Indian Port Workers Refuse to Load Weapons for Israel’s War

India is a major military partner for Israel, which is why port workers across India are refusing to handle weapons destined for Israel, insisting they want no part in the massacre in Gaza.

Mundra Port in Gujarat, India. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the 135th day of Israel’s relentless onslaught on Gaza, a resolute voice emerged from India’s maritime labor force. The Water Transport Workers Federation (WTWF), representing fourteen thousand workers, including 3,500 stationed at eleven of India’s twelve major ports, heeded the call by Palestinian trade unions. They courageously declared they would refuse to handle weapons destined for Israel.

In a poignant declaration, the union’s general secretary, T. Naraendra Rao, affirmed their stance: “If any vessel or any ship is carrying arms or ammunitions or weapons cargo to Israel, we decided to boycott. We will not cooperate with that.” The union’s statement explained its action as an act of solidarity, condemning a war in which “women and children have been blown to pieces. Parents were unable to recognize their children killed by bombs exploding everywhere.”

The federation’s stand caught many by surprise. India has well-documented arms deals with Israel, as well as an online army of pro-Israel “sanghis,” supporters of far-right Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) parties. However, this reaction underscores a deeper truth: India’s political pluralism, federated structure, and long history of class struggle and anti-imperialism, including steadfast support for the Palestinian cause.

India and Palestine

The year 1947 holds profound significance for both India and Palestine. It marks the dawn of India’s independence and the United Nations vote that triggered the mass dispossession of Palestinians, known as the Nakba. Led by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s stance on the issue was shaped by its 1947 vote against the UN partition of the former British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, championing the vision of a single secular state. India refused to recognize Israel upon the state’s creation in 1948, as it saw the Zionist movement as an extension of British imperialism.

India’s solidarity with Palestine traces back earlier, to 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi, in the Jewish Chronicle and later in Harijan in 1938, asserted that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English, or France to the French.” This solidarity was further cemented through India’s leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement, culminating in 1974, when India became the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In 1988, India became the first non-Arab country to formally recognize Palestinian statehood. Even now, India maintains diplomatic missions in both in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, a distinction shared by few nations worldwide.

Despite formally recognizing Israel in 1950, India kept relations at the consular level until 1991, appointing its first ambassador to Israel only in 1992. The 1980s saw the decline of the Third World project; a shift in the geopolitical landscape prompted New Delhi to gradually pivot away from its traditional ties with Palestine in favor of closer relations with Israel.

Collaborating With Israel

While Israel provided weapons to India during its conflicts with China in the 1960s, formal arms deals and intelligence cooperation between the two countries began only in 1998, following the rise of right-wing Hindu forces in Indian politics. This cooperation has significantly expanded since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014. Modi’s 2017 visit to Israel was the first by any Indian premier, and subsequent trips by Netanyahu to India have further solidified bilateral ties.

Today, India is the largest and most reliable arms purchaser from Israel, accounting for 46 percent of Israel’s global sales. Since 2017, India has been designated a “strategic partner,” participating in the coproducing Israeli weapons. The same year saw the commencement of joint military exercises, encompassing police and army training sessions, as well as mutual high-level visits, highlighting the two states’ strengthening defense ties. The growing relationship is part of a broader trend in Indian politics and military spending. Amid escalating tensions with China, India has engaged in an arms race also involving substantial increases in military expenditure, which reached $73.8 billion — the world’s third-largest military spender, after the United States and China. In the few years before the Ukraine war, India, alongside Saudi Arabia, dominated global arms exports, collectively accounting for 22 percent of global arms trade.

This February 2, news leaked that twenty Indian-made medium-altitude lethal drones were delivered to Israel for use in Gaza. The drones, produced in a Hyderabad-based joint venture with a controlling stake held by the Adani Group, are similar to the Hermes drones used by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza. This partnership reflects Israel’s deepening collaboration with Indian arms suppliers, exemplified by Elbit Systems’ joint venture with Adani Defense and Aerospace, inaugurating a $15 million manufacturing facility in Hyderabad. This is the first instance of Israeli drone manufacturing outside of that country.

Led by India’s wealthiest individual, Gautam Adani, the Adani Group plays a central role in Israel’s arms economy. In addition to drone production, Adani controls both Israel’s Haifa Port and India’s largest port, Mundra, located in the state of Gujarat. Israel’s transport minister, Miri Regev, has lauded this as a means of bypassing Yemen’s Ansar Allah (Houthi) Red Sea blockade, i.e. by shipping goods from Mundra to the United Arab Emirates and then transporting them over land to Israel.

Adani’s nearly vertically integrated supply chain can circumvent the WTWF’s commitment to refuse to handle arms shipments to Mundra and from there to Haifa. However, Adani must also ensure efficient movement of inputs such as raw materials and component parts. The union holds sway at eleven of the twelve major Indian government-run ports, while Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited operates mostly at eleven smaller nonmajor ports and holds small portions in major maritime hubs, handling 23 percent of all cargo handled at Indian ports. However, the twelve central government-controlled ports handle 55 percent of all cargo.

Finished products like drones would travel by land from Hyderabad to Mundra Port, but some parts and raw materials contributing to their production pass through national ports where the WTWF union has real strength. The union’s refusal to handle such goods could significantly disrupt the production of weaponized drones. With further investigation, uncovering this sometimes concealed information about secondary suppliers and components could help to undermine India’s role in the Israeli war machine.

Also worth considering is the fact that India produces critical components for major Israeli arms companies. Public-owned defense giants such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited, as well as some medium-sized firms, manufacture electrical components or machined parts for Israel’s main military companies, including Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. These component facilities are located in the south Indian city of Bengaluru. While many finished components are transported via Bengaluru airport, some may pass through Kochi, Mangalore, or Mumbai ports, where the WTWF union has a major presence.

As demonstrated by the Suez Canal blockage in 2021, or the current Red Sea blockade, increasingly consolidated shipping companies and megaports can serve as critical choke points and spaces of remarkable leverage in obstructing the production and circulation of goods.

Port Workers’ Union

The WTWF has a radical history — and was inspired by a sense of appalling injustice. Affiliated nationally with the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) — a group linked to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — and internationally with the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the union was motivated to launch the boycott after hearing from Palestinian trade unionists at a recent WFTU meeting in Athens. As the general secretary explained, “We decided then that we would do our bit and not handle any weapon-laden cargo, which will go on to assist Israel to kill more women and children as we are seeing and reading every day in the news.”

This is not new for the port workers. Between 1948 and 1994, seamen and dockers from around the world played a central role in isolating South Africa’s apartheid state. As early as 1962, dockers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) picketed a Dutch ship, Raki, arriving at San Francisco Pier 19, carrying goods from South Africa. This was part of the burgeoning global anti-apartheid movement. In 1984, the Maritime Unions Against Apartheid (MUAA) was formed by seafarers’ unions of Denmark, Britain, and Australia. MUAA focused on stopping oil supplies to South Africa, the country’s key vulnerability.

Working with the Amsterdam-based Shipping Research Bureau (SRB), the unions attempted to prohibit all oil transports to South Africa. By 1985 seafarers from thirty countries would meet in London to call for “worldwide action to embargo oil to South Africa.” A central participant in this effort was India’s WTWF. Speaking to the conference, its vice president M. A. Sayeed highlighted South Africa’s attempts to sidestep the boycott by “sending their oil through tramp carriers or by rerouting it through a third country. We seamen in India call for a boycott of all such shippers.” SRB’s research thus became essential for tracking the movement of primary, secondary, clandestine, and component parts supply chains.

Indian port workers and seamen have a radical history of such actions. In August 1945, as World War II reached its conclusion, a boycott of Dutch shipping in Australian waters was called, in support of the Indonesian declaration of independence. The Indian Seamen’s Union and the Australian seafarers responded to the call. The boycott was kept up for nine months, continuing intermittently for over a further four years, and it delayed an estimated 559 ships. In India, the two major ports, Bombay and Calcutta, had strong union density and a militant leadership. The militancy was a holdover of the strikes of 1939, in which Indian merchant seafarers struck across the British Empire. The strikes, over disparate and racialized wage rates, affected ships in ports as far flung as Britain, Burma, India, South Africa, and Australia. The strike disrupted colonial shipping networks at a strategically pivotal time and set the conditions for cross-border solidarity. This also had dire consequences: indeed, the boycott of Dutch shipping was effectively broken by July 1946, through the combined efforts of Dutch troops and yellow unions. Many members of the Indian Seamen’s Union in Australia were deported and blacklisted from employment.

A Global Movement

Actions around the world have shown solidarity with Palestine. The WTWF — strongest in South India’s Kochi Port in Kerala and Tamil Nadu’s Chennai Port, India’s second largest — has been especially vocal. Kerala, ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has supported Palestine since October, with mass rallies of up to two hundred thousand people, some inaugurated by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. He criticized Modi for supporting Israel, stating, “Israel is one of the biggest terrorist countries” and calling for an end to India’s military deals and diplomatic ties with Israel.

In response to Israel’s assault on Gaza, Maryan Apparel, a Kerala-based uniform manufacturer, producing one hundred thousand Israeli police uniforms annually, announced that it would cease producing for Israel due to attacks on Palestinian civilians, ending its nearly decade-long relationship with the Israeli state.

Similar actions have been seen globally. In October, Belgium’s three major transport unions announced that their members would no longer handle weapons to Israel, by land, air, or sea. Barcelona’s dockworkers also declared they would refuse to load or unload any military material destined to Israel. The government of Wallonia (the majority French-speaking part of Belgium) suspended two ammunition export licenses to Israel, banning future arms transfers, while Spain instituted an arms ban to Israel. Recently, The Hague Court of Appeals in the Netherlands ordered the Dutch government to stop the export of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel, citing a clear risk of violations of international law.

Even a strategically located union in a country as pivotal to Israel’s war economy as India may not significantly impact the assault on Gaza. It will take other transport and logistics trade unions, especially in countries such as Britain and the United States — which provide the lion’s share of arms to Israel — to refuse to handle weapons for Israel. The union’s statement ends with a call to action: “We declare our solidarity with those who campaign for peace. We call upon the workers of the world and peace-loving people to stand with the demand of free Palestine.”