Why is India courting Israel?

July 29, 2014

In an article published at Mondoweiss.net, Tithi Bhattacharya documents the growing relationship between the Israeli state and India's Hindu nationalist government.

I HAVE never quite known the exact inflections to the label "world's largest democracy" that is accorded to my country, India. Does it mean (a) that the government is the most democratic? Or does it mean (b) that India is the most populous country that has a democratically elected government?

The first interpretation would imply faith in the Indian state, while the second interpretation, taken to its logical conclusion, would point to a faith in the Indian people, who have over the years continued to opt for this form of government, with all the known caveats of such a form being limited, class-based and often ineffectual.

Last week, as hundreds of people exercised their democratic right and demonstrated in solidarity with their Palestinian sisters and brothers at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, the Indian state violently attacked the unarmed, nonviolent demonstrators, injuring several and arresting several more. But in doing so, it also settled once more the question of where the democratic impulse of a country truly lies: in its people, never in its state.

Narendra Modi speaks at a World Economic Forum meeting in New Dehli
Narendra Modi speaks at a World Economic Forum meeting in New Dehli (Norbert Schiller | WEF)

Why did the newly elected Modi government, fresh from an overwhelming electoral victory, risk exposing the steel fist behind his velvety rhetoric of "development" and "acchhedeen" (good days)?

Because a relationship with the Israeli state was worth a few wounded protesters.

India today provides the largest market for Israeli military equipment, accounting for nearly 50 percent of Israel's weapon's sales. The military business between the two nations is worth around $9 billion.

Where so much money is involved can love be far behind? An extensive survey done by the Israeli foreign ministry in 2009 found that India surpassed the U.S. in its "sympathy" for the Israeli state. According to this report, "58 percent of Indian respondents showed sympathy to the Jewish state. The United States came in second, with 56 percent of American respondents sympathizing with Israel." Even if this single survey is close to accurate, it indicates that nearly half of India's population does not currently sympathize with Israel.

India-Israel Relationship: The Anticolonial Legacy

India and Israel were born as nation-states a year apart from each other, but under radically different circumstances. In 1947, India gained her independence from two hundred years of British rule through a massive anti-colonial movement of ordinary people. The state of Israel was born in 1948 through the organized ethnic cleansing of 531 Palestinian villages, which forced 750,000 Palestinians into exile and more than 13,000 Palestinians dead with Britain playing midwife to this process.

Due to the radically different processes of their births, people who played leading roles in the anti-imperialist upsurge in India saw the argument for a Zionist state for what it was: an operation in dispossession and violence. So Gandhi, commenting on British mandate of 1923, said:

My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions. Through these friends, I came to learn much of their age-long persecution. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them. Apart from the friendships, therefore, there is the more common universal reason for my sympathy for the Jews.

But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice.

Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction, but that of the last war [the First World War]. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.

Thus, when the UN General Assembly voted on the partition of Palestine in 1947, the newly born nation-state of India proudly voted against it. Vijay Lakshmi Pandit was the Indian ambassador to the UN. It was not coincidental that she was also one of the first women to become a UN delegate and imprisoned several times by the British, a veteran of many street fights against colonial rule.

But it would be wrong to designate this gesture of solidarity towards Palestine as an act of generosity by the Indian state. Instead, we ought to see the behavior of this generation of state leaders as acts of a group of politicians who had not yet coalesced themselves fully as a unified ruling class over their people. Coming fresh from an insurgent mass anti-imperialist movement, the dust of their street fighting days still clung to their administrative robes, and their distance with civil society was yet to be fully consolidated.

The international context, too, was very different that allowed such acts of solidarity to blossom. Inspired by a wave of anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Asia, fighters against oppression and racism in one country backed similar fights by their sisters and brothers elsewhere. Israel was for example not invited to the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia in respect of the protest of Arab states.

Also, despite the post-war American state's pugilist defense of Zionism, Indian people could never forget the tremendous solidarity ordinary American people showed for the freedom struggle in India. The leading African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph, was one amongst many voices, who argued that "Negroes should back India" because the "freedom of the people of India" was "intimately tied up with the freedom of the Negro people of America."[1]

Similarly, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a leader of the anti-imperialist struggle in India, was one of the founding members of the League Against Imperialism (1927), alongside the leading internationalists of the era, such as the Algerian freedom fighter Messali Hadj, J.T. Gumedi of the African National Congress and Albert Einstein.[2] (Nehru was less than perfect in his "anti-imperialism," it must be noted, when it came to India's relationship to Kashmir).

It is precisely due to this global context of internationalism and solidarity that it is easy to identify the outliers: political forces that propagated the most vicious forms of nationalism, racism and tried from the outset to tie the broad interests of a anti-colonial mass movement to the narrow class interests of a state.

In India, these were the Hindu nationalists who had earned their political colors through virulent anti-Muslim propaganda and violent anti-Muslim riots. Their leader V.R. Savarkar, a founder figure for the present day BJP and RSS, was noted for his admiration of Adolph Hitler, his incitement towards pogroms against Muslims and--his admiration and support for Israel.

Indeed, his latter-day admirers have correctly identified him as the "Hindu counterpart of a Zionist" for Savarkar from the very start "defined the Hindus as a nation attached to a motherland, rather than as a religious community."

India: From Anti-Colonialism to a Nation-State

The generation of anti-imperialists who took the helm of the Indian government soon realized that the class interests of the state were rarely going to coincide with the mass interests of the people, and as defenders of the state, they began to learn to act as "special bodies of armed men placed above society." Thus, the same Nehru who had stridently backed India's UN vote against Israel in 1947, asked for Israel's military support in his sub-imperialist war against China in 1962.

Of course, Nehru's learning process as the guardian of State power had been aided by his brutal campaign against the Communist-led peasants in Telengana, instructing the Indian Army to raze villages in Nagaland and shoot demonstrators in Kashmir, all the name of Indian "unity."[3]

The Indian state was now beginning to tower over the past legacy of anti-imperialism and its own people. It should thus come as no surprise that in a statement in 1954, Nehru recognizing the process in which Israel was established said that he would not "be a party to a resolution which stated that the creation of Israel was a violation of international law."

And yet despite this uneven history, through the seventies and eighties, the Indian state was more noted for its pro-Arab profile than its backing of Zionism. Things began to change from the late eighties due to three prominent factors:

First, the triumph of neoliberalism worldwide through the eighties meant that global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank could now impose punitive debt-regimes on the countries of the Global South.

This required pliant national governments who would readily do their bidding and quell any protests from the people of these countries. This also meant that the national ruling classes of these countries signed on to a project to defend and kowtow to U.S. imperialism in general terms as the U.S. army provided the firepower behind the paper contracts of the IMF.

This new re-orientation of these countries towards the U.S. went hand in hand with a recalibration of their diplomatic ties with the U.S.'s greatest ally: Israel. In the case of India, the timeline for these processes could not be clearer: India signed on to economic liberalization in 1991. In 1992, the Indian state re-established formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

Secondly and closely related to the developments above, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe were important factors in this process of global realignment. The fall of the USSR and its satellites engendered a triumphalist rhetoric that capitalism had won against "socialism" and all of its contending ideological barriers.

For those of us who grew up in India in the shadow of the Naxalite movement of the late sixties and with posters of Leila Khaledin our rooms, we witnessed a rapid replacement in public culture of anti-colonial or anti-capitalist icons with newly manufactured icons of a synthetic "Indian" nationalism whose anti-colonial roots had been surgically removed. Instead of the Bollywood hero of the forties who fought the British or the Bollywood hero of the seventies who fought the capitalist bosses, we had the new Bollywood hero who spent summers in Switzerland and always had the key to cosmopolitanism close at hand: a can of Coca-Cola.

The political project of an U.S.-led world order was thus not merely secured economically through bodies like the World Bank and the IMF, but also culturally through the creation and circulation of such images in the mass media.

Thirdly, the new "India" that came to be born in this era of neoliberal restructuring of the economy and the cultural milieu had a very specific enunciation. The new muscular neoliberal nationalism was suffused very deliberately with the strong colors of majoritarian Hindu nationalism. In the name of the nation, a frenzied Islamophobic campaign was whipped up by the Hindu nationalists precisely as the economy was being liberalized which ended in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and violent pogroms against Muslims. The wave of nationalism culminated in the electoral rule of the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People's Party), from 1997 to 2004 riding on the wave of an intense anti-Pakistan political rhetoric.

All of this had the effect of drawing the Indian state further closer to its new Zionist friend. After all, for the Hindu nationalists, Israel had done what they aspired towards: a successful "containment" of its Muslim population through either outright ethnic cleansing or political disenfranchisement. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz correctly surmised: "Relations between Israel and India tend to grow stronger when...India experiences a rightward shift in anti-Muslim public opinion or in leadership."

From the River to the Sea

As I write this piece, Israel has moved in ground troops to Gaza after its 12-day campaign of heavy bombardment, 80 percent of the casualties of which has been civilians. Meanwhile, the Indian government has refused any discussion of this genocidal assault on a captive population, claiming India has "diplomatic ties with both nations and any discourteous reference to a friendly country would affect relations."

I am no longer surprised that this is the position of the Indian state--for it is now headed by a man who rose to political prominence over the systematic massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and on the basis of promises to deliver to big business a healthy supply of cheap labor. He hopes to bind the Indian state more firmly to the Israeli apartheid state through the poisonous tendrils of Islamophobia and the networks of military profits.

But what is a state to do when the people it claims to represent go against its interests?

In 2012, Indian academics, students and social justice activists took up the call of Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel. This is of course a result of the internationalization of BDS as a movement across the globe. But it is also due to the work of activists in India who have over the years consistently raised the question of Palestinian freedom and linking it to wider questions of U.S. imperialism and the collusion of the Indian state. These were people who had already witnessed the horror of anti-Muslim pogroms in their own country in 1992 in Mumbai, in 2002 in Gujarat. They had seen the burning bodies and heard of the targeted rapes. So they were very clear on the need to fight Islamophobia, both within the borders of India and without.

Thus, when Israel started bombing Gaza on July 8, people started mobilizing for their Palestinian brothers and sisters across several Indian cities. Several organizations gathered at the Israeli Embassy in the capital New Delhi to protest the massacre in Gaza. Kavita Krishnan, a leading feminist and the president of the All India Progressive Women's Association, told me:

We had reached the Embassy and sat outside the gate, raising slogans. And the Delhi police went berserk. They did not just remove us from the premises, they seemed to take personal offence at pro-Palestine slogans.

So when four policewomen were dragging me away and I raised a slogan, one of them hit me on the mouth with her helmet. They used batons on the protesters (mostly students) and detained around 70 of us all day in a police station. The station house officer at the police station told other activists and lawyers who intervened that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs had been on their case for allowing a protest at the Israeli embassy!

...[W]ith BJP [in power], its cadre are trying to distort history and portray solidarity with Palestine as somehow "anti-national" and "pro-terrorist"! In fact, for India to side with Israel in this brutal massacre, is to do violence to the spirit of India's own anti-colonial legacy.

As an immigrant who has been away for two decades from her country, I often wonder what images I ought to convey to my young daughter when she asks me about my land. Should it be the indigo passport that I hold in my hand as I cross international borders? Is it the face of the newly elected prime minister that only brings back for me memories of another genocide? Or is it the tricolor flag that I see people wave on ritual days to orchestrate difference with others?

After last week's protests all over India in support of Palestine, I know I can tell my daughter that my country lies waiting in the defiance of its people and in the new histories that they are now writing of borderless solidarity.


1. Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India (Temple University Press, 2008).
2. Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (The New Press, 2008).
3. Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology (Verso, 2013).

First published at Mondoweiss.net.

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