External Affairs

Backstory: For the Media Should Palestine Matter?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Why did the media forget about Palestine during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Israel? Credit: Reuters

Why did the media forget about Palestine during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel? Credit: Reuters

Amnesia is useful for governments seeking to make their foreign policy an extension of domestic policy, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi deliberate avoidance of Ramallah during his recent three-day visit to Israel should cause little surprise. The question is whether the Indian media can afford such forgetfulness without seriously jeopardising their important, if ancillary, function of being archivist and context setter.

During a visit that was almost universally hailed as “historic,” there was ironically very little history in the media coverage. Almost every major media house had sent a correspondent to Tel Aviv to capture every angle of the Modi-Netanyahu prime ministerial clinch, yet the information churned out was status quoist and uniformly euphoric. The very fact that it took an Indian prime minister 70 years to visit this country did not lead to the logical question: Why? Almost no one paused to consider that the land on which they stood had once had a different habitation and name.
Edward Said, one of the most eloquent defenders of the idea of Palestine, had told me during an interview in December 1997, about his experience of going back to Palestine, the land of his birth: “All these places which I hadn’t visited in 50 years I remembered quite clearly: a staircase, the shape of a door, the curve in a street, things of that sort. What impressed me was the total transformation. I mean Tiberius, which is a town on the Sea of Galilee, which was mostly an Arab town, didn’t have a single Arab now. They have all been driven out. It’s a Jewish town that looks like Miami. It’s a different country. It’s a very strange feeling, where your country is there and built on top of it is another country. And the new one completely denies the existence of the first.”

It is in this project of erasure that much of the media coverage on the recent Modi trip seemed to be complicit, and for reasons ranging from political realism – bringing India-Israel relations out of the closet, as one editorial approvingly endorsed – to plain ignorance. After all, as so many talking heads on television have informed us while celebrating the delightful “de-hyphenation of Israel-Palestine,” if many Arab countries have themselves turned their backs on Palestine, why on earth must India carry on investing it with its attention?

Why indeed? Well, for one, India is still a democracy. In a few weeks from now we will be celebrating 70 years of freedom and it will occasion many a government driven anniversary gig. Yet that freedom would not have been possible without the decolonisation struggle and commitment to democratic values that had preceded it. This is also why a newly-independent India had sought common cause with other countries battling colonial occupation, including militarised colonial occupation as in the case of Palestine. There was time when the Palestinian issue was understood to be important by society as a whole. It was a barometer of India’s political morality and opposition to totalitarianism and apartheid where ever it was practiced, not as a “Muslim issue” in the way one expert, sympathetic to Israel, framed it to The Wire: “The Congress and the Muslim League perceived the anti-imperialist Palestinian cause as a way to win over Indian Muslims whose support they were competing for and to unite Indian Muslims with the resistance against the British. Supporting Palestine was also a method of leveraging India’s interests in the Middle East” (‘India, Israel and Palestine: A Triangle That Does Not Sum Up’, July 2).

While a comprehensive view of the nature of the state of Israel as an occupying power has proved elusive in most recent media coverage, including in The Wire, there were significant glimpses and fact checks to be gleaned from the pieces put out on this portal. An interview with Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador to India (‘Interview: Will Modi Find ‘Shared Values’ in Israel or a State Giving up on Democracy?’, July 4), posed some uncomfortable questions, including on the stagnation of the peace process between Israel and Palestine, and the continuous building of settlements in the Occupied Territories against international law. Interviews, by their very nature, are self-limiting, with interlocutors coming up sooner or later against the requirements of propriety and deference to the guest being interviewed, but it would be fair to say that this interview went far beyond the puff encounters that had appeared on other media platforms and even occasionally had Carmon seeking to change the subject.

Israeli’s wizardry in making arid regions bloom and utilising water in optimum ways, as well as its generosity (well paid for, without doubt) in sharing the technology with India has figured hugely in the reportage from Tel Aviv, but not many cared to find out where much of the water Israel consumes actually comes from. A small infographic, carried with the piece ‘Focus on Water and Terror as Modi Makes Israel India’s 31st ‘Strategic Partner’ (July 6), contained some interesting data. Ramallah gets more rainfall than London, but a disproportionately larger percentage of the water from its aquifers go to servicing the Israeli population in comparison to the Palestinians. You can call it the logic of settler colonialism or just plain theft, as the Palestinians do, but most Indian journalists are not going to say that.

It is also possible that many Indian journalists who had visited Tel Aviv this time to report on the Modi visit would have seen The Wall, but this piece of architecture in the West Bank was conspicuously missing from the general reportage – not even a two-minute piece to camera item. Consequently, its significance as a means of segregation and sequestration used against the Palestinians on their own land ended up being airbrushed from the coverage (‘Border Walls Aren’t ‘Fixing’ Anything – But the World Is Building Them Anyway’, July 5).

Each of these insights, if they had made their way into the coverage of the recent visit of Modi to Israel would have helped the Indian public, many among whom have come into adulthood at a time when India’s foreign policy hardly figures in social discourse, understand why this visit is far from being a matter of celebration and actually compromises India’s national interest. As one perceptive analysis that appeared in The Wire put it, it signalled to the world that “India is now eager to be seen in public embrace of a state that celebrates not just colonial occupation and oppression but also the regular use of violence in contravention of international law against civilians” (‘There are Dangers for India in Modi’s Embrace of Israel‘, July 4).

§

Fan mail for Vinod Dua keeps coming into my inbox. Take this one from I. Mukaramjahan Pirjaed, who expresses his admiration for Dua’s “dareful anchoring”. He adds that he himself is a “Hindustani, living in India, educated in Bharat and a strong believer of India’s great ganga -jamni culture”. Now that makes me a fan of the fan!

§

Meanwhile, Gaurav Pradhan likes the content being shared on The Wire and wants to know if there are any plans to start podcasting it.

§

In the piece by Safieh Shah, ‘The Death of a Sanitary Worker in Pakistan’ (June 15), the date of when the piece had originally appeared in ‘Global Voices’, was incorrectly given as March 10, 2014. Actually, the worker – Irfan Masih – had succumbed to his (very) preventable health challenges far more recently and the original piece had appeared on June 13, 2017.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in

  • kujur bachchan

    Yes. One expected the media (particularly the print media) to, at least, tell their young readers of the historical and ideological reasons and the thinking behind the successive Indian government’s consistent policy of having minimum commercial and diplomatic relations with Israel. I do not think this would have cost the editors their jobs.

    • Anjan Basu

      Do we do we really expect the Indan media today to investigate, enquire and engage with any real issue any more? Look at what even some of The Wire’s writers/ commentators have to say on the Isreal/ Palestine- India equation: ” The Congree and the Muslim League perceived the anti-imperialist Palestinian cause as a way to win over Indian Muslims …. Supporting Palestine was also a means of leveraging India’s interests in the Middle East”, says an apparently non- partisan, ‘ well- meaning’ commentator in his column on

  • ashok759

    In that case, why blame poor Donald Trump for wishing to build a wall between two sovereign nations ?