‘Hostile Homelands’: Unpacking the India-Israel alliance

April 5, 2023
5 mins read

The most recent period in the continuing saga of India’s attempts to transform into a globally integrated neoliberal power has been characterised by dispossessions. For example, the Indian government has sought to deprive farmers of safeguards that allow them to compete with predatory corporate agricultural producers. It has been aggressively stripping undocumented people, particularly religious minorities, from their right to Indian citizenship. In Indian states where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in control, such as Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, Muslims have become bereft of their freedom to publicly profess their faith and their homes have been bulldozed. The image of a bulldozer has taken center stage in the iconography of Indian politics, both at home and in the diaspora. 

Another significant dispossession process is simultaneously underway in Kashmir, where people are being deprived of the land beneath their feet as well as its natural resources. As journalist Azad Essa demonstrates in his book Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, these dispossessions are not only similar to the dispossessions that created and shape the state of Israel, but are in fact connected by the emergence of the book’s titular alliance. 

The relevance of the book is eloquently articulated in Lina Al-Saafin’s foreword, in which she poses two linked questions: first, how did “India, which once considered Zionism a form of racism, become Israel’s number one weapons trade buyer?”. And secondly, how India, the first non-Arab state to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement that opposed colonialism and apartheid, simultaneously [maintained] its colonial occupation of Kashmir since 1947 and [metamorphosed] into extolling Israel’s settlements as a model to colonize Kashmir with its own Indian settlers. As Al-Saafin goes on to explain, the book not only serves as an exercise in awareness-raising about political developments in Palestine, Kashmir, India, and Israel, but it also explains how such colonial connectivities take shape and materialize, and it provides an urgent context for the importance of transnational solidarity against movements of settler-colonialism, occupation, and apartheid. Essa’s book contributes knowledge that is vital to the global struggle against repression and oppression. 

In Hostile Homelands, Essa packs a significant amount of research and analysis. In fewer than 200 pages, he investigates the connections that the Zionist and Indian independence movements had with one another from the early twentieth century to the more contemporary dispossessions campaigns. In between these very significant endpoints, Essa also addresses key moments in India’s political history and their connections with events in Occupied Palestine, including, for example, the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency between 1975 to 1977, and Rajiv Gandhi’s liberalisation programme that only intensified following his demise and that of the Soviet Union. Crucially, Essa also manages to weave into his analysis elements of caste, especially in reference to the rise of Hindutva in India and the Hindutva-infused pro-Indian lobby in the United States. 

Having spent the last few years exploring India-Israeli connectivities, Essa’s book is among the few I have come across that analyses India-Israel relations from an explicitly critical position. Many analysts and academics have written about the ever-improving ties between the two countries while making some sort of empty claim towards neutrality or epistemological positivism. More alarming, however, are the scholars and sycophants who have written on the topic as a form of engagement or partaking in developing those relations directly. Impressively, Essa’s lucid account of the development of India-Israel ties does not only provide a chronology of deals, events, and talks, but rather runs alongside this a simultaneous commentary of the dangers that this poses towards people who are oppressed by India and Israel. 

To further add to its explicitly critical outlook, Hostile Homelands, while not necessarily an academic text, examines the India-Israel relationship from perspectives that should interest students of a variety of disciplines. Essa’s first chapter about the history of partitions in India and Palestine, adds new perspectives to those studying comparative partitions, particularly in terms of how influential each episode was and in turn how relevant actors perceived the other. For example, Essa’s examination of Nehru and Gandhi’s politics around Palestine shows how rooted their thinking was in both domestic and international realpolitik, rather than in debates about the ethics of partition and settler colonialism. This is contrary to the majority of historical accounts of Gandhi and Nehru’s perspectives on Palestine, which largely emphasise their posturing as moral actors and anticolonial champions. 

Essa’s fourth chapter, titled “the Indian Diaspora and the Israeli Lobby in the United States” is an important contribution to the emerging trend of writing or narrating global histories. However, more significantly, it goes beyond a strictly government-and-politics-oriented approach to examining how lobbying works towards becoming a fascinating case study of how minorities, diaspora groups, and migrant communities form identities in the context of domestic and international politics. Rather than simply describing how the two lobbies, Indian and Israeli, learned from and strengthened one another certainly a two-way affair, as Essa’s narration of the Guzofski-Vyasmaan Affair demonstrates, the book explores the role played by Bollywood as an identity-building and consent-making force in diasporic communities. Essa expertly refers to a series of films (all coincidentally, or not, starring Shahrukh Khan in key roles), including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Swades, Kabhie Kushi Kabhie Gham, and Pardes, which projected the essential message of West-facing Hindu Nationalism: American Capitalism was completely acceptable, if you retained Hindu Indian traditions, as Essa puts it

While India’s colonisation of Kashmir holds a prominent place throughout the book, Essa’s final chapter does well to highlight the most important of its parallels with Israel’s colonisation of Palestine. Essa explains that a key point that connects both occupations to global politics also renders support for the occupation of Kashmir as a hegemonic norm within Indian politics by stating that as Kashmiris and Indian Muslims have repeatedly argued, Islamophobia is what tethers the liberal Indian to Hindu supremacist class in India. While some among India’s liberal intelligentsia still criticise Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the continued mainstreaming and normalisation of Islamophobia in India will only marginalise such critics should they wish to operate within the boundaries of mainstream Indian politics and participate in the spectacle that is often referred to as Indian democracy.

Significantly, the chapter also outlines how the notion of democracy is used as a veneer of legitimacy across both Israel and India, where both states benefit from promoting themselves as supposed “exceptional democracies” the only democracy in the Middle East and the largest democracy in the world, respectively. Essa adds further evidence to support the arguments made by Saree Makdisi in his excellent book Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial, where he argues that democracy is among a number of so-called progressive values that Israel weaponizes to generate support for the violent project of colonial dispossession and racial discrimination repackaged “via a system of emotional investments, curated perceptions, and carefully staged pedagogical exercises ”into something that can be imagined, felt, and profoundly believed in as though it were the exact opposite: the embodiment of ecological regeneration, multicultural tolerance, and democratic idealism. In this sense, the buy-in to implementing an Israeli model in Kashmir, as one of Essa’s sections in this chapter is titled, is truly transnational, if not global. 

Throughout the entirety of the book, Essa ensures that all claims are well substantiated and supported by extensive research. As a result, the book, while not particularly lengthy or jargon-heavy, is composed of several components that fit together seamlessly. The book’s foreword and postscript contribute to this seamlessness by making the justification for the book’s existence not only evident but also firmly anchored in the author’s and his numerous interlocutors’ lived and practical experiences. Essa’s Hostile Homelands is a vital contribution from which numerous fields of analysis, both in the academic and activist worlds, might benefit. Those who seek to understand the violence of neoliberal, transnational capitalism as it continues to adopt violent logics and imperatives, would do well to give this book a serious read. 

Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel is published by Pluto Press (2023)

Abdulla Moaswes

Abdulla Moaswes is a writer, researcher, translator, and educator. His current explorations focus on the globalization of settler colonial logic. He has previously written about the politics of food, with special reference to chai karak, and the socio-political role of internet memes in South and West Asia. In addition, he also writes poetry and speculative fiction.

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