‘If the Israeli people can do it. We can also do it’: Normalisation of Israel’s colonial desires
“..there is one and only solution that is a separate homeland, where we live and protect ourselves with arms, we should be given training. It is important to make an Israel there [in Kashmir]. There is no second option for the Government of India” (Rakesh Handoo, 2021)
“It has happened in the Middle East, you have to look, if the Israeli people can do it. We can also do it” (Sandeep Chakravorty, 2019)
The two statements made above post the unilateral abrogation of Article 370 by a Kashmiri Pandit activist and the other by India’s Consul General in New York at a private event reflect a growing section of Indian population’s affiliation towards Israel. In the recent attacks by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories, there was a massive support for the Israeli state’s actions displayed online, mostly by Indians who support the Hindutva government in India, a phenomenon that has become a norm since the BJP came to power. It is important to point out that Israel and India have shared historical relations and it would be unfair to simply credit the BJP for their growing friendship, however as Israel is continuously touted as the world’s leading security specialist and lauded for its technological powers such as the Iron Dome, India has repeatedly expressed, through language and action, its desire to form closer associations with Israel, even at the cost of its historical support for Palestine.
Right-wing governments sustain and support each other, as such India and Israel’s relationship is not surprising. The concern here is Indian support and learning from Israel’s model of settler colonialism which involves the heralding of illegal settlements in Palestine, supporting the violent dispossession of Palestinians from their land, implementing apartheid policies in Palestine, historical erasure of Palestinians along with everyday dehumanisation and humiliation. This narrative used to justify the colonization of Palestine finds advocates amongst right-wing Hindus too, out of which some members of the Kashmiri Pandit community are becoming spokespersons for. This support, in turn, normalises Israel’s behaviour, and seeks to invibilise and pardon the violence unleashed on Palestinians. This article highlights how the right-wing Kashmiri Pandit narrative is adopting language and strategies from the Israeli state and seeks to explain this shift and its colonial connotations contextualised in the current political climate.
In 2017, Modi became the first Prime Minister of India to visit Israel seeking closer co-operation in the fields of security, agriculture, water and energy. India’s defence relationship with Israel has a much older historical background with Nehru securing arms from them during the 1962 Indo-China War and presently, India is buying 46% of Israel’s arms becoming its largest military buyer. India has regularly brought in to Israel’s carefully constructed image as a ‘security specialist’ and collaborated with Israel to showcase its military ambition to its own population. The case of Maharashtra’s security forces deciding to “learn from Israel” post the 26/11 attacks is a clear example of this. The idea is that India’s citizens “view their country as a soft state, its underbelly easily penetrated by determined terrorists”. Hence, it becomes possible to advocate for an ‘Israeli model’, essentially referring to a “hard, militarist state” with an “Islamist other” calling for a strong response against ‘enemies’. The focus on security and military strategies in a depoliticised manner allows for ignoring the colonial, and violent foundations of the Israeli state and its repercussions that are inflicted upon Palestinians.
While the Indian state and its nationalist supporters celebrate the circulation of military strategies and seemingly counter-terrorist strategies, these shared practices rely on a celebration of colonialism that is disavowed by Israeli Zionists and Indian nationalists. It becomes pertinent to note that the Israeli state and a wide majority of its supporters do not perceive its actions as colonial. Zionists defend the Israeli state using common colonial tropes which have also found backing amongst Hindutva supporters, and specifically amongst members of the Kashmiri Pandit community. As such, while the sharing of military technologies and practices is couched in a language of strategic importance, the actions of the right-wing Kashmiri Pandits are colonial, and reflect the abuse, exploitation and dispossession of a population with less access to resources to defend themselves. While such asymmetrical invasions and use of violence might require transnational strategic learning between Israeli and Indian counter-insurgency forces, it most of all requires the kind of framings that make this violence appear necessary and justified. In the next few sections, I highlight some of these tropes while explaining how they’re colonial and the reasons for this shift in the narrative.
For starters, the Israeli state has adopted a historical victimhood which allows it to perpetuate violence on Palestinians in its bid to “right-to-exist” and “self-defence”. Similarly, Hindutva supporters have adopted the narrative of an ongoing ‘Hindu genocide’, seen as the ‘longest ongoing genocide in the history of mankind’ and right-wing Kashmiri Pandits point to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits as the reason for all their suffering. While there is no denying of the absolute violence and fear imposed upon the Kashmiri Pandit community in 1989 and later, this has been weaponized by the Hindutva supporters to call for a separate Kashmiri Pandit state which would involve separate settlements for Kashmiri Pandits. This idea of a separate homeland echoes that of Zionist’s and a Panun Kashmir is portrayed as the only possible ‘geographic protection for India’.
An obvious question arises here – protection from whom? Here again, Zionist and Hindutva are united in the instrumentalization of Islamophobia and the targeting of Muslims as extremists, nihilist ‘jihadis/jihadists’ and terrorists. The Israeli state has an ongoing discourse of being the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, surrounded by undemocratic Arabs on all sides, it justifies its need for self-defence against the ‘barbaric’ Muslim neighbours. For a large part of history, Israel’s settler colonialism was shown as a religious conflict against Muslim terrorists. Even in Israel’s war against Palestine last month, it claimed to be responding to terrorist attacks by Hamas with the Israeli Defence Services social media going to great lengths to support this narrative including sexualising Israeli women soldiers as too hot/beautiful to be killing ‘innocent’ people with the obvious implication that Palestinians were not innocent. Anti-colonial resistance is painted as problematically religious and as sexual deviants, acting as justifications for colonial interventions and the civilising mission. Similar sexual and religious discourses are drawn upon in India to allow for colonial expansion.
The recent meeting organized by Panun Kashmir, a Kashmiri Pandit organization that seeks a homeland for Kashmiri Hindus in the valley of Kashmir was Islamophobic to an almost shocking extent. While hatred against Muslims has unfortunately become quite the norm under the Hindutva government, Kashmiri Muslims face the worst brunt of it as not only Muslims but also ‘separatists’ and are often blamed for any and all terrorist activity in India. The anti-colonial actions of the ‘separatists’ is delegitimised through a claim to their religious anachronistic beliefs and sexually retrograde. One of the speakers at the meeting went so far as to say, “You don’t find terrorists in open fields in Kashmir, they are in the homes of the people” openly implying that every Kashmiri Muslim is a terrorist. Other remarks on ‘global jihad’ and predictably, Pakistan were commonplace and while many might dismiss them as extremist or fringe views, this will have very real implications for Kashmiri Muslims who are already minoritized and subjected to virulent hate and violence in Kashmir, in major Indian cities and on social media. This hatred against Kashmiri Muslims is then exploited to justify the demand for a separate homeland for Kashmiri Hindus.
Any claim and demand for a separate homeland is accompanied with a deliberate erasure and appropriation of the region’s history. In the case of Israel, their military victory in 1948 was ‘also the victory of one representation of land and nation’ with immediate territorial implications. The Palestinian landscape has continued to be distorted by repeated Israeli incursions and dispossession of Palestinian homes as witnessed most recently in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah. This is often justified as the return of Jews to the ‘promised land’, a concept carefully analysed and critiqued by Christine Pirinoli in their article on Erasing Palestine to Build Israel: Landscape Transformation and the Rooting of National identities which can be accessed here. This re-scripting of history is noted in the replacing Arab names of places with Hebrew versions, for example Al-Quds becomes Yerushalayim and Falafel, a popular Palestinian dish is rebranded as Israeli cuisine (also a popular idea and food in India). These replacements are part of the genocidal desires of settler colonialism the desire for a land without a people of the settler-colonial Zionist state, which as explained by an Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe is the elimination of the native, a key aspect of settler-colonialism.
These attempts to invisible the colonised can be seen in claims made by right-wing Kashmiri Pandits about being the ‘indigenous’ inhabitants of Kashmir, emphasising on only the Hindu aspects of Kashmiri history to re-represent it as a holy, pious Hindu land with ancient temples. This has involved a writing of Kashmiri history wherein it was the land of a glorious Hindu kingdom, which subsequently declined because of arrival of Islam in the valley. This article is not the space to go into disputing history or pointing out the many incorrect facts in this version of history, it is important to note how the community is shown as one that has been historically marginalized under various Muslim rulers and leaders, without any acknowledgment of the access to power and resources the community had, which was often more than what the Muslims of the valley had access to. This allows for further victimisation of the Pandit community as a result of ‘barbaric’ Muslims.
Several scholars, many of them members of the Kashmiri Pandit community themselves such as Dr Nitasha Kaul and Nishita Trisal have written extensively on how the Hindu right-wing has weaponized the pain of Kashmiri Hindus against Kashmiri Muslims, in a bid to divide the two communities further while advancing their own interests of Hindutva nationalism. I will not be repeating their arguments here as they are best explained by these expert scholars; however, I do want to draw out how this notion of ‘victimhood’ enables the normalisation of the demand for a separate homeland and justifies it in mainstream Indian narrative. The narrative makes Kashmiri Pandits as the ‘defender’ of Indian democracy in J&K, taking an even more hard-line approach with an open call for militarisation for self-defence against Kashmiri Muslims.
Colonialism has always been supported and justified by language and discourse. The narrative of ‘civilising mission’, i.e. colonialism for civilising the ‘wild native’ was commonplace during British colonial rule, the notion of ‘development’ has become instrumental in justifying modern day colonial rule in many places such as that of China in Tibet. Similarly, the Israeli state performs an idea of victimhood and the need for self-defence ignoring the asymmetrical dimension of their relationship to the indigenous Palestinians. This narrative of self-defence, which has been used to legitimise the total destruction of places such as the Gaza strip and the general practice of collective punishment not surprisingly has clout with European audiences as colonialists and other settler colonial nation states, such as the United States. The Israeli state narrative is focused on not only justifying but furthering its desire for Palestinian land without Palestinians and the Hindutva narrative, learning from the narrative and more worryingly, actions of the Israeli state with its impunity, has already started and is continuing to employ such colonial strategies in J&K. The BJP government has not only found a narrative that is convincing to its support base, but which can effectively use Kashmiri Pandits as their ‘pawns’ while demonizing Muslims generally, and Kashmiri Muslims specifically, aided by a close understanding and appreciation of the Zionist model.
While India and Israel draw on and develop longer histories of justifying colonial expansion, it is also pertinent to account for shifts and increases in Indian sympathies with Zionist principles. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the global Right has gained strength through the spread of neoliberalism. These regimes share market, military and surveillance strategies, and, more importantly, they also share as David Lloyd & Patrick Wolfe recognise, ‘the peripheral or outdated modes of domination’, which in India and Israel’s case is colonial in nature. Secondly, Zionist and Hindutva supporters have normalised and justified the violence embedded in their beliefs through propaganda especially via media (including social media) in India. Thirdly, both of these projects function with a deep shared affinity for Islamophobia which has closed off all space for critique of policies which may be colonial or exploitative as long as it’s against Muslims. Fourthly, the impunity with which the Indian government unilaterally abrogated Article 370 and has faced no repercussions since, nationally and internationally, means it can continue to see itself as the rightful ‘owner’ of Kashmir, free to do anything with the land and its people, normalizing calls for violence and dispossession of the residents by state officials and common public. This shows that amongst many audiences in Europe colonialism remains fashionable.
The Hindutva narrative hyper-focuses on the victimhood of Kashmiri Pandits creating the space for an even more militant Hindutva in the mainstream. It is fuelled by misplaced revenge and colonial desire, not for justice or a solution that involves all affected parties working towards justice for all. As the right-wing Kashmiri Pandits give a call to take up arms, the RSS, BJP’s Hindu extremist parent wing has shared a strategy for return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits again directly referring and taking inspiration from the Zionist occupation of Palestine. This is extremely worrying in the current atmosphere where Kashmiris have already been subjected to multiple brutal and inhumane actions of the Indian state including the unilateral abrogation of Article 370 and A35a with its subsequent aims to dispossess Kashmiris of their own land through various legal and political mechanisms, with wide support from the Indian public. This normalisation of colonial rule is hugely distressing and will have lasting implications for the entire region and its peoples. Such narrative and domination are already being resisted by Kashmiris, both Hindus and Muslims through various ways but this responsibility must also be taken by members of the Indian public so as to challenge the colonial actions being conducted in their name.
As we live in unpredictable times where the voices of the right-wing only seem to get louder, I’d like to conclude this article by sharing two lines from the Kashmiri rendition of Bella Ciao, written by Zanaan Wanaan, an independent feminist collective based in Kashmir, in hope and in solidarity with Kashmiris resisting the virulent, colonial and aggressive Hindutva:
“Israeli tarkeeb, chuv tohi aazmaanwaan
Aes ti hyochmuth falestini intifada”
“You adapt Israel’s tactics
But, we have also learnt Palestinian intifada”.
The author would like to thank Dr Catherine Charrett for her inputs and feedback on an earlier draft of this article.
Annapurna Menon is a doctoral researcher and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster. Her research interests include postcolonial national states, colonialism, gender decolonial theory, Hindutva and right-wing nationalism.