Each time New Delhi’s relationship with West Asia is mentioned, there is a plaintive voice that argues India has long-standing and deep civilisational ties with countries such as Iran and with the Arab world. The relationship with Israel is described in more cynical terms, as pragmatic and transactional. The more conspiratorial among our public intellectuals link the growing engagement with Israel to the rise of allegedly right-wing tendencies in India’s polity.
This snapshot, while admittedly limited in its assessment, explains why Israel gets such a hostile reception among India’s self-appointed intelligentsia and most sections of its media. Criticism of the government’s alleged “betrayal” of the Palestinian cause – the word was used so often this past week – is couched in abstract references to history and shared cultures.
The Israel relationship is dismissed an inorganic.
How true is this? What exactly is a “civilisational relationship”? How recent or far back in history does it have to go to be certified as “legitimate” by self-appointed moral referees?
Yes, the Mahatma was sympathetic to the Palestinian/Arab claim on Jerusalem.
Nevertheless he was equally (if even more) sympathetic to Jews, even though his knowledge of the Holocaust was incomplete and his suggestions on how to deal with Hitler somewhat impractical.
Yes, India and Iran have met as friends as partners over the centuries, in the Mughal era, and well before that, in pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran. So much of our food and language has Persian touches to it. Yes, India and Iraq – or the Indus Valley and Sumer – constitute possibly the oldest international bilateral trade arrangement. Yes, thousands of years later, the mighty Cholas sent traders and ambassadors to the Abbasids, who ran one of Islam’s most illustrious empires from Baghdad.
All of this is true, but does it imply Hindus and Jews – Indians and Israelites – have no comparable history? To pick a random example, the account of the Roman historian Josephus would suggest otherwise. On the 15th of Xanthicus (roughly, April), AD 74, Josephus writes, Eleazer ben Yair, leader of a Jewish community besieged by invading Romans in their rock fortress of Masada, rose to address his people. He had a simple message: There would be no surrender. They would all have to die, kill each other, with the last man killing himself.
Eleazer’s listeners demurred. Sensing their fear, the charismatic leader rose again, to deliver a final exhortation. It was an evocation of the Hindu rite of passage, of seeing death in the flesh as just another milestone on the soul’s immortal journey. “Are we not,” Eleazer asked, “ashamed to have lower notions than the Indians? And by our own cowardice?” Later that day, 960 Jews killed themselves, the Romans captured a ghost town and Masada became a reference point for courage and resolve for all times to come.
It is humbling that perhaps the most iconic event in Israeli history was at least partly inspired by India. This proves nothing in the cold practice of diplomacy, but does negate that silly argument that Indian foreign policy should swerve towards those with whom there has been a civilisational relationship. In reality, depending on which time frame you choose, there has been an Indian civilisational relationship with virtually every major society in West Asia, including the Jews of Israel.
Moving to more immediate concerns, how should India see current hostilities in Gaza? There are two aspects to ponder here. First, it is true that support for the Palestinian cause has declined in India since say the 1970s. Actually this is a worldwide phenomenon, made worse by the fact that the Palestinian leadership – or competing Palestinian leaderships – have not been able to take charge of any government or authority they have been given. Indeed, there is a degree of exasperation with Palestinian politics.
Once the Palestinian cause was a mainstream protest issue. Today, in the West, it has become confined to Muslim groups, supported by an anti-capitalist – and in some cases anti-Semitic – New Left. It is following a distressingly similar pattern in India. If you ignore the Hamas-Hezbollah fellow travellers in the media and opinion circles, there is a vast civil society backing for Israel that is unfortunately under-reported.
Second, in the narrow strip of Gaza, those who are taking on Israel – and those who triggered the ongoing violence by firing rockets, entirely unprovoked, into civilian territory – are not Palestinian peaceniks. They represent Hamas, a militant group that was given the opportunity to moderate when it was elected to office in the Palestinian Authority but blew the chance.
Hamas was born as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is a wonder India was worried when the Brotherhood helped overthrow the Hosni Mubarak government in Cairo and came to power through a frontal organisation. It is a wonder India – or Indians – did not protest when the Egyptian army effected a coup against the Brotherhood government and went on an execution spree. When it comes to Israel and Hamas, entirely different standards are followed.
It needs to be understood that Hamas is little different from the Islamic State (IS) movement that now occupies pockets of central-northern Iraq. It shares the same Sunni supremacism. It is known to locate its combat bases in civilian areas – to give itself cover – and use women and children as human shields. This makes regrettable loss of civilian lives inevitable in any battle against Hamas.
Yet, the Ministry of External Affairs, in its initial response, urged talks between Israel and Hamas. How would New Delhi have liked it if on the morning after 26/11, an external government had advised negotiations between the government of India and Jamat ul Dawa? Sometimes, just sometimes, see it from Israel’s point of view.
(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)
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