Gods, Guns, and Country
Trade in weapons and ultra-nationalist ideas is driving an expanding India–Israel alliance.
ON NOVEMBER 28TH, 2018, speaking to a roomful of India’s most highly regarded defense strategists, the chief of staff of the Indian Army, Bipin Rawat, urged his colleagues and his country to shed their concerns about collateral damage. Look at Israel, he said: “When you talk of strike drones, how does the Israeli strike the Hezbollah . . . ?” A vehicle is marked, a drone takes off, and boom: “God help you if you’re in the following vehicle—you’re also gone.”
“This kind of a thing is possible in that area—in that country,” he said of Israel. “In our country, you’ve seen the kind of repercussions . . . the kind of flak that you face when you take such action even against a stone-thrower, who’s carrying out offensive action against you.” Rawat had spoken earlier about the radicalization of youth in the disputed northern region of Kashmir. And although he acknowledged that “mistakes” happen when using drones, mistakes like the loss of bystanders’ lives, “[y]ou have to accept it,” he said.
I had arrived in Kashmir less than 24 hours before Rawat’s speech, intending to report on the effects of India and Israel’s developing relationship, and its impact on the inhabitants of Indian-occupied territory. Earlier that day, I’d been rushed away from an interview with a young man who had been almost entirely blinded by shrapnel from nonlethal weapons. Just a few miles away, a shootout between militants of the Pakistani-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba and Indian security forces left one of the group’s most famous young militant leaders dead at 21 years old. Anticipating protests and riots in response, police were expected to step up the already hefty security and would likely be scrutinizing anything unusual at checkpoints—like a white foreigner (and undeclared journalist) coming back from villages that tourists rarely visit. A speedy trip back to the city center was imperative.
My translator and I quickly drank the welcome tea, spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron, and set off, making our way back along winding valley roads lined with barbed wire, the outlines of the Himalayas visible through dense pollution fog and a burning red afternoon sun. We weren’t stopped at any of the checkpoints that dotted the 40-minute drive. But there was a line of armored vehicles stretching for at least half a mile on the opposite side of the highway, heading toward the villages we had just left. I tugged my headscarf farther down on my forehead as we passed dozens of trucks with soldiers’ heads and rifle tips poking out the top; my fixer told me to just act normal.
Less than 30 years ago, the very thought of a prominent Indian official openly admiring Israeli military policies toward Palestinians would have been an incredible scandal. But in a reversal of India’s official policy toward Israel for most of both country's histories, relations have been quietly developing since the early 1990s and are now warmer than ever. Since Narendra Modi came to power five years ago as prime minister, India’s diplomatic policies have shifted dramatically in Israel’s favor, and away from India’s traditional alliance with the Palestinians.
The partnership came to a public zenith when Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, in July 2017. With frequent hugs, fond glances, and long walks on picturesque Israeli beaches, Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on an effusive display of personal and political affection. The “bromance” attracted a storm of media attention, and to many commentators signaled a new era of Middle East/Asian politics.
On the historic visit, Modi and Netanyahu signed new cooperative deals on water, space technology, and agriculture. But the biggest and most significant deals have centered on defense. As South Asia’s sole nuclear power for decades, India could mostly deter threats from aggressive neighbors. But since Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, Indian military responses to attacks have been extremely limited, for fear of aggravating the possibility of a nuclear war. This has made reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision weaponry increasingly appealing for India. Israel’s specialization in high-tech weaponry, from drones to guided missiles—battle-tested in Palestine—has made officials like Rawat both envious and supportive of Israeli tactics, transforming Israel into a desirable international partner.
Israel has proven to be a reliable weapons supplier, unburdened by moral questions about India’s use of its arsenal. Over the last two decades, India has become Israel’s largest customer. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2014 to 2018 India accounted for a whopping 46% of all Israeli weapons sales (not including small arms). In 2018, Reuters reported that India buys around one billion dollars in weapons from Israel every year.
But the partnership between Israel and India’s current leaders goes beyond weapons trade into an ideological rapprochement—with political benefits for both parties. As India’s Hindu nationalist right wing surges, it openly takes inspiration from Netanyahu’s hardline Zionism. Both Modi and Netanyahu have campaigned domestically with great success as opponents of “Muslim extremism,” and both have been widely criticized for policies hostile to their countries’ minorities, as well as for their violent treatment of people living in contested lands under their rule. These affinities have spurred numerous comparisons not just between the two nations, but between their occupied territories: Google “Kashmir Palestine” and a number of articles arise proclaiming the two to be mirror occupations.
India and Israel’s strengthening bond seems symptomatic of the rise of far-right movements around the world—a trend characterized by strongman leaders who promote visions of a mythic past and a resurgent future, deriding pluralist democracy in favor of a nationalism centered on a singular ethnic majority. For these leaders, not only in India and Israel, but also in countries like Hungary, Brazil, and the United States, such ideological affinities have become the basis for new alliances, which provide crucial international cover for the illiberal behavior they use to shore up populist support at home.
Back in 2017, as Israeli drones patrolled the clear summer skies over Kashmir, Modi stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv. In a press conference welcoming the prime minister, Netanyahu proclaimed that the relationship between India and Israel is “so natural that we could ask what took so long for [it] to blossom.” Later Modi returned the sentiment, telling the Israeli and Indian press—in a play on the phrase “an eye for an eye”—“I for I . . . means India for Israel.”
IN 2014, when the newly elected Modi refused to condemn Israel for its conduct in the assault on Gaza that summer, Indian media called the move a potential “tectonic shift” in India’s foreign policy. His approach signaled a seemingly sudden reversal of decades of policy, dating back to India’s first years as an independent nation.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw the creation of Israel as analogous to the founding of the religious state of Pakistan, and voted against the UN resolution to partition Palestine in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi expressed sympathy with Jews, but wrote that they were “wrong to enter [Palestine] under the shadow of the British gun.” India recognized Israel in 1950, but kept its diplomatic relations restricted to a single consular office in Mumbai, which was opened three years later.
There were exceptions to this chilly relationship. In 1962, Nehru requested military aid from Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to fight the Indo-China war (he asked that the ships delivering the weapons not display the Israeli flag; Ben-Gurion refused until Nehru accepted the delivery with the flag). In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi again requested weapons during the Indo-Pakistani war.
But overall, India was considered a bulwark for Palestinian solidarity, for both ideological and practical reasons. Internationally, India’s support for Palestine was a way for the country to reaffirm itself among global peers as a secular and inclusive democracy, in contrast to its rival Pakistan, which was conceived as a separate state for Indian Muslims and governed as an Islamic republic. Domestically, support for Palestinians signaled a commitment to the safety of Muslims everywhere and thus ensured the votes of India’s sizeable Muslim population for its ruling party. In 1975, India became the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with a PLO office set up in Delhi the same year. India was also one of the first countries to recognize Palestinian statehood when it was declared by the PLO in 1988, and has continuously given aid to Palestine through the UN and other government initiatives. Yasser Arafat and Indira Gandhi famously expressed personal as well as political affection—Arafat wept at Gandhi’s funeral after her assassination in 1984, saying “my sister is no more.”
But looking at the India–Israel relationship through the lens of Indian right-wing nationalism provides a different portrait, one that diverges sharply from the diplomatic narrative. In the 1960s, long before he became the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—the Hindu nationalist party now in power under Modi—former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Israel, as did his right-hand man Lal Krishna Advani, one of India’s most outspoken anti-Muslim political leaders. In fact, Modi’s 2017 trip to Israel wasn’t his first—he also visited in 2006 while chief minister of Gujarat. At the time, he was barred from visiting the United States and was the subject of a diplomatic boycott by the UK and other European countries for his alleged involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots—pogroms against Muslims in Modi’s home state that left an unofficial death toll of around 2,000 people.
This connection stretches even further back, to before India’s independence in 1947. The BJP is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), now the ideological and cultural guild of Hindu nationalism, and many BJP politicians were or are members of the Sangh. Originally a paramilitary volunteer organization, the RSS was formed in pre-independence India in 1925. Banned three times since India’s independence, the RSS is now a political powerhouse with branches in approximately 50,000 villages and, according to the RSS’s own figures, at least 5 million members.
The defining ideological text of the RSS, and thus the modern BJP, is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s 1923 book, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, which attempts to define the Indian nation as necessarily belonging to a “Hindu race.” For Savarkar, Hinduism as a religion, hardly universal across the Indian subcontinent, fails to singularly define "Hindutva," or "Hinduness." Rather, Hindutva is explicitly racial, defined by blood and a shared descent from the supposed original inhabitants of “Hindusthan,” as outlined by ancient religious texts like the Vedas. Savarkar saw a parallel in the Jewish story, which traced the origins of Jewish peoplehood back to the Land of Israel. He thus expressed his support for Zionism in glowing terms, writing in Hindutva that “if the Zionists’ dreams are ever realized—if Palestine becomes a Jewish state . . . it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends.”
These ideas were extrapolated further by Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who in 1939 published an abridged and altered translation of a text by Savarkar’s brother, Ganesh—a militant convicted of terrorism against the British raj in 1909—under his own name, giving it the title We or Our Nationhood Defined. In this text, Golwalkar, who ran the RSS from 1940 until his death in 1973, details his “Nation Concept,” which posits not only religion and race, but also “Country,” “Culture,” and “Language” as the elements that constitute a “full Nation idea.” This Nation Concept was affirmed for him in the example of the “Hebrew Nation in Palestine,” which was attempting a cultural and linguistic revival, and which represented all aspects of the Nation Concept with the important exception of the lack of “Country,” or sovereign territory.
Early Hindu nationalists like Savarkar and Golwalkar also displayed sympathy for Zionism based on a worldview that posited an Indian state as antithetical to Islam. Savarkar advocated for strict social segregation of Hindus and Muslims (but not a national partition) that would place India’s Muslims, as he once explained to an American journalist, “in the position of your Negroes.” He decried Nehru’s decision to vote against the creation of Israel and suggested that public opinion on the issue was influenced by “pro-Moslem propaganda.”
In We, Golwalkar used Jewish history to demonize Islam, which, he writes, “completely destroyed” Jewish power in the Levant, leaving them nationless and stripped of their former glory. Both Golwalkar and Savarkar frame Islam as a common enemy to Jews and Hindus, arguing that the Mughals of India and Arabs in the Levant were part of a monolithic and illegitimate historical power. They therefore imagined Muslims residing in both lands as peripheral, if not outright obstructive, to the realization of Palestine as a Jewish state or India as a Hindu nation.
But politically convenient support for Zionism did not stem from any unique love of Jews. In 1939, less than one year after Kristallnacht, Ganesh Savarkar wrote the foreword to a book by Nazi sympathizer and Axis spy Savitri Devi, born Maximiani Portas, a French woman who believed Hitler was an avatar of Vishnu who had come to cleanse the earth and bring an end to an era of strife (her books are still widely circulated among neo-Nazis today). Golwalkar unequivocally compares the Hindutva project with Nazism in We:
To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.
That these Hindu nationalist thinkers could be simultaneously sympathetic to Zionism and Nazism suggested the importance of Golwalkar’s Nation Concept to the core motivations of Hindutva. For them, Jews of the 1930s were a cautionary tale. Weak and vulnerable, their lack of country destined them for slaughter at the hands of the Nazis—who were themselves practicing an exemplary form of “Race pride.” According to these Hindutva thinkers, Nazism and Hindutva share the same imagined destiny—a “Nation” whose existential purpose is the maintenance of ethnic purity.
Despite suffering multiple government crackdowns and being branded a terrorist organization at various points, by the early 1990s the RSS and other Hindu nationalist groups managed to find an opening in a troubled India. The Indian National Congress, the party of Nehru and Gandhi that had governed the country since its founding, was suddenly crumbling in the wake of the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and shifting post-Soviet geopolitical realities. Support for the values that Congress had traditionally stood for, namely a pluralist and secular democracy, weakened with the party, and reactionary ideas began to creep back into the political mainstream.
The BJP’s message of Hindus uniting against India’s large Muslim minority quickly gained traction. Religious violence skyrocketed. After the 1992 demolition of a mosque by Hindu nationalists directed by L.K. Advani, leader of the parliamentary opposition at the time, riots broke out, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths, according to figures released by the Indian government.
Diplomatic relations between India and Israel were officially normalized in 1992 following the Oslo Accords, but the escalating anti-Muslim violence, coupled with a newly militant independence movement forming in Muslim-dominated Kashmir, made Congress especially wary of drawing attention to its thawing relations with Israel. During this period, the party kept the relationship largely hidden from view, for fear of inciting more anger among an already tense Muslim population.
This all changed seven years later with the Kargil War.
THE KARGIL WAR was a brief but intense period of fighting in May and June of 1999, a year after the BJP’s first prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, took office. By then, a militant Kashmiri independence movement had been roiling the region for nearly a decade. In the spring of 1999, after the Himalayan winter snow had melted, Pakistani soldiers infiltrated Indian-controlled Kashmir and attempted to take strategic territory near Kargil, a village that directly abuts the Indian side of the Line of Control, which separates Pakistani- and Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Interviews with several former generals and other government officials who were active at the time of the Kargil War suggest that this was a game-changing moment for India–Israel relations, kick-starting a process that would eventually make India the largest purchaser of Israeli weapons in the world.
In order to avoid escalating to nuclear war, the Indian Army and Air Force were instructed not to cross the Line of Control into Pakistan but still needed to be able to strike targets within Pakistani territory. According to Mohinder Puri, a retired lieutenant general who headed a mountain division during “Operation Vijay,” the codename given to India’s counteroffensive, being able to control the skies and accurately strike targets at a distance was critical to India’s victory. The high altitudes of Kargil’s mountainous terrain were initially a tactical challenge for the Indian Army’s outmoded equipment, but laser-guided missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly called drones), and radar systems provided by Israel proved crucial. “We had total air superiority . . . we had the sky for ourselves,” Puri said.
The year before the conflict, both India and Pakistan had conducted nuclear tests, leading the US and several other countries to impose sanctions. As a result, few international weapons purveyors were willing to sell to India. But Israel was not deterred. Retired Lieutenant General Ravi Sawhney of the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank closely affiliated with the BJP, recalled his time as the director of military intelligence during Kargil operations: “[T]he first who landed in an aircraft [were] the Israelis, who asked us what did we require . . . Other people give you tea and sympathy,” he said, but the Israelis “offered things that you required.”
The Israeli arms sales during the Kargil War set off a military procurement frenzy that grew in the years after the conflict, according to Nicolas Blarel, whose 2015 book The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy details the war and its impacts. India’s stock market ballooned by nearly a third of its total value during the war, and military spending shot to a new high under the next national budget. Since the Kargil War had stemmed from an infiltration of a porous Line of Control, border control became a major military priority. Israel, which completed its barrier with Gaza just three years earlier, in 1996, served as a kind of aspirational model for border control and counterterrorism.
The Indian military quickly began negotiating deals. One after another, year after year, defense contracts became bigger and bolder. In 2001, the Indian Ministry of Defence and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) reached a deal for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) at a fixed price of $7.2 million per UAV. India signed another $130 million contract with IAI in 2003, purchasing 18 Heron UAVs and ordering 16 more. The Indian Ministry of Defence was also in talks with IAI to buy three Phalcon radars—a purchase that was approved in 2003—designed to surveil several hundred miles of territory, and reportedly acquired sophisticated sensors to monitor its borders. By the end of 2006, Israel had become the second-largest arms supplier to India after Russia, a position it reclaimed in 2018 after holding the number three spot for most of the intervening years. India’s historical alliance with Palestine and concerns about appealing to a large Muslim voting bloc proved to be no match for the cold reality of their weapons demand.
In the flurry of military purchases following the end of the Kargil War, bribery and corruption were rampant. According to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Indian equivalent of the FBI, three of the largest Israeli arms companies—IAI, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and IMI Systems—have been mired in corruption scandals. In 1999 and 2000, IAI and Rafael Defense Systems collectively sold seven surface-to-air missiles for a total cost of $269 million, and together paid $36.8 million in bribes to Indian officials including Minister of Defence George Fernandes. Although a case brought forward by the CBI failed to secure an indictment, a naval admiral, the leader of Fernandes’ political party, and Fernandes himself were all forced to step down. Due to insufficient evidence, the case was closed in 2013 and none of the foreign companies were prosecuted. Today both IAI and Rafael are still some of the most consistent weapons suppliers to India.
In 2012, the Indian Ministry of Defence banned IMI and five other international arms producers from arms deals with India for a period of 10 years for “illicit trading and bribery.” Just a few months after Modi came into office in 2014, anonymous Indian Ministry of Defence sources told a Defense News reporter that the ban on IMI Systems had been lifted, though the firm still appeared on the Indian Ministry of Defence’s blacklist as recently as 2018. The Israeli government and Israeli law enforcement have failed to meaningfully respond to these corruption charges.
Yogendra Narain, a seasoned professional in Indian politics and the defence secretary from 2000 to 2002, who served under Fernandes immediately following the Kargil War, spoke of a bond with Israel driven by “common friends and common enemies”—the friends being Western nations and the enemies being “Muslim strongholds.” But he also stressed Israel’s eagerness and consistency as a weapons supplier. This had already been established during the Kargil War, but was cemented during Narain’s tenure, when a terrorist attack on Indian parliament led to a standoff with Pakistan with nuclear implications. While observing nations urged restraint, Israel stepped up to provide arms.
This is an established pattern that persists today: Israel has famously sold weapons readily and indiscriminately, including to authoritarian forces in China, Cameroon, and Myanmar, as well as to Muslim nations like Egypt and Morocco. One 2013 report by a British government agency suggested that Israel even sold to India’s rival Pakistan (though the Israeli government denied this at the time, saying it would never “do anything that could undermine” India’s security).
Narain attributes Israel’s reliability as a weapons supplier to its seeming lack of intragovernmental checks and balances. Whereas in the United States Congress can kill weapons sales on the grounds of “human rights, as they see it,” Narain said, as far as he could tell, this scenario has no analogue in Israeli politics. “I think this is because democracy is very strong in the USA, so ultimately the Congress can stop any supply of weapons anywhere it feels,” he explained. “But Israel is different. It has never showed any such intransigence. It has never occurred in such a way where Israel’s supplies stop all of a sudden. So we find them a very reliable and trustworthy partner.”
WHEN HASSAN WENT for Eid prayers on June 26th, 2017, he saw something unsettling but not unusual: a drone was hovering over the heads of the hundreds who had gathered at the mosque. It darted back and forth, up and down, sometimes flying so low that some tried to snatch it from the air. Drone sightings are frequent in the disputed north Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir (commonly abbreviated as J&K), especially around Muslim holidays, which draw large crowds. “To keep an eye on them . . . this is how people are being intimidated here,” the social worker who introduced me to Hassan interjected.
It was a balmy midsummer’s day and Hassan had planned to walk home. Violence has routinely and intermittently flared in Kashmir for decades, and the past year had been exceptionally intense after Indian forces killed a popular local militant leader. There had been a slight lull during the winter and spring, but the warm summer months brought protesters against the Indian army out in droves. Hassan had heard that along his normal route home there were people pelting police with stones and that the police were about to begin shooting, a usual response to stone-throwing. After seeing the drone hovering above his mosque, he and about 50 other men decided to take a different, longer route back to their village to avoid the confrontation. But the police had already blocked their alternate route, and began firing pellet guns—guns with bullets that explode in a spray of shrapnel. Hassan awoke in the hospital, covered in wounds. One of the pellets had entered his left eye, leaving him partially blind.
The pellet guns that wounded Hassan that day are not Israeli-made, as far as I or anyone else has been able to report. Nevertheless, there are many other Israeli weapons currently in use in the region, as well as a broadening exchange of military tactics and training between India and Israel. UAVs sourced from Israel are widely used to gather intelligence both within Kashmir’s borders and often beyond the Line of Control in Pakistani territory. Pictures of men in Indian army fatigues posing on Kashmiri mountaintops with Israeli Tavor and Galil assault rifles appear on defense blogs, and Tavors have been spotted since 2008 in rural civilian areas prone to unrest. Multiple military sources told me these rifles are often used in raids along and across the Line of Control, usually for targeting militant encampments, and are the weapon of choice for elite units of the Indian army like the Rashtriya Rifles—the group responsible for the shooting and killing of Burhan Wani, a young Kashmiri separatist militant affiliated with the Hizbul Mujahidin whose 2016 death inspired sweeping protests across Kashmir along with a crushing response from law enforcement.
It makes sense that the effects of the defense relationship between India and Israel would be concentrated in Kashmir. India has the second-largest active military globally and keeps roughly 750,000 soldiers stationed in the region—a number which includes 70,000 potential enforcers from the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the local police, and which can balloon in times of unrest. This makes Kashmir one of the most densely militarized areas in the world. The total civilian population of J&K is around 12.5 million people, meaning that the ratio of law enforcement to civilians in “normal” operations is around one officer for every 16 civilians. For reference, that’s more soldiers per capita than the US had stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq at the peak of either war. Among thousands of stories of rapes and disappearances, estimates of Kashmiri civilians killed in the ongoing conflict since 1989 range widely and are dependent on whom you talk to, but they are all grim: statistics from the Indian government suggest 47,000, while activists claim the number is closer to 100,000.
And it’s not just a question of weaponry: police and soldiers from around India have trained in Israel or have been trained by Israeli soldiers in Delhi. These training exchanges began as early as 2003, under Vajpayee and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; Indian media reports from the time noted that India planned to send 3,000 soldiers to Israel for training in counterinsurgency. In 2000, a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism was announced. In September 2014, a few months after Modi’s election, a Joint Steering Committee on Homeland Security met for the first time in Israel to discuss border security and police trainings.
Top military officials from both countries have quietly exchanged visits. In October 2017, just a few months after Modi’s visit to Tel Aviv, Israel’s Commander of Ground Forces, Major General Yaacov Barak, visited Jammu and Kashmir, meeting with Northern Command Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu. The next month a contingent of Indian Air Force commandos trained with Israel’s elite special forces as part of a larger multilateral exercise. As recently as July 2018, two groups of 75 police officers trained in Jerusalem.
The police are an imposing presence in the lives of Kashmiris. Hassan, now 25, walks past police officers and army soldiers every day on the way to his job as a shopkeeper. Some carry the pump-action pellet rifles he was shot with, others carry deadlier weapons; some stand on the street, others patrol in armored cars. The cold bothers him like it hadn’t before his injury, exacerbating near constant aches. He used to be a wedding photographer, but the loss of his eyesight has made this line of work impossible. He fears the army and the police, who are seemingly around every corner.
It doesn’t take much to see the potential for comparison between Kashmir and Palestine: the pervasive use of weapons that, if not lethal, are permanently life-altering; the extensive use of drones and the local perception of a sweeping surveillance structure; the detention of people for months without charge, often based on little more than suspicion. In fact, the teenaged boy sitting next to Hassan during our interview—also a pellet victim—had been recently released from prison after being held without charge for several months. “You can relate this situation to the Palestinians,” the social worker sitting with us said, drawing a connection to Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager from Nabi Saleh who served eight months in military prison for slapping an Israeli soldier in her front yard. The conflicts are also roughly the same age and originate in the aftermath of the British colonial project: India gained independence from the UK in 1947, and Israel was created from the British Mandate in 1948. Both were traumatic divisions of land, and war broke out nearly immediately in both cases.
But some Kashmiri activists I spoke to were loathe to make the comparison. Dr. Rouf Malik, a polymath in Kashmir who has seemingly done everything from election oversight to child welfare, suggested that the media and protesters alike are responding primarily to Kashmir and Palestine’s shared Muslim faith. “Why don’t we compare ourselves with Tamils of Sri Lanka?” he asked. “If Tamils were Muslims, I think we would be more comparing ourselves with them because that is in close proximity.” Yasir Qureshi, who offered his opinion as a citizen observer rather than as head of the Kashmir branch of the Indo-Global Social Service Society, cited the lack of displacement in the Kashmiri conflict (“we are still in our own land”) and some, albeit limited, protection under the Indian constitution as proof that Kashmir is distinct from Palestine’s “pure occupation.” In Qureshi's view, the Kashmiri conflict is largely ignored by global humanitarian powers, in contrast with international interest in Palestine. “The amount of support that Palestinians get from European capitals, the Kashmiri don’t get that kind of support,” he said.
There is good reason to be suspicious of this comparison, as state-sponsored media in Pakistan often peddles a simplistic analogy between Kashmir and Palestine, privileging a narrative of global Muslim victimhood in order to drum up Pakistan’s own nationalist sentiment against India. Equating Hindus with Zionists further strengthens the case, evoking antisemitic characterizations of Jews as the eternal enemies of Muslims. A 2018 opinion article in Dawn, Pakistan’s English-language newspaper of record, highlights the the media's insistence on viewing the conflict through a specific ideological lens: “generations of Pakistanis have been bred on a narrative that there is something exceptional about the reign of state terror in Kashmir, with only the [sic] Israel’s colonial subjugation of Palestine approximating something similar. In both cases, the operative factor is that Muslim lands are being occupied by ‘infidels’, that the honour and dignity of Muslim peoples is being violated.”
The “Zionist-Hindu” conspiracy theory is common among Islamic extremists; it was notably deployed by Osama bin Laden in 2006 when he called on Kashmiris to take up arms, and echoed by the Mumbai terrorists who killed Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka in 2008 amid attacks that ripped through India’s commercial center, leaving 174 people dead. “You call [Israel’s] army staff to visit Kashmir,” one of the attackers said on a phone call to India TV during the attack. “Who are they to come to J&K? This is a matter between us and Hindus, the Hindu government. Why does Israel come here?”
Up until Modi’s election, India would have firmly denied the narrative circulated by Islamist circles and Pakistani media. The government could have pointed to its own strong support for Palestine and insisted that its relationship with Israel was purely transactional, based on a defense supply and demand. Now, India, Israel, and Pakistan are all in agreement. Based on Modi and Netanyahu’s political track record in both word and deed, a professed alliance against “Islamic terrorism” is read by many as a euphemism for a totalizing alliance against Islam and its practicants. A Hindu nationalist India is now indeed aligned with a militantly Zionist Israel. What was once a conspiratorial lie increasingly appears in Modi and Netanyahu’s relationship as a troubling truth.
THIS PAST FEBRUARY, a suicide bomber from the Pakistani-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed plowed into a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir, killing at least 40 Indian soldiers. Within two weeks, India launched air strikes into Pakistani territory for the first time in nearly half a century, armed with Israeli-made guided bombs. Unlike during the Kargil War, when Indian troops were restrained behind the Line of Control, the recent invasion of Indian fighter jets into Pakistan’s territory signaled a dangerous escalation. Pakistan retaliated, capturing an Indian pilot who was soon released.
The Indian Army’s use of Israeli weapons did not go unnoticed: Pakistani media quickly jumped on the story, parroting an article in the Independent by veteran journalist Robert Fisk that Israel was playing a “big role” in the mounting tensions between the two nations. A false report that an Israeli pilot was captured from a downed Indian fighter jet circulated on Pakistani television and Kashmiri media—a rumor spread by a former diplomat and defense analyst. For those two weeks in February, it looked as though India and Pakistan might again go to war, this time inching ever closer to nuclear strikes. Instead, the scrap de-escalated quickly, but not without giving Modi a giant boost in the polls ahead of his May re-election.
Netanyahu, too, traded missiles with Gaza just two weeks before he narrowly won his re-election campaign. For their constituents, Netanyahu and Modi’s strongman style of governance presents itself as a corrective to a world in chaos—an approach shared with a host of emergent far-right leaders across the globe. The resulting jingoistic fervor makes it easy for these leaders to cast aside democratic values like “human rights” or “due process” as cumbersome obstacles to “safety” and “stability.”
As India and Israel’s partnership progresses from the transactional business of arms sales into the realms of diplomacy and foreign policy, their relationship demonstrates the increasing political expediency and geopolitical pragmatism of subjugating minority populations to consolidate the support of a majority. The risk that this approach will provoke condemnation in the international community is mitigated by alliances with other far-right leaders, who reinforce one another’s narratives on the world stage and render toothless international law and other multinational rights-based agreements.
On May 23rd, Modi was elected for a second term in a landslide victory, signaling an entrenchment of far-right global politics for at least another five years. It is tempting to attribute these authoritarian trends to individual leaders, to imagine that if one were removed the trend might change. But the international relationships among authoritarian governments are far too symbiotic, and commitment to democracy is no longer the currency it once was. Even if Modi had lost, India’s relationship with Israel and the emboldening of the far right would likely continue—with or without him.
Carol Schaeffer is a freelance journalist reporting on the far right and its global connections. Her work has appeared in The Caravan, The Atlantic, The Intercept, The Nation and other outlets.