How Extreme Ethnic Nationalism, High-Tech, and the Cult of Machismo Brought India and Israel Together
Addressing a rally in the Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh state in Northern India on October 18th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gloated over the "surgical strikes" that India conducted last month in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in response to a raid on an Indian Army base. The attacks were the first publically acknowledged military action across the Line of Control in over 40 years (the Line of Control runs through Kashmir and serves as the de facto border between India and Pakistan).
As he boasted about the assault, Modi invoked the state of Israel as his inspiration:
“Our army’s valour is being discussed across the country these days," he said. "We used to hear earlier that Israel has done this. The nation has seen that Indian army is no less than anybody.”
Modi’s blustering proclamation may have exaggerated the magnitude of the strikes, but his message was clear: if Israel can be tough on Muslim extremists, we can too.
To close observers of the evolving bond between India and Israel, such declarations did not come as much of a surprise. A once icy relationship has thawed considerably over the past years due to economic interests and a shared religious nationalism. The Indian business elite sees Israel as a valuable partner, and political acceptance of Israel extends to the Indian National Congress, the country's main opposition party. The Communist Party of India, a faction of Marxist-Leninists, is now the only party in favor of severing ties with Israel.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the BJP and its extremist progenitor, the RSS, recognizes Israel as a natural partner. Founded in 1925, the RSS lays claim to being the world’s largest NGO while functioning as a quasi-fascist paramilitary organization. M. S. Golwalkar, who led the RSS for over 30 years, openly admired Hitler and spoke approvingly of his “purging the country of the Semitic Races - the Jews.” The RSS also counted amongst its members Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Gandhi for his lenient attitude toward Islam and Pakistan; the assassination briefly led to the RSS being banned. Since then, the movement has been on a steady march to the mainstream, and towards an alliance with the self-proclaimed Jewish State.
Modi spent much of his life as a pracharak (organizer) for RSS, holding training sessions and conducting drills encouraging Indian boys to strengthen their Hindu “race spirit.” These recruits would function as shock troops during communal riots against Muslims. The BJP arose in the 1980s as the political arm of the RSS and quickly gained influence; between 1984 and 1989, the number of BJP members in parliament increased from two to 85. When Modi took power in 2014, the party held a majority of parliament seats.
By the time he was elected president, Modi was already notorious for his role in the Gujarat riots -- the bloodiest of the country’s anti-Muslim pogroms. The riots began in 2002 with a fire that killed 59 Hindus on a train in Godhra. Though later inquiries suggested an accident, Modi immediately declared the fire a “pre-planned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism.” Incited to violence by his demagogic claims and stoked with anti-Muslim sentiment, Hindu mobs unleashed weeks of violence that included murder, rape, mutilation, and torture. Many attackers wore the RSS uniform of khaki shorts and saffron headband while carrying daggers and pitchforks. The rioters publicly raped Muslim women and girls, burned and looted Muslims shops, and destroyed mosques. By the time the dust had cleared, over 1,000 lay dead.
Modi, who was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat at the time, did nothing to stop the carnage occurring on his watch. According to Haren Pandya, a senior Minister in Modi’s cabinet, the future Prime Minister held a secret meeting the night of the tragedy in Godhra in which he ordered the police commissioner to not get in the way of the coming “Hindu backlash.” Gujarat police officer Sanjiv Bhatt confirmed Pandya’s account, claiming Modi wanted Muslims to be “taught a lesson” and demanding that Hindus be allowed to vent their anger. Modi’s complicity in the attack prompted the Bush administration to deny him a visa in 2005.
But there is more to the emerging Indian alliance with Israel than the shared sensibilities of far-right leaders. Modi and Bibi are also economic partners making a killing in the global arms trade.
“We are open to more or less anything” when selling arms
In recent years, India made itself the biggest customer of Israeli weapons in the world, while Israel became the largest purchaser of Indian military equipment, next only to Russia. By 2014, bilateral arms trade between the two nations had reached $9 billion per year.
Last year, then-Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon showed up at the Aero India Airshow in Bengaluru, marking the first time an Israeli Defense Minister visited India. There, Ya'alon announced, "We are open to more or less anything" when selling weapons. Months later India purchased $400 million worth of drones from Israel.
In last week’s meeting of the UN's First Committee (Disarmament and International Security), Israel and India were the only nations to object to two paragraphs of a draft resolution calling for universal acceptance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Pakistan is the only other nuclear power that refuses to sign the treaty).
This convergence of interests is to be expected considering it was less than two months ago that India successfully tested the Barak-8 long-range surface-to-air ballistic missile, which has nuclear capabilities and was developed in coordination with Israel’s aerospace industries. Each Barak system costs roughly $24 million and has the ability to hit targets within 70 to 90 km.
Back in 1998, when the BJP first held power as part of a coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the government conducted series of nuclear tests that set off fears of a nuclear war with Pakistan over Kashmir. The economic sanctions that the U.S. imposed as a result made India even more reliant on Israel for arms sales.
But things were not always this way between the two military powerhouses.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Indian government kept Israel at an arm’s length, wary of alienating the Arab world and its Muslim population, which is the second largest in the world. Though India officially recognized the State of Israel in 1950, diplomatic relations were not established until 1992. Since then, they have both framed themselves as targets of an existential threat by jihadists, forward-thinking innovators who must resist their Muslim enemies’ attempts to regress to the seventh century.
In 1995, BJP leader L.K. Advani visited Israel and was impressed with Tel Aviv’s ruthless response to Palestinian resistance. “Our mutual determination to combat terrorism is the basis for discussions with Israel, whose reputation in dealing with such problems is quite successful,” said Advani at the time. Two years later, Israeli President Ezer Weizman made a historic visit to India in which he and his Indian counterpart, Shankar Dayal Sharma, negotiated the purchase of the Barak 1 surface-to-air missile -- the first weapons deal between the countries. Nearly half a century earlier, Weizman had been stationed in India while serving in the Royal Air Force.
Over the past decade, both Israel and India have sought to establish themselves as leading incubators of technological innovation. Last year, Modi pivoted from his clumsily-named “Make in India” manufacturing initiative (for which Netanyahu expressed support) to “Start-up India,” a neoliberal plan to encourage start-up entrepreneurs with tax abatement, environmental deregulation, and reduced labor law inspections. The name of the program recalls Start-up Nation, a best-selling 2009 book by Dan Senor, a veteran Israel lobbyist and Republican Party operative, and Israeli journalist Saul Singer, promoting Israel as a paradise for tech development while deflecting attention away from its decades long military occupation.
Apart from material concerns, Indian and Israeli societies share a deep wellspring of anti-Muslim sentiment cultivated over decades of non-stop conflict. An expert on national security in Pakistan says the right-wing of both countries are “coalitions of religious and ethno-cultural supremacists with strong expansionist tendencies” that have found willing partners in Washington politicians who admire their combination of neoliberal free-market economics and willingness to fight a never-ending war on terror.
For reactionary Zionists, the chant “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel lives) carries a similar resonance to “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (victory for mother India). “Ultra-Zionists envision an Eretz Israel or Greater Israel,” says the expert, “while Hindu nationalists in India aim for an Akhand Bharat or United India that includes present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh.” The Islamophobic violence inherent in such projects can be seen in Netanyahu’s brutal assaults on Gaza in 2012 and 2014, and in Modi’s enabling of the Gujarat pogrom.
As in Israel, where Jewish extremists march through Jerusalem bellowing out “Death to Arabs!” and West Bank settlers firebomb Palestinian homes, street violence is a fact of life in India. So-called “cow vigilantes” attack Muslims and Dalits (members of India’s “untouchable” caste) in response to rumors of killing cows, which are sacred in Hinduism. Modi has been slow to condemn these attacks, though in August he issued a statement distancing himself from the vigilantes.
While Zionism draws from Hebrew scripture to argue for a Jewish state, the BJP derives its power from the concept of Hindutva (Hinduness). “Hindutva violence is directly linked to incitement by the movement’s leadership, including senior officials of the BJP,” says the expert. “The BJP regularly incites violence against Muslims to polarize the electorate on religious lines.” Several years ago, for example, BJP President Amit Shah gave out swords to Hindu youth in Muzaffarnagar in advance of anti-Muslim riots.
Another key connection can be found in the hypermasculine posturing of Netanyahu and Modi, whose supporters refer approvingly to his “56-inch chest.” This connection extends to Trump, the ultimate symbol of toxic masculinity run amok.
“Mr. Trump is the president we need”
The stunningly choreographed and at times nightmarishly bizarre event featured an Indian Michael Jackson impersonator, a Bollywood-style routine in which dancers were attacked by jihadists only to be rescued by Navy SEALs, and a typically off-kilter speech from Trump in which he bellowed out, “I am a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India!" Though only 7% of Indian-Americans plan to vote for Trump, compared to 70% for Hillary Clinton, the rally illustrated that gaudy, chest-beating displays of ethnic pride -- and raging Islamophobia -- hold a certain appeal among Indian-American ethnonationalists.