Emphasis on security cooperation and aggressive surveillance tactics
The pivotal role of Jewish military officer Lt Gen JFR Jacob in India’s 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War is a lesser-known chapter in history. His strategic brilliance ensured that the Pakistani Eastern Command surrendered.
When news of the surrender reached New Delhi, there were fears that a Jewish general presiding over such an event could provoke a backlash in friendly Muslim countries, especially in the Gulf states.
Israel played a crucial role in this victory by secretly diverting military aid to India to support Jacob, despite having no formal diplomatic relations and defying its Western allies. This clandestine support included diverting a large shipment of arms from Iran to India, a manoeuvre that was handled through Liechtenstein to maintain discretion as there were no direct relations between India and Israel at the time.
The foundations of Indo-Israeli relations date back to the first meetings between diplomats of the two countries. It began in 1949 with a meeting between Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru and India’s ambassador to Washington at the time, and her Israeli counterpart Eliyahu Eilat.
These early interactions paved the way for a relationship that has since matured into a multifaceted partnership that has evolved beyond discrete engagements into a significant alliance.
The strategic alignment between India and Israel has roots that extend beyond the current administration.
The ideological affinities and security interests that have long united the two countries have now crystallised into an alliance that has become more visible and assertive internationally, raising questions about its implications.
The historical and ideological links between India’s and Israel’s state-building endeavors, particularly within Hindu nationalist ideologies, have significantly influenced policies and attitudes.
In the early twentieth century, Hindu nationalists such as V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar were fascinated by Zionism and, ironically, by the fascism of the German dictator Hitler. They saw the settlers’ colonial project in Palestine as a source of inspiration for Akhand Bharat, their vision of an undivided South Asia (and some surrounding regions) under Hindu domination.
This partnership has intensified especially in security co-operation, an area where both countries find common ground. An illustrative case is that of the UK-based independent investigation firm Stoke White Investigations, which documented the case of one Karim, who was arrested in Kashmir in 2022.
Karim’s account of his interrogation by non-Indian agents with American accents in Kashmir, who questioned him on global political rather than local issues, points to a wider agenda and the presence of Israeli intelligence.
“I think they wanted to find out if I was connected to the fighting in Palestine and Afghanistan,” Karim testified in the report. “One of the officers asked me specifically about Hamas, but I was shocked because it has nothing to do with Kashmir.”
According to Karim, the men were open about their identity. They specifically told him that they were co-operating with the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and were conducting research” in Kashmir.” Karim was interrogated under torture for three days at the Sheikh Ul Alam International Airport in Srinagar before being shifted to another location where he stayed for two and a half months.
The post-2014 events mark a significant shift in Indo-Israeli relations, with a more transparent and assertive demeanour in the world. This change is emphasised by security cooperation and a joint approach to counter-terrorism, which came to the fore after the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the subsequent introduction of aggressive surveillance tactics in India, reminiscent of Israeli methods.
The partnership goes beyond defence to include cooperation in areas such as water management, agriculture and technology. The transfer of defence technology, including the production of drones and missiles in India, signifies a deepening of relations that goes beyond traditional diplomatic interactions.
Recent developments, such as the acquisition of the Haifa Port by the Adani Group, symbolise the shared ambitions and synergies between the two countries. The strategic and military dimensions of the relationship have been highlighted by India’s purchase of Israeli military technology, as evidenced by the USD 2 billion defence agreement signed in 2017.
However, the use of Israeli spy software Pegasus against political figures, civil society activists and journalists in India has cast a shadow over this partnership amid suspicions that the surveillance goes too far. The revelations of the Pegasus project in 2021 hinted at extensive surveillance activities aligned with broader strategies to control dissent, mirroring Israeli online tactics against opposition movements.
In the years following the attack, a supply system known as the Central Monitoring System (CMS) was introduced throughout India. India enlisted the help of Israeli security firms such as Verint Systems to set up this system, which enabled mass monitoring of almost all electronic communications.
The CMS demonstrably shifted the priorities of the Indian security agencies from monitoring convicted criminals to monitoring all private communications with the aim of locating potential threats. The new surveillance system could operate without court orders and allowed the state to access the communications data of virtually anyone with access to a telephone or internet connection. Furthermore, the system did not provide for an appeals process by which individuals who were wrongly targeted could defend themselves. Apart from the involvement of Israeli companies in the process, the introduction of the CMS also points to the Indian state’s valourisation of Israeli security approaches.
Kashmir’s situation after the revocation of its semi-autonomous status has drawn comparisons with Israeli models of governance, with few Indian officials openly advocating similar policies. These parallels have been noted by activist groups and have caused international concern.
Israel’s military co-operation with India, including the leasing of drones for border reconnaissance and potential combat operations, highlights the multi-layered nature of their alliance. The evolving dynamics between India and Israel characterize their bilateral relationship and raise important questions about civil liberties and regional stability.