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Israel-Hamas War: Jawaharlal Nehru and the Palestine Question

While Nehru aligned with the Palestinian Arabs, he was opposed to a unilateral dismissal of Zionist claims.

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Over the past couple of weeks, we have witnessed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unequivocal support for Israel in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Following the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, India’s increasing trade and defence dependence on Israel has gradually transformed their bilateral relationship. Under the Modi government, the ideological differences seem to have melted away further.

But a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs last week clarified that India’s expressions of solidarity with Israel do not mean it is abandoning its longstanding advocacy of “a sovereign, independent, and viable state of Palestine.”

India's role in the conflict has always involved delicately balancing these two positions, a policy that can be traced back to the one first crafted by Jawaharlal Nehru.
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'Our Intellectual Conviction Tells Us That Palestine is...'

On 14 February 1947, just a week before they would announce their withdrawal from India, Britain, which had been the mandatory power in Palestine since 1918, decided to refer the ensuing Arab and Jewish conflict over the region to the United Nations. In response, the United Nations Special Committee of Palestine (UNSCOP) was constituted to address the issue and propose potential solutions. India, still under British colonial rule but with its own interim government, was appointed as a member of UNSCOP.

The leadership of the Indian National Congress, particularly Nehru, Gandhi, and Maulana Azad had always been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, seeing the Arab demand as rooted in the same principle of the right to self-determination that had driven their own nationalist movement.

In an article in Harijan in 1938, Gandhi famously wrote, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” They were also firmly opposed to the concept of a two-nation theory based on religious identity, a fate they would have to resign themselves to just months later with the partition of India.

In May 1947, Nehru, who was serving as the Minister of External Affairs in the Interim Government, appointed the renowned judge Sir Abdur Rahman as India’s representative to the UNSCOP. In a letter to Rahman on 24 May, Nehru outlined his views on the dispute:

“The Palestine issue is terribly complicated. Naturally, our general sympathies are with the Arabs. And not only our sympathy, but our intellectual conviction tells us that Palestine is essentially an Arab country. To try to change it forcibly into something else is not only wrong but not possible. At the same time inevitably we have great sympathy for the Jews in their terrible distress. It is also perfectly true, I think, that the Jews have done very fine work in Palestine and have reclaimed land from the desert.”

While Nehru aligned with the Palestinian Arabs, he was opposed to a unilateral dismissal of Zionist claims. He favoured a federal state, suggesting that “an autonomous Jewish area within an independent Palestine might lead to a solution.” He emphasised that India must remain “necessarily friendly to both parties” while indicating that any agreement should have Arab approval.

This was in line with most of Nehru’s early forays at the UN, which were characterised by an aversion to partisanship and an ambitious desire to build consensus between conflicting groups. Nehru’s appointment as Prime Minister of independent India ensured a continuity in the Palestine policy. It also conformed to the fundamental principles of independent India’s foreign policy— support for anti-colonial movements, racial equality, and Gandhian advocacy for the resolution of international disputes through negotiation rather than military occupation.

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Nehru and the Role of the United Nations

There was another foreign policy consideration that determined India’s stance. As an emerging postcolonial power, India was looking to establish itself as the leader of the Asian and Arab bloc. Pakistan’s unequivocal support for the Arab side could help them supersede India’s position. “If we miss this opportunity,” wrote Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit in a telegram to Nehru from the UN, “we shall find ourselves completely isolated and a force of doubtful importance and influence in Asia and of practically no influence in the Middle and Near East.”

Rahman’s arrival in New York for UNSCOP deliberations in May 1947 marked a crucial juncture. While the committee leaned toward a partition of Palestine, Rahman championed the idea of a unitary Palestinian state with equal rights for religious minorities.

Nehru acknowledged the merits of the idea, which clearly mirrored the Congress’ vision for independent India, but expressed doubts about its feasibility. Drawing parallels with the situation at home, he told Rahman that “in Palestine as in India and elsewhere we shall have to adopt a middle course between what may be theoretically just and what is factually practicable.”

A federal solution seemed to loom large in Nehru’s imagination. It had failed in India but perhaps it would succeed in Palestine.

The UNSCOP ultimately proposed two plans.

The Majority Plan recommended a partition of Palestine into one Arab and one Jewish state with Jerusalem remaining under UN jurisdiction. The Minority Plan, put forth by India, Iran, and Yugoslavia, proposed a federal state with autonomous Arab and Jewish units and Jerusalem as the national capital. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions in favour of the Majority Plan. India voted with the Arab states against UN Resolution 181(II) and the partition of Palestine.

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Sticking to Non-alignment  

Despite its failure to sway the UN vote, India, for its part, gained in stature in the Arab world. The Majority Plan was never implemented and remained steadfast in its support for a federal Palestinian state. Ideological consistency and international prestige aside, India had other reasons for persisting with its strategy.

By the end of the year, it was facing a crisis of its own with the conflict over Kashmir and could hardly afford to lose the goodwill of Muslim-majority countries. With the Cold War intensifying, India was also eager to develop a third front of non-aligned countries that relied on the backing of Arab nations like Egypt.

So, when Israel applied for admission to the UN the following year, India was one of the countries that voted against it.

Over time, however, India’s stance on Israel softened in response to shifting international dynamics and its aspirations to play a mediatory role in the region. On 17 September 1950, India finally recognised the State of Israel. Nehru made it a point to underscore that recognition did not imply endorsement.

Over the next fifty years, India largely maintained Nehru’s original position. In 1974, India became the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In 1988, India became one of the first countries to recognise the State of Palestine. Today, even as India draws closer to Israel, it seems unprepared to fully abandon its historical stance as it looks to once again position itself as a peacemaker in the international arena.

(Tarika Khattar is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @tarikakhattar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Israel   Jawaharlal Nehru   Palestine 

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