress remained in power throughout the 1980s, but the geopolitical landscape, as well as the priorities of the Indian government, had changed. Rajiv Gandhi’s administration was eager to discard the stagnant, “Socialist” India for a glittering future replete with consumer goods, a rising middle class, and productive relationships with the US and other Western nations. This coincided with a newly energized right which had greater political influence and was eager to synthesize the prospect of economic development with the construction of the upper-caste, Hindi-speaking Hindu Rashtra (nation).

Essa links the growth of the right wing to Rajiv Gandhi’s administration: for instance, it was he who advocated the screening of sanitized versions of the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata on India’s only public broadcast station, Doordarshan, in 1987, enormously popular programs which served as Hindutva propaganda across the nation. In 1984, the BJP secured two seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament; in 1989, they began calling for the revocation of Article 370. By 1998, the BJP had 178 seats in Parliament.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Israel stepped in to sell arms and technology to India. Throughout the ’90s, both countries enjoyed trade in cotton, handicrafts, and semiprecious stones. And during the 1999 Kargil War, fought between India and Pakistan in the Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmir, Israel was India’s primary supplier of arms, even as other countries passed sanctions on the country. This further cemented the countries as allies, much to the approval of the BJP, which was eager to join forces with Israel in suppressing what it saw as the shared Muslim threat.

The United States was a key broker of this relationship. The alliance between India and Israel was triangulated in large part through the Indian diaspora in the US: upwardly mobile, and yet with a feeling of marginalization, despite their own imported casteism. The BJP in India saw a ripe opportunity to extend its influence to the US through the diaspora, funneling money and ideological projects like the popular newspaper India Abroad. And the leaders of this community found common cause with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its likes.

The pro-Israel lobby in the US is enormous; its most prominent organization is AIPAC, but the lobby extends far beyond this committee. Their platforms include unqualified support for annexation of the West Bank and criminalization of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. AIPAC played a key role in strengthening ties between India and the United States, just as India, eager to court the support of the United States without totally renouncing ties with Russia, distanced itself from its earlier support for the Palestinian cause.

The attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, dubbed “India’s 9/11,” or “26/11,” further cemented the military relationship between India and Israel. India modeled their newly minted Central Monitoring System (CMS), on Israeli’s existing and immensely popular “Nice Systems”—an electronic surveillance system that would allow for real-time monitoring of phone calls, text messages, and internet searches. Additional technologies built upon this, making India one of the top three surveillance states in the world. India bought drones from Israel for counterinsurgency purposes against Naxalite groups in areas such as Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

All of this took place under the Congress Party’s governance. It set the stage for Narendra Modi’s BJP, which won the prime ministerial election in 2014, to strengthen alliances with Israel’s own right-wing “strongman,” Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as US President Donald Trump. When Israel launched horrifically bloody airstrikes on Palestine in 2014, #IndiaWithIsrael trended on Twitter. Members of India’s police and armed forces began training directly under Israeli tutelage.

In 2015, India implemented an electronic “smart border,” developed by Israel, along the so-called “Line of Control”—the military-designated de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled portions of Jammu and Kashmir. And though India’s foreign ministry claimed that India had not abandoned support for Palestinians, India abstained from a UNHCR probe into the 2014 airstrikes—reportedly, after Modi received a call from Netanyahu. As Essa writes, “A burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause.”1010. Ibid., 55.

Four years later, Modi’s government realized the longstanding dream of the Hindu right and revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status. NonKashmiris could now buy property in the region, an essential part of the project of settler colonialism and demographic replacement, displacing Kashmiri Muslims and bringing the area under Indian control, whether the Kashmiris liked it or not. The area was placed under a total communications and media blackout, while BJP politicians salivated on Twitter at the thought of now being able to marry “fair-skinned Kashmiri girls.”1111. Ibid., 154.

Ludicrously, Hindu nationalists also claimed this was a move to liberate Kashmir’s women and LGBTQ population, a familiar Islamophobic trope used to excuse the oppression of Muslim-majority populations. The Indian army has virtually unlimited powers to imprison, interrogate, detain, torture, and even kill those it suspects of sedition or counterinsurgency.

Kashmir doesn’t just have strategic significance as a bridge to Central Asia, as well as significant natural resources which lent itself to trade and tourism, but it has great significance to India’s own national identity and self-conception. According to anthropologist Mona Bhan, “Kashmir was key to the constitution of the Indian nation’s secular credentials and is critically important to the project of refiguring India as a Hindu nation. Without Kashmir, the very idea of India—whether in its secular incarnation or its majoritarian Hindu avatar, stands on shaky grounds.”1212. Cited in ibid., 31.

In The Kashmiri Files, we see a flashback where Hindu Kashmiris, displaced and living under pitiable conditions in a refugee camp, beg the visiting Indian Home Minister to revoke Article 370, which they blame for their plight. The film, which came out three years after Article 370 was revoked, thus serves as a BJP-sanctioned defense of the maneuver. The claims of violence perpetrated by the Indian Army are indirectly addressed—Krishna, the protagonist’s parents, turn out to have been killed not by Indian soldiers, but by Islamic militants dressed up in the Indian army’s uniforms.

India uses drones made by Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, to police Kashmir, arms which are “field-tested” on Palestinians and then exported around the world for the violent business of counter-insurgency. These tactics, incidentally, have now found their way to Atlanta, where the “Cop City” project reportedly will involve training of Atlanta cops by Israeli forces. Kashmir remains one of the most militarized places in the world—and while India remains a source of cheap labor and manufacturing for not only the West but for the Arab States as well, no one will come to their aid.

Essa concludes:

This book may be about India and Israel, but at its core, this is a story about narrative and ideas we carry about India and Israel and their connection to each other. There remains a hesitancy to cover India properly. And this book seeks to counter that hesitation.1313. Ibid., 70.

The complexities of a colonized society engaging in a project of colonization are mystifying on the surface. But when anti-imperialist movements are displaced by movements intent merely on replacing one set of oppressors with another, the very language of liberation becomes one of subjugation: “right to exist,” “Indigenous,” “homeland.” This book is powerful, unsettling, and absolutely vital, as one-sixth of the world’s population increasingly lies in the shadow of fascism. ×

  1. Azad Essa, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2023), 9.
  2. Ibid., 15.
  3. Cited in ibid., 5.
  4. Ibid., 14.
  5. Ibid., 20
  6. Ibid., ix.
  7. Ibid., 82.
  8. Cited in ibid., 85.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 55.
  11. Ibid., 154.
  12. Cited in ibid., 31.
  13. Ibid., 70.

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