India’s forgotten solidarity with Palestine

What is behind India’s shifting stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

India has a history of supporting Palestinians' 'inalienable rights' as a sovereign people [AFP]

In the face of troublingly muted international criticism of Israel’s relentless recent assaults on the corralled civilian populace of Gaza, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) managed to pass a resolution to launch a probe into possible Israeli human rights violations.

The move flags up growing disquiet even in quarters which otherwise loath to challenge Israel on its increasingly flagrant violations of international law and protocols of civilian protection in war zones. Hundreds of Palestinian children have died in recent days as schools and hospitals have been bombed. 

To the relief of many, India, which has maintained a so-called “neutral” stance in relation to the Gaza crisis, voted along with other non-European countries in favour of due enquiry. This minimal gesture created instant outrage in India’s ruling Hindu nationalist circles, generally in favour of following the lead of the United States, the only nation to vote, predictably, against an UNHRC probe.

There is no doubt that the Indian vote alongside other BRICS countries appears anomalous in the light of India’s markedly pro-Israel leanings of the last two decades. Yet it is unlikely to signal any change in an increasingly intimate bilateral relationship which includes trade worth over $6bn, with India constituting Israel’s single largest arms buyer

On Twitter recently, the hashtag #IndiaWithIsrael opened up the floodgates for vast quantities of anti-Muslim invective urging patriotic Hindus to back the Jewish state, as it wiped out “the green menace'”(Islam) from its territory as India ought to as well. Influential right-wing pundits shouted that India’s “pro-Palestine” vote was “disgraceful” since the nation’s strategic interests lay in supporting Israel unconditionally.

Meanwhile, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was successful both in blocking a Rajya Sabha (upper house) motion censuring Israel’s killing of civilians and in preventing the Lok Sabha (lower house) from voting on Gaza – after first attempting to suppress discussion altogether.

Both the confused claims of neutrality (“deepening” ties with Israel without “diluting” support for Palestine, as one former diplomat had it) and the rise of prominent pro-Israeli voices urging that such neutrality be abandoned in favour of openly backing the Zionist cause are, of course, relatively recent phenomena in India.

Solidarity with Palestine

From 1947, the year of its own independence from Britain, until 1992 when full diplomatic relations with Israel were assumed, India formally adhered to a policy of support for the “inalienable rights” of Palestinians as a sovereign people engaged in a struggle against colonial occupation much like the one that led to its own hard-won independence. 

A postage stamp I remember from my childhood showed the Indian and Palestinian flags interlocked with the caption, “Solidarity with the Palestinian People“. Now mocked as outdated “Third Worldism” by right-wing commentators (for whom anti-colonialism has dwindled into cultural supremacist chest-thumping), this policy was rooted in the principle that nations which had emerged from under the yoke of European colonialism ought to support others fighting the same fight.

Some pro-Israel academics parlay the peculiar notion that Israel and India “won” their independence from Britain at the same time, coolly overlooking the fact that Israel was itself an explicitly colonial creation and that its founders were allies of the British Empire.

Though fashionably derided now as a cynical electoral manoeuvre, the postcolonial Indian state also paid due attention to the political sensitivities of India’s largest religious minority, Muslims. Before traducing a principled foreign policy stance as “minority-appeasement”, it is worth recalling that India also refused full diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa, where no such considerations prevailed.

To go along with the nonsensical pretence that the violence in Gaza involves “equal and opposite” parties is itself to side with Israel, an occupying power. To be fair to them, India’s influential right-wing pundits want shows of neutrality dispensed with in favour of an unambiguous partisanship towards Israel.

In their adulatory vision, Israel’s admirable ruthlessness in dealing with resistance to occupation will both inspire India’s ostensibly weakened Hindu majority and provide the material means (arms and intelligence) to put both Indian Muslims and neighbouring Pakistan in their place.

The idea of a Jewish state asserting untrammelled supremacy in the Middle East appeals to those who want a Hindu India to do the same in South Asia. Ordinary Indians’ awareness of the Palestine issue, never mind unqualified support for Israel, is often overstated but there is no doubt that the rise of virulent Hindu chauvinism (Hindutva) among both the urban middle-classes and the Hindu diaspora has resulted in fawning emulative enthusiasm for Zionism.

A radical shift

The shift from India’s once insistently anti-colonial refusal to endorse Israel’s atrocities in the region – abetted by former colonial powers such as Britain and France – to enthusiastic military and commercial collaboration with Zionism has to also be seen in the context of the Indian state’s own aspirational authoritarianism in crushing resistance movements in the Indian North-East, Kashmir and the so-called “Maoist Corridor” in central India.

The most significant ideological shift, however, has to do with how the so-called “Global War on Terror” has licensed the emergence of openly virulent anti-Muslim discourse. Hindu chauvinists, despite their somewhat awkward adulation of Hitler, have long called for a formal “anti-terror” club comprising India, Israel and the USA.

Hindu chauvinist groups recently held demonstrations of support for the Jewish state against Gaza in the name of “fighting terrorism together”.

The legitimation of open anti-Arab racism in Israel is underpinned by the material reality of justifying ongoing land appropriation. In India, the absence of any such imperative transmutes Zionism into religious and racial hatred for its own sake, complete with strained mythical parallels between “ancient” and “original” Hindu and Jewish homelands, and the need to reclaim both from the depredations of Islam.

The rhetoric of counter-insurgency, once used by the British to malign India’s own anti-colonial resistance (in which Hindu nationalists were a remarkably small presence) as terrorists entails India’s right-wing ideologues recycling a range of Zionist myths.

One prominent Hindu nationalist regurgitates the patently nonsensical claim that Israel is only targeting Hamas which “has consistently shunned all peace initiatives and is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel“.

Others suggest that supporting Palestinians is inherently pro-Islamist and will “implicitly” strengthen the entirely unrelated Islamic State group. Other bizarre, reality-averse claims include: “Gaza was the area vacated by Ariel Sharon in 2005, which was taken over by Hamas” and that support for Palestine in the West is confined to “Muslim groups” and the “anti-capitalist anti-Semitic left“. 

Terms like “disgraceful” and “monumental blunder” have sounded in the blogosphere ever since India’s Hindu right-wing government atypically voted for Israeli war crimes to be investigated by an organisation which has historically been powerless in the face of that nation’s impunity with regard to Palestine.

What is truly shameful and degrading, however, is the abandonment of India’s longstanding commitment to upholding the rights of colonised people to fight for their freedomAs Latin American countries such as Ecuador, Brazil and Chile honour their own anti-colonial pasts by cutting diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, history will show that the most monumental blunder of all will have been the India’s shameful failure to uphold as universal the rights that it once rightly claimed for itself.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. She is the author of two books, Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence (2005) and The Indian Novel in English (2009). She is currently working on a book called Insurgent Empire: Anti-Colonialism in the Making of Britain. 

Follow her on Twitter: @PriyamvadaGopal