On May 17, 2021, Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative at the UN, announced the official Indian response to the latest round of Israeli brutalities against Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza and also the West Bank.
While there was condemnation of the “indiscriminate rocket firings from Gaza” there was silence about Israel air strikes. After Trump’s policy shift in 2017, India has been careful – as displayed in this UN statement – to not speak of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state even as it declared its support for a two-state solution, as if Israeli behaviour has not effectively destroyed in any meaningful sense this possibility.
This shameful pro-Israeli stance is of course rationalised by our Indian or Indian-origin ‘Advisors to the Prince’, i.e., a set of prominent journalists and academics (be they in India or in universities in Singapore, UK or the US) who pronounce this as a more or less ‘balanced’ position protecting Indian ‘national interests’. Opposition parties have made loud noises about the asymmetry of force but only the Left parties dare to call for ending India’s military relationship with Israel – Israel is India’s second-largest supplier after Russia and India its largest purchaser – and for supporting the BDS campaign against the Israeli government and allied institutions.
This is where India has finally arrived at. The Congress government initiated the strategic turn towards Israel from the end of the eighties onwards thereby reducing its pro-Palestinian stance to little more than diplomatic lip service and monetary aid. The BJP has added another dimension to its ties with Israel seeing Zionism with warm approval as a sister ideology to its own vicious Hindu nationalism. Actually, Israeli Zionism is anti-Palestinian rather than anti-Muslim but happy these days to piggyback on Islamophobia. From the time of Indian independence till the early nineties, both the Indian self-image as well as that from abroad was of India being a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause. How then did this moral-political degeneration take place?
The dominant understanding of those who see themselves as belonging on the left or as progressive liberals is that there was an unfortunate rupture when India effectively abandoned its more than four decades long non-aligned foreign policy stance inaugurated immediately after independence. While it is true that on the Palestine-Israel issue there is more rupture than continuity, this glossy-eyed view of Indian nonalignment has always served to shield India from justified criticism of its behaviour with its South Asian neighbours as well as some of its unprincipled stances towards developments elsewhere. However, here the focus is on the specifically India-Israel issue and what follows is a brief resume of key milestones showing how relations between the two evolved.
Let us start with Gandhi. Indian progressives (and not just them) love to quote from the November 26, 1938 issue of his paper Harijan where he says “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French and it is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs…….They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs”.
Invariably ignored, however, is that Gandhi was ambivalent on this issue and was quite influenced by his close Jewish Zionist friend from his old South Africa days, Herman Kallenbach, who visited him in India in 1937 and then in 1939. In March 1946 Gandhi received a Mr. Honick, member of the World Jewish Congress and S. Silverman, a Jewish Labour party MP in UK. In the ensuing discussion, a question was posed to Gandhi and duly recorded by his personal secretary, Pyarelal Nayyar – “May we take it that you sympathise with out aspiration to establish a national home for the Jews?” Gandhi’s reply was not recorded, indeed after Gandhi’s death in 1948, Pyarelal selectively destroyed some papers on Palestine.
But Silverman later reported the reply to the American journalist Louis Fischer who some three months after this discussion contacted Gandhi and confirmed the veracity of this reply. Gandhi had said, “I told Silverman that the Jews have a good case in Palestine. If the Arabs have a claim, the Jews have a prior claim.” Later in the July 21 issue of the Harijan, Gandhi says, “It is true I did say some such thing in the course of a long conversation with Mr. Louis Fischer on the subject”. He then goes on to say of the Zionists that they should abjure terrorism and be completely non-violent. “Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine? If they were to adopt the matchless weapon of non-violence……..their case would be the world’s……this would be the best and brightest.”
From Nehru to Rao: 1950 to 1992
Of greater importance is tracing the evolution of the Indian government’s stances on Palestine. India was one of the 11 members of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) set up in May 1947 to report to the General Assembly when Britain handed over its mandate responsibility. India (along with Iran and Yugoslavia) – put forward a plan maintaining federal unity and voted against the majority plan to divide Palestine giving 55% of the territory to Jews (then around 30%) but demarcated in a manner whereby mostly Palestinians would bear the burden of shifting.
In any case, this plan was only a recommendation and not to be imposed. Furthermore, this whole exercise was repudiated by the Palestinian side since it violated the mandate commitment to giving full independence. In 1950 Nehru recognised Israel even as, contrary to the Partition Plan, it had secured, through force, 78% of the total territory, though in partial deference to Arab sentiment he refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations.
The USSR was the first country to give de jure recognition to Israel three days after its declaration of independent statehood on May 14, 1948. So quite unsurprisingly the Communist Party of India made no objection to Nehru’s later recognition. There was further evidence of Nehru’s sympathy for Zionist Israel. A preparatory meeting for the 1955 Bandung Summit was held in Java in December 1954 of the Heads of Burma, Indonesia, Ceylon, India and Pakistan where Nehru proposed inviting Israel as a member of Bandung. Fortunately, this was shot down.
In 1968 Indira Gandhi gave the green light to R. N. Kao, the head of India’s foreign intelligence department or Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to make secret contacts with Mossad ostensibly because of Pakistan’s pursuit of relations with China and N. Korea. After the Emergency, the Janata Party under PM Morarji Desai was in power from 1977-80. This was a de facto coalition in which the Hindu communal Jan Sangh party (forerunner of the BJP) was the biggest component and whose head A.B. Vajpayee (later to become PM) was the foreign minister.
The Jana Sangh always had a soft spot for Israel and in August 1977 there was a secret meeting between Indian representatives and the Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan in Kathmandu, Nepal. India had its first nuclear test in 1974 pushing Pakistan to prepare for a bomb. At this meeting, information was given to India about the Pakistani Kahuta uranium enrichment plant. There have always been rumours that Israel offered help to carry out a bomb attack on Kahuta but confirmation or otherwise of this will have to wait for future release of secret documentation.
After Sadat’s visit to Israel in November 1977 and then the Camp David Accords of 1978, Morarji Desai in January 1979 invited Dayan for a secret talk to indicate newer bilateral possibilities should Israel be able to make some kind of settlement with the Palestinians now that Sadat had presumably paved the way for this. That Sadat’s overtures had been widely denounced by the Palestinians was another matter.
Towards the end of the eighties, new initiatives of Arafat and other leaders of the PLO were seized upon to deepen the relationship between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. In 1987 an intifada in the Occupied Territories which was not led by the traditional leadership of the PLO shook the latter. A year later in 1988, Jordan abandoned its earlier claim to the West Bank while Arafat and the PLO presented its ‘Declaration of Independence’. This officially represented a decisive shift from the earlier goal of a secular, democratic state in the whole of Palestine to a new willingness to settle for a two-state solution formally recognising both the Zionist character of Israel and its absorption of 77% of the land.
This paved the way for the negotiations leading to the Oslo Accords later. The Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi now had no compunctions in seeking deeper collaborations with Israel (nor did the V.P. Singh government), albeit still secret. Between 1989-92, RAW provided safe houses as operational fronts for Mossad’s agents to use. By 1992 the Congress government under PM Narasimha Rao established, with PLO assent, full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Up to the present
Other signs of an ever growing closeness follow. In 1997, under the UDF government, President Ezer Weizman visits India promoting final negotiations for the first major arms deal between the two countries in that year. But it is when the BJP leads a coalition government (1998-2004) or when ruling on its own (2014 to this day) that further leaps are taken. In 2003, Ariel Sharon becomes the first Israeli Premier to officially visit India.
In 2015 India was one of only five countries to abstain (the US alone votes against) from a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council endorsing a report on war crimes arising in Gaza during the 2014 conflict. In 2017, Modi becomes the first Indian premier to officially visit Israel and delights his hosts by not also officially visiting the Palestinian Authority although Palestine is given the status of a state with which India has formal diplomatic relations. Netanyahu then visited India in 2018.
Most, if not all, Western liberal democracies have a much shabbier record of collusion in various forms with Israel. What then distinguishes India? For one thing unlike most countries of the South, it was seen as having an impressively long history of being a functional liberal democracy, albeit with many flaws. Second, it was seen as one of the key leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War era that was supposed to be against settler colonialism (Israel among others) and apartheid (South Africa then and Israel today). So its subsequent degeneration tends to stand out all the more strongly. But perhaps most importantly, Israel serves as something of a model for the kind of society the current rulers of India want to build. Let me end with three examples of what I mean.
India not only denies self-determination to Kashmiris in the part it controls but has for decades now made the area one of the most, if not the most, militarised region in the world with a ratio of armed personnel to civilians that is greater than that of Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories. In November 2019, India’s Consul-General in New York, S. Chakravorty openly declared that Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Territories should serve as a model of what India should do for Kashmiri Hindus displaced in conflict-torn Kashmir which is majority Muslim.
Furthermore, this Indian government believes it has a lot to learn from Israel’s ‘homeland security’ methods (which can include collective punishment and torture) as the way to fight domestic terrorism whether this is urban-based as in Mumbai after the 2008 attack or in respect of dealing with large-scale popular mobilisations against particular projects that states or the Centre wish to push; and of course for handling insurgencies in Kashmir. There are a slew of agreements in this regard whereby Indian police officers from all the states in India are sent to Israel for training.
In late 2019 it was discovered that the Indian government had bought Pegasus, a spyware made by an Israel cyber-weapons company, the NSO Group that enables surveillance of smartphones and used it against at least 121 human rights activist, lawyers and other citizens. This is part of the ongoing project to establish a much more effective surveillance state to identify and then legally or otherwise harass dissidents who oppose this government’s effort to establish a Hindu state in all but name.
Finally, in pursuit of this overriding goal there was the Citizenship Amendment Act passed through parliament in December 2019. This axiomatically defines non-Muslim religious minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh as suffering persecution and therefore entitled to fast track-naturalisation as Indian citizens if they came before December 31, 2014, and have completed five years up to December 31, 2019.
These designated religious groups are overwhelming Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists (all deemed to be indigenous to ‘Hindu India’, so no problem) plus Parsis and Christians whose numbers are minuscule in these three Muslim majority countries. In reality, because these minorities are deemed persecuted, they can always claim they had to flee long ago without documentary proof of when they came and this will be accepted. This is a landmark legislation.
For the first time in India religious discrimination has been embodied in a law pertaining to citizenship. To be a citizen is to have the right to have various rights – hence its vital importance. In effect, the CAA has inaugurated a kind of ‘neighbourhood right of return’ for Hindus. Who says Israel has not inspired today’s India!
Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is the author of The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India and The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism.