In 2019, Sandeep Chakravorty, India’s consul-general to the United States at that time, said India could follow the Israeli model of building settlements in Kashmir. He was speaking in the aftermath of the Indian government’s abrogation of Article 370, stripping away the special autonomy granted to Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution.

“I believe the security situation will improve, it will allow the refugees to go back because we already have a model in the world. It has happened in the Middle East. If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it,” he had said, at an event organised by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri to discuss his upcoming controversial film The Kashmir Files (2022) about the displacement of Kashmiri Hindus from the valley in the 1990s.

When a video capturing Chakravorty’s comments circulated widely online, Azad Essa, a journalist based between Johannesburg and New York, had been thinking about India’s growing closeness with Israel.

Essa grew up in South Africa and travelled to India every year to visit his family in parts of Mumbai and Gujarat where his grandparents came from. He is a journalist at Middle East Eye – and has previously covered Africa for Al Jazeera English. He has also reported from Kashmir.

When he visited the Palestinian Territories a few years after first visiting Kashmir in 2004, he was startled by similarities between the two, he says. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he began to pay attention to India’s growing closeness with Israel. “Chakravorty’s remarks kind of sealed it for me. A month later, I submitted my proposal,” Essa says.

The resulting book, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, has been widely written about in the international press. There are surprisingly few accessible books on the subject but for “those familiar with the partnership may not find much that is especially novel,” a review in Foreign Policy points out, adding, “It covers much of what is already known about the evolution of the relationship.”

The review also criticises the book for making “especially flawed” assertions about India. The Hindu Frontline found faults with the book’s “over-reliance on its own ideological conclusions and the omission of the other possible factors that shape the behaviour of nation-states. The book overlooks India’s self-interest and the role of realism in its foreign policy choices.”

What Hostile Homelands does well is setting the historical context of this relationship. Scroll spoke to Essa about his book:

Your book Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel shows that from the beginning, the relations between the two countries were deeper than India let on. You write about Mahatma Gandhi’s position on Israel-Palestine being inconsistent – that he said that the Jews could settle in Palestine “only by the goodwill of the Arabs,” but also that “if the Arabs have a claim to Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim. And that Rabindranath Tagore was “an enthusiastic proponent of Zionism.” Were you surprised by your research?
I was very surprised by the extent to which there was contestation on India’s approach to Palestine within the country. The Non-Aligned Movement, of which India was a founder and major leader, rejected Israel at Bandung [in 1955]. But when you read some of the earlier sources discussing what happened, you find that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was open to Israel joining, even though India barely had recognised Israel [as a state] a couple of years earlier [in 1950]. It was only until the Indonesians and the Arab countries refused to have Israel that India accepted.

I was also surprised by the duplicity of someone like Nehru when it came to the 1962 India-China war. He told [David] Ben-Gurion, the Israeli Prime Minister, to send India weapons, but asked him to put them on ships without the Israeli flag. That’s really crazy to me.

Just over a decade earlier, when India decided to recognise Israel, there were a bunch of letters between Delhi and its ambassadors in the Middle East focused on India’s interest in recognising Israel. But there was no discussion about what it would mean for the Palestinians, which was what India said publicly was the reason for not recognising Israel. And so, if India said it was pro-Palestine over the next several decades, you best believe it was also in their self-interest to do so. They wanted oil from the Arab world and knew they had to be seen as pro-Palestine if they wanted to be a leader of the third world.

So, there was a difference in the public and private face regarding the decision. It was very, very methodical and very, very deliberate – that was also surprising to me.

You seem critical of India’s strategic choices. I thought the main thrust of your book was to show a lack of morality in India’s foreign policy. What made you write this book?
I wouldn’t say this is a look at India in an exceptional light. This project was about trying to understand how a country that positions itself using a moral compass and is perceived as having exceptional moral values and moral foreign policy as presented by like people like Nehru and Gandhi. (And Gandhi, to a large extent, is one of India’s biggest exports – this idea of a non-violent freedom fighter.)

And then it has a policy that’s very outwardly pro-Palestine for a long. In 1975, India called Zionism racism and became the first non-Arab country to recognise the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation]. These are big steps. How does a country that positioned itself in that way change to become a strategic partner of a nation it had morally condemned? This project was to try and figure that out.

And what did you find out? How did the India-Israel relationship evolve to its present closeness?
India has had, for the longest time, even under the Nehruvian period, this ambition to be self-reliant. When Israel helped India in 1962, even though India lost that war against China, it saw Israel as a country it could rely on. And there were not many countries in the world that it could rely on, especially for military hardware. But Israel was quite happy to extend itself militarily in the hope that it would improve diplomatic ties in the future.

In the 1980s, India saw Israel as a way to enter the global economy and become close to the US. They could see that the Soviet Union was collapsing and they looked for options. Interestingly, Rajiv Gandhi played a substantial role in building these ties. He was greatly influenced by Subramanium Swamy in this regard.

I don’t think enough attention has been given to Swamy’s role in nurturing and promoting India-Israel ties. He had been pushing for it since the early 1980s. It’s not surprising that the rise of Hindutva, neo-liberalism, and India-Israel ties took place at the same time.

But, in the 1990s and the 2000s, a huge alignment took place and that had to do with India wanting to build its own military-industrial complex, wanting to be a powerful force and also buying into this War on Terror discourse so much so that between 2000 and 2010, it bought like $10 billion worth of arms from Israel.

But the Indian government still had a commitment that started several decades earlier. It wanted to be (and still wants to be) a leader of the Global South. And to be the leader of the Global South, your credentials were predicated on your stance on Palestine to a large extent, and India didn’t want to tamper with that. And [India did not want to be seen by] the developing world as well as the Arab world or the Muslim world as such, as being too provocative in being close to Israel publicly.

But what changes with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is that Modi looks at Israel and sees a country that’s proud of its military might and proud about its Jewish ethnic identity. Whereas, according to Hindu nationalists, India has been hesitant to assert its Hinduness and its strength and in Israel, they see a model to replicate.

But Modi too is not as risk-taking as we think he is. What he does is that before he builds his relationships, he goes and checks up with the Arab world. He goes to several Arab countries and checks up with them first and gets their tacit approval and then he goes to Tel Aviv and makes this grand entry [becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, in 2017]. I think that’s really important because it also shows the careful deliberation behind Indian foreign policy.

So is that where the book started?
[Growing up,] I travelled to India every other year or so and spent a lot of time in Bombay and parts of Gujarat with our family there. My understanding of India however changed when I was introduced to the story of Kashmir as a graduate student. And it surprised me that a country that spoke of itself as anti-colonial and was such an important player in the anti-apartheid movement, could be holding an entire population hostage in Kashmir. And so I was invariably drawn to find out more because at first I couldn’t believe it.

I also observed how a “new” India was beginning to take shape during my short stint as an exchange student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2004. I also returned to JNU as a visiting research scholar to conduct economic research. When I travelled to Palestine some years later, I immediately saw similarities between the occupations as well as in the resilience of both peoples.

India has changed even more dramatically as it became a bigger economic power and a more assertive global player. And as someone who understands how the stories of Gandhi’s “non-violence” and Nehru’s “internationalism” and “Indian values” have been used for years (and continue to be used) as a way to disguise and justify their actions and convince the world that India is a “force of good”, I have felt a certain responsibility to speak and write honestly about it.

When Modi came to power, the mask fell off and India totally embraced Israel. And it made complete sense. So, I went back to try and understand how the Indian independence movement and then the Indian state actually felt about Palestine and Israel. And that’s how the book came about.

I guess there’s one last point: in 2019, India’s now-former consul-general in New York [Sandeep Chakravorty] said that India could follow Israel to build settlements. And that kind of sealed it for me. A month later I submitted my proposal.

One of the most significant stories on the subject is how Israel entered India’s public consciousness. Why did you decide not to write about it?
There are some gaps in the book and one of them is this. Another one is culture, because I think they’re linked.

That was marked as a chapter but the book was becoming too long. I had to cut 12,000 words already. The second reason was that for that chapter, I needed more fieldwork. But I will say that the culture thing is a major topic. I also think that a lot of what you are talking about, a lot of it is forced and exaggerated.

Part of that chapter was supposed to be talking about how Israelis have been travelling to India for several decades – somewhere I think in Himachal there’s a Little Israel. So that’s what I mean by fieldwork, I needed to see that stuff. Although in Kashmir, I have seen things like this in Ladakh, restaurants with Hebrew menus and all kinds of things. But I needed to get to the ground.

This mass sort of approval has not been explored on a public consciousness level. But I do suspect that it’s been forced. There’s some kind of troll army that’s pushing it and the mainstream corporate media is very much on board. Also, Israel has made a deliberate effort to encourage television and media, so this points to me that this is very much a state-driven project to create that impression.

I don’t know the extent to which the ordinary Indian on the street cares that much. And so that’s why I couldn’t write about it. It was only going to be based primarily on social media.

The book hasn’t been published in India. You said you suspect it has to do with the section on Kashmir and Palestine.
Every English-language Indian publisher has basically turned down partnering with Pluto on the book. I can’t speak for all of them, but the general consensus is that they didn’t want to touch it because they felt that they were going to be in trouble. And it was mostly on Kashmir. Although a Tamil publisher has bought the rights to translate and publish.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. | Image credits: IANS/Ministry of External Affairs.