Why Indian ‘Nationalists’ Supporting Israel Need to Read History
Indian ‘nationalists’ align with Israel because both countries see themselves as threatened & isolated democracies.
The Temple Mount is burning, quite literally. East Jerusalemites and Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah are crying for justice, as they’re being pushed out of their homes to make way for Jewish settlements, deemed illegal under international law. Hamas has fired rockets from the blockaded Gaza strip into Israel. The Israeli Iron Dome has thwarted most of the rockets. There are sirens blaring all over Tel Aviv. The Israeli Defense Forces have hit back targets in the tiny Southeast Mediterranean strip.
Palestinian civilians, women and children have been killed. But this is not all a first, and alas, I fear it won’t be a last.
The geopolitics of the Holy Land is complicated, and perhaps ‘only’ 15 American presidents, the United Nations and the International Community have tried varying degrees of rapprochement for decades. So, for the sake of brevity I won’t dissect all this here.
There is another aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has caught my eye recently. Through existing social media channels, and the new ones, there is an overarching consensus or alignment among Indian nationals, particularly those who are more ‘nationalist’, to overarchingly declare allegiance to Tel Aviv.
Before I get into the why part, it came as little surprise to me that many ‘nationalists’ who side with Israel do not have a nuanced understanding of the seven-eight-decade-old (no wait, let’s go back over a hundred years, 1917 Balfour Declaration) conflict. In fact, many are unaware that New Delhi and Tel Aviv weren’t always natural ‘strategic partners’.
New Delhi Wasn’t Always Fond of Tel Aviv
Even though both countries were created a year apart, India wasn’t exactly amenable to the creation of Israel. Mahatma Gandhi, who virulently opposed partitioning British India on religious lines, couldn’t condone partitioning British Palestine along religious lines.
While Gandhi, a purveyor of peace and non-violence, was sympathetic to the displaced Jewish diaspora, reeling from the atrocities of the Holocaust, he firmly believed they should return to their countries of origin. In November 1938, Gandhi wrote “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French”.
So much so, that India voted against the Partition of British Mandate Palestine in 1947 and even voted against Israel's admission to the United Nations in 1949.
India informally recognised Israel in 1950, and in 1953, Israel had a consulate in Bombay (then), but no embassy in the capital of New Delhi. The Nehru-led Congress government placated this carefully as to avoid offending sentiments of Arab countries, which India had favourable relations with.
Through the years, this was accentuated, particularly given the vast Indian diaspora and the remittances sent back home, and keeping in mind India's precarious foreign exchange reserves. Incidentally, Kerala, which has the highest diaspora in the Gulf countries, was also the first state where members of the Jewish faith from ancient Judea first set ashore near Cochin (now Kochi). India is also a largely an energy-dependent nation, and given its primary source of energy imports came from the Gulf states, this was walking an economic tightrope.
The relationship remained lukewarm and informal. India wasn’t thinking strategically beyond its neighbourhood, and domestically, the Indian National Congress, as evinced from the Shah Bano imbroglio, feared inadvertently offending the Muslim sentiment. Furthermore, India’s foreign policy was also deeply sympathetic towards the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the case for Palestinian sovereignty.
It was only in 1992 that India and Israel established full diplomatic relations. In fact, until then, a friend tells me his Indian passport precluded travel to Israel (like many Islamic countries still do) and to South Africa, given the then racist Afrikaner regime and the insidiousness of Apartheid. And in 2017, for the first and only time, did an Indian Prime Minister visit Israel.
So, Why the ‘Nationalist’ Affinity?
Conversations on social forums began with several people posting India-Israel unity flags.
“ShalOom” (with more emphasis on Om) said one individual, trying to ingratiate to his Israeli interlocutor, “India and Israel are true allies”, without understanding that India has no formal alliances, just strategic partners.
Another showed brazen ignorance in another forum, ingratiating to people who self-identified as Zionists, by saying “why can’t other Arab nations give Palestine some land, there are so many Arab nations, but only one Jewish state”. This, without understanding that it was Palestine long before the modern day ‘State of Israel’ came into existence or how the Partition Plan carved it out of Palestine.
So, where does this sycophancy come from?
At a kernel level, it comes from being unaware of India’s foreign policy stance towards a two-state solution.
As India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador TS Tirumurti tweeted that India is “deeply concerned at clashes & violence in Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount” and “equally concerned about evictions in Sheikh Jarrah & Silwan neighbourhoods.”
Secondly, going back to 1991, when India opened its economy to the world, it shortly opened its diplomatic doors to Israel, and since then bilateral relations between the two have flourished along with economic investments and knowledge sharing on military stealth and agricultural technology (which Israel is the world leader in).
‘Nationalists’ see a strong defence as a bonus, and the key to the growing India-Israel ties, in the realm of security and defence. In the early 2000s, the Indian Army declared its intention to implement a modernisation program to which resources of tens of billions of dollars would be allocated. Since then, defence deals with Israel have grown exponentially, and today, India is the number one export target of Israel’s defence industries. While Israel is the second-largest source of defence equipment for India, after Russia.
Furthermore, there has been military collaboration as Israeli-supplied weapons aided India in winning the Kargil War in 1999. The IDF also provided humanitarian relief following the Bhuj earthquake in 2001. Overall trade has grown from USD 200 million in 1992 to USD 4.13 billion in 2016.
This robust defence and trade partner, sympathetic to India, helps relegate the Palestinian people’s suffering to something arcanely nebulous in the minds of the nationalist.
Some have even tried to equate Israel’s ‘Law of Return’ to something India should have for any Hindu anywhere in the world.
To clarify, this law has been in place since 1950, which gives Jewish people, anywhere in the world, the right to come and live in Israel and to gain Israeli citizenship. However, in 1970, this became eligible to any individual with one grandparent who was Jewish. However, Palestinian refugees evicted during the ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe in Arabic, when Israel won the 1948 war) are now denied the right of return to their homeland, fearing the Jewish population will go into a minority if more Arabs were to return.
Real Reason Why Indian ‘Nationalists’ Side With Israel
The fundamental problem is trying to equate a monotheistic Abrahamic faith, one that is firmly codified by a book and laws (the Torah means teaching or laws), to the epitome of polytheism in Hinduism with its own form of nebulous interpretations for every individual.
But the real reason why ‘nationalists’ have this affinity towards Israel is the belief that both countries see themselves as isolated democracies threatened in a hostile neighbourhood, and both states have been targets of Sunni extremism, often trained, financed and supported by adversaries.
Ergo, many ‘nationalists’ haven’t understood the plight of Gazans and Palestinians suffering in the West Bank, and tend to equate any Israeli-Palestinian skirmish as negatively with Hamas firing rockets.
There is another unsaid narrative — this is where Pakistani nationalists have pushed the Indian nationalists towards Israel; the fallacy of Pakistani nationalists comparing Kashmir with Palestine, as being under occupation forces.
Fundamentally, this is flawed, given that India and Pakistan are sovereign states fighting over what each believes is a disputed territory held by the other, while Palestinians are being denied their basic rights and brutally forced out of their own homes by a powerful aggressor.
But the Indian ‘nationalists’ see Pakistan, which doesn’t recognise Israel, play up the Palestine issue, largely on religious affinity, and this automatically draws the Indian ‘nationalist’ towards Israel as a kindred partner.
Parallels Between Israel & Pakistan
Interestingly enough, Oxford historian Faisal Devji wrote a brilliant book titled ‘Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea’. The book drew parallels and juxtaposed Pakistan and Israel, which don’t recognise each other as kindred countries, being the only two states formed on the basis of a single religion.
In fact, even military dictator Zia-ul-Haq said "Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state, take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse."
As Washington Post journalist Ishaan Tharoor tweets, “it’s quite grotesque to see how much of the online solidarity for Palestinians and Israelis, especially from South Asia, emerges from a deep well of religious hatred that has little to do with Israeli-Palestinian context”.
And therein lies the problem.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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