When The Tables Turn: Israel's Emergence As India's New Best Friend
Does the Palestinian cause even matter to Indians anymore?
NEW DELHI: One of my earliest childhood memories -- I must have been just a few years old -- was waking up one morning to a visibly distraught grandparent, who was vigorously shaking his head while reading the morning newspaper. I was too young to understand why he was upset, but remember noticing that my parents didn’t seem as perturbed. It was the years of the First Intifada, when the Palestinian struggle took on a more organised form, and the Israeli army responded with indiscriminate killings.
Growing up, I came to recognise the Palestinian cause as reflective of the larger notions of justice… it was a cause against oppression, armed might, and western interference. I learned that the Palestinian struggle wasn’t an equal fight between two peoples, but of a powerful, militaristic state backed by the west, against a virtually defenceless, displaced population. The Palestinian struggle, hence, was about restoring justice to the world … of the oppressed taking back what was snatched from them through might and power.
My grandfather’s support to the Palestinian cause fit in well with the dominant mood in India. The Palestinian struggle echoed with India’s own freedom struggle, and the young nation of India threw its weight behind the Palestinian cause. India voted against the Partitioning of Palestine plan of 1947 and voted against Israel's admission to the United Nations in 1949. From 1950 to 1991, India had a more informal relationship with Israel, recognising the nation but not pursuing full fledged diplomatic ties. At the time, you could not travel to Israel on an Indian passport -- a fact that my grandfather brought up routinely during his weekly pro-Palestine monologues.
It made sense… to that generation of Indians, who saw first hand India’s struggle for independence from a colonial oppressor, the Palestinian cause hit close to home. An occupying power, using force and might, took control of someone else’s land, receiving its mandate to do so from western powers of the time. For a generation fighting western occupation at home, the Palestinians were a natural ally.
It would, however, be wrong to paint the past in a homogenous colour. Even back then, there was a voice that sympathised with the Israelis, and not the Palestinians. The proponents of Hindu nationalism related to the concept of a nation formed on religious lines. Israel was the land of the Jews, and the Jews had every right to reclaim the territory that was once theirs. Hindu Mahasabha leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar supported the creation of Israel on both moral and political grounds, and condemned India's vote at the UN against Israel. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar admired Jewish nationalism and believed Palestine was the natural territory of the Jewish people, essential to their aspiration for nationhood.
From the 1990s to now, we have seen the latter voice grow even louder in its support for Israel, with people like my grandfather being reduced to a small minority. India established diplomatic ties with Israel by opening an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1992, and since then, there’s been no looking back. 2014 was a significant departure, as India worded its condemnation of Israel’s attack on the Gaza strip in a manner that held both sides responsible. The decision to do so was a departure from India’s otherwise hitherto more vocal support for the Palestinian cause, as it put both sides on equal footing, thereby removing the connotation of ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor.’
The Palestinian cause has hardly any sympathisers in the India of today, where the sentiments of Savarkar and Golwalkar have emerged as the majoritarian narrative. My sensitivity to the cause is directly related to my grandfather’s morning fits, but I’m never surprised when a friend, colleague or acquaintance wax eloquent about the might of Israel. Indians today see Israel as the natural ally. A state formed on religious identity, that has used force and power to curb dissent and opposition. It fits in neatly with the new normal in India…
It’s precisely why Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed his Israeli counterpart in New Delhi earlier this week with such warmth. He wanted to send a message to his large support base that Israel is India’s friend. When Netanyahu arrived in India, I was taking an auto to -- ironically -- an anti-Netanyahu protest organised outside the Israeli embassy (my grandfather would be proud -- and asked the driver what he thought of the Israeli leader’s visit. “Very good, very good,” he said. “Israeli is a strong nation. India should work to make it our friend.”
The auto driver was echoing the popular view. That morning, as I was reading the paper over breakfast, I caught myself shaking vigorously -- just as my grandfather used to -- as I read the letters to the editor. “Israel’s capabilities in the area of defense, research and development, trade and agriculture are well known. Moreover, the country supported India in the 1962 China War and [the 1999] Kargil War...” one letter stated, adding, “No looking back on India-Israel ties.” Another urged India to “forge strong relations with Israel.” The Palestinian cause received no mention; it’s almost as if it were a non-issue.
There was also the upsetting news that India, as a symbolic gesture of friendship to Israel, will rename Teen Murti Chowk to Haifa Chowk -- after the Israeli city of Haifa.
I got off near the Israeli embassy, where the protesters was meant to gather. I looked around at the thin crowd. A couple of ‘Bibi Go Back’ posters were being given finishing touches. A few photos of Netanyahu - marked as ‘war criminal’ - were being exchanged. There was heavy police presence, which seemed almost unnecessary given the small crowd of protesters.
In that moment, I realised how completely the Palestinian struggle has ceased to matter in India. On the historic occasion of Netanyahu’s visit to India, his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, his planned visit to Sabarmati Ashram … only a few dozen people had bothered to come out and bothered to raise their objection. I joined in; “Bibi Go Home,” I chanted, raising my fist in the air. I was doing my bit, but to what end?