What’s behind India’s embrace of Israel?

Under Narendra Modi’s leadership, the Indian government has stood alongside Israel and its genocidal assault on Gaza. JS Titus argues the roots of this relationship go back decades and extend into deep military and economic cooperation between the two states.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi in 2017. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.

Just hours after the 7 October attack on Israel, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted in support of Israel, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released a video with the caption: ‘What Israel is facing today, India suffered between 2004-14. Never forgive, never forget…’ With this caption, the BJP implies that under the rule of the Indian Congress Party, India suffered attacks from terrorist groups, which Modi’s government is guarding against. The posts are part of a state-led narrative that India and Israel share a common struggle against terrorism, and specifically Islamic terrorism.

Since 2014, under Modi’s government, India has seen a significant shift towards Hindutva, a nationalist political ideology and movement which emphasises that the Indian national identity is inseparable from the Hindu religion. For many Hindutva supporters, Islamophobia and forms of state-incited communal violence against Muslims, such as lynchings and riots over the slaughter of cows, are legitimate responses to an internal and external enemy.

The BJP projects Muslims as the main threat to India’s security and is clamping down on dissent and terrorising Indian Muslims through violence and state control. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the ways in which the Indian government has breached human rights laws in their concerted campaign against Muslims. The Citizen Amendment Act, which offers amnesty to non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries while delegitimising Muslim citizenship, led to deadly police attacks on protesters, with the Uttar Pradesh chief of police telling them to ‘Go to Pakistan’.

As India prepares for a general election this year, Modi has ramped up his provocations against the Muslim community by inaugurating a Hindu temple on the grounds of a 16th century mosque that was destroyed by Hindu rioters in 1992 in the city of Ayodhya. A statement of protest from diaspora groups published on 22 January said that under Modi, traces of Muslim heritage are ‘being erased in a bid to present the minority community as alien…without any ties to India’.

In recent months, there have been protests in solidarity with Palestine across India, but many have faced state-led and police oppression. Protesters have been attacked and permission denied to hold marches, while Hindutva nationalists have been allowed to hold pro-Israel demonstrations. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP government targeted social media posts in support of Palestine and had Muslim clerics arrested on charges of incitement.

It is therefore not surprising that Modi finds common cause with an Israeli state that cynically attempts to blame Islamic terrorism for the resistance to its 75-year occupation of Palestine. Yet beyond this ideological agreement, India, once an anti-Zionist state that recognised the State of Palestine in 1988, is now collaborating closely with Israel.

Since Modi’s election 2014, Indian and Israeli defence and economic engagement has been more public and intensified. Modi was the first prime minister to visit Israel in 2017 and Netanyau visited Modi in Delhi a year later, when he told Modi: ‘You are a revolutionary leader, You’re catapulting this magnificent state into the future. And you have revolutionized the relationship between Israel and India.’ What lies behind this shift?

From anti-colonialism to nation building

In the early days of India’s independence from Britain, its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had viewed India’s struggle against colonialism as ‘a part of this world struggle against Imperialism and Fascism. So also the struggle that is going on against British Imperialism in Palestine.’ India voted against the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947, and was the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1974.

Yet, as Perry Anderson argues, that stability and character of the Indian state was based on the conditions of the country’s independence: ‘There was no overthrow of the Raj, but a transfer of power by it to Congress as its successor. The colonial bureaucracy and army were left intact, minus the colonisers.’

In Hostile Homelands, Azad Essa shows how since independence India has gone through a process of nation building as a democracy, but building on what is considered ideologically ‘Indian’ or ‘Hindutva’. In part, this meant that the structures of caste oppression that British colonialism promoted were not dismantled. As the Dalit (the lowest caste strata) writer Kancha Ilaiah put it:

While conducting the anti-colonial struggle, Brahminical leaders and ideologues did not attempt to build an anti-caste egalitarian ideology. On the contrary, they glorified brutal Hindu institutions.

While discrimination on the basis of caste was made illegal in 1948, the failure to fully confront these legacies meant that in the decades that followed the nature of caste was transformed by capitalist development into rival politicised communities and divided workforces. The Indian state also played into the tensions between Hindus and Muslims that had been consciously developed by British colonial rule. This has laid the basis for the BJP’s recent strategy to mobilise sections of the Dalit population in attacks on Muslims, even as Dalit living standards have been worsened by BJP policies.

The Indian state was built on a contradictory basis of decolonisation whilst maintaining structures and ideologies built out of uneven capitalist development. While, for many years, India’s pro-Palestinian position cemented its position as a leader of the non-aligned, anti-imperialist world, it was all too easy for this position to slip as economic development and geopolitics took on a different character with the rise of neoliberalism and the collapse of Stalinism. Most recently, as the US has encouraged the normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab states, Modi’s India has been a trailblazer.

Economic cooperation

Soon after the war on Gaza began, Israel revoked work permits for Palestinians, and it was reported that workers from India were to replace the construction sectors in Israel. The recruitment process began in January, with unemployed youth in the Indian state of Haryana lining up for skills tests. One applicant said ‘I am aware of the threat in Israel due to the war with Hamas, but it’s better to die while working than to die of hunger without a job here in our state.’

This is a development based on previous and ongoing agreements between India and Israel. For example, on 8 May 2023, both states signed a pact to expand trade by agreeing to send 42,000 Indian workers to work in construction and care work in Israel. While the migrant labourers will not be subjected to an apartheid system, their precarity as migrants means that Israel can exploit their labour and their temporary status whilst expanding the settlements and expelling Palestinians from their land.

Furthermore, in a bid to strengthen and increase trade between India and Israel, in January 2023 Adani, the Indian multinational conglomerate, acquired Haifa port for $1.2bn. Gautam Adani said, ‘Our intention is to make the right set of investments that will not just make the Adani-Gadot partnership proud, but will make the whole of Israel proud.’ After the 7 October attacks, Adani’s stocks fell by 4.5 percent and at inauguration of a new container port in Kerala, managing director Karan Adani said: ‘The entire Haifa Port has been designed keeping such the situation in mind. This is not the first time a situation like this has developed.’

Another significant example of economic cooperation between Israel and India is Infosys, the IT multinational founded by British prime minister Rishi Sunak’s billionaire father-in-law Narayana Murthy. Infosys signed a memorandum of understanding with the Office of the Chief Scientist of Israel in 2012, committing to research and development collaboration.

Military cooperation

India’s relationship with Israel also expands to military and defence collaboration. For example, a report from BDS India, Peoples Dispatch and Newsclick found that India is the biggest importer of arms from Israel, financing Israel’s occupation in illegal settlements. India’s purchases of these arms make up 42 percent of Israel’s total weapons exports. The report argues that Israel’s ‘military ideology, methodology and technology’ sustains trade and collaboration with India and represents ‘a threat to democracy and human rights wherever it is implemented.’

India has been expanding its military power for decades. Essa argues that while India publicly condemned Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, privately the Indian military was ordered to study Israel’s military tactics. The biggest shift in the strengthening of the relationship between India and Israel occurred during the 1999 Kargil War when India fought Pakistan over Kashmir, a disputed, majority-Muslim region that has been occupied since 1947. Israel provided India arms after the US and Europe refused, having sanctioned India over its nuclear programme.

In 2019, Modi stripped away Kashmir’s autonomy and right to statehood by revoking Article 370 which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, including its right to have its own constitution and flag. Indian citizens were now able to buy land, settle and set up businesses in the new territories. Kashmir was increasingly militarised, patrolled and barricaded by the Indian Army. A senior Indian diplomat openly called for the adoption of an ‘Israel model’ in Kashmir, to promote the settlement of the state. In Kashmir, we see the most fully realised demonstration of the new relationship, both ideological and practical, between Israel and India.

Building alternatives through solidarity

In response to Israel’s demand for Indian workers, Indian trade unions criticised talks between New Delhi and Israel. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), and Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) are among the signatories to the statement, which calls for the trade union movement to ‘rise in solidarity’ with Palestinian workers. The Construction Workers Federation of India (CWFI) called on people to protest against the talks to make Indian workers ‘indirect partners’ in Israel’s genocidal attacks on Palestine. In the face of state repression of pro-Palestine protests, this is a welcome move, but it remains to be seen whether words will be turned into deeds when it comes to opposing the process.

For those of us in Britain, we can think about resisting occupation in Palestine and Kashmir by finding ways in which they are connected. For example, the Science Museum has a sponsorship deal with Adani, the conglomerate which runs the port in Haifa and which has also provided arms to Israel. Activist group Parents for Palestine organised protests at the Science Museum, highlighting their complicity during the genocide in Gaza. In 2021, Palestine Action highlighted links between Israel and India with their posters protesting against the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems that read “Tested on Palestinians. Used in Kashmir”.

We also need to consider the role not only of pro-Israel forces in Britain, but also pro-Hindutva organisations. For example, Overseas Friends of BJP, which was active during the campaign against Corbyn in the 2019 general election. They also stoked tensions in Leicester in 2022, when young Hindu men marched through Leicester chanting “Jai Sri Ram” – now a Hindu nationalist war cry – and attacking Muslims. One of their activities is to promote the principles of the BJP among the diaspora, guarding against criticism of the Indian state and stoking fears of Muslim extremism.

The mass mobilisations in support of Palestine offer an alternative to the politics of division and Islamophobia. British Indians are not a monolith; they come from a wide range of religions and backgrounds. Today, most are working class, racialised people who have more to gain from a politics of solidarity and struggle. Making that argument and building those links is a small but important part of the struggle against both Zionism and Hindutva in Britain and elsewhere.


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