Beyond the Obvious: India’s Pro-Palestine Position

PLO leader Yasser Arafat with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao, centre, in New Delhi in 1980. (Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

By Haris Rashid

INDIA for most of its history, before as well as after independence, has been in favour of the Palestinian position. After Israel’s independence, India took more than two years until September 1950 to recognize the nation. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries had to wait for four decades until January 1992. To rationalize the support for Palestinian aspirations and the absence of diplomatic relations with Israel, India has been dressing its policy in an anti-colonial language. Certain statements given by leaders of the Indian national movement like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on Palestine and Israel are said to set the moral foundation of India’s official policy. Therefore, India often claims that its position on Israel was inspired by its own struggle against colonialism.

However, this article argues that the Indian position on the Palestine-Israel issue was not driven by its anti-colonial struggle/solidarity but by realpolitik. To say that anti-colonialism was the sole yardstick of India’s diplomatic attitude towards Israel would be an antithesis in itself. During the Suez Canal crisis, Nehru upheld the non-establishment of the ties with Israel in the Lok Sabha days after the Israeli invasion of Egypt, declaring that “in view of the existing passion,” diplomatic exchanges were not possible.   However, among all the imperial powers involved in the crisis, Israel was the only outcast. India did not apply the same yardstick to other aggressors, British and France; rather it sought closer ties with them.  Thus, it is not possible to explain India’s Israel policy within the context of its opposition and disapproval of Israel’s policy or its connections to colonialism.

From the perspective of realpolitik, two factors were responsible to shape Indian attitude towards Israel. Before the independence of India, it was the competition of the Indian National Congress (INC) with the Muslim League over who would represent the interests of Indian Muslims. Further INC’s support for Palestine was a failed bid to stop India’s partition on religious grounds. After independence, India’s policy towards Israel was informed by its adversarial relations with Pakistan and its own interests in the Middle East.

Colonial India saw INC leaders like Gandhi and Nehru opposing the Muslim League’s demand for a separate state of Pakistan on religious grounds. Since Israel’s demand for a separate Jewish homeland was also driven by religious aspirations, INC was compelled to oppose the demand. The opposition was further consolidated by INC’s bid to appease Indian Muslims by appearing pro-Muslim. Writing in his Harijan weekly in 1938 regarding the Palestine-Israel issue, Gandhi observed, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French.” However, after it became apparent that India was destined for partition, Gandhi took a contrary stand to his earlier position. In June 1946, he told the American journalist Louis Fischer, “The Jews have a good cause. I told (British Zionist MP) Sidney Silverman that the Jews have a good case in Palestine. If the Arabs have a claim to Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim.” One month after Great Britain handed over the problem of Palestine to the United Nations, Gandhi told a Reuters correspondent, “If I were a Jew, I could tell them: ‘Don’t be silly as to resort to terrorism, because you simply damage your own case, which otherwise would be a proper case.’ ” Hence it is clear that it was the domestic compulsion that informed Indian nationalists’ attitude towards Israel.

Post-independence, India had to compete with Pakistan for its interests in the Middle East. It was further complicated after Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the UN. Pakistan by its virtue of being an Islamic country had friends in the Middle East. In absence of other avenues, India sought to pursue its interests in the Middle East through the prism of the Palestine issue. It established its pro-Arab credentials by highlighting its historic support for Palestine and its anti-Israel policies. Apart from supplying oil to India and contributing towards India’s energy security, Arab support was also crucial for India after Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the UN in 1948.  India needed all the support that it could muster on the Kashmir issue and was afraid that it would lose Arab support to Pakistan if it normalized ties with Israel. It was simple: One Israel versus all the Arab states. Therefore, it sought to counter or minimize the influence of Pakistan in the Middle East through its pro-Palestine credentials.

Given all these factors, what then would explain the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel in January 1992? It was a calculated move by the then Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao who took this decision right after the position of Palestine weakened following the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat identified himself and his people with Iraqi aggressor, leading to several Arab nations turning their backs on Palestine. The setback to PLO was followed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries’ readiness to endorse a negotiated settlement with Israel. For India, this meant Palestine was no longer needed to pursue its interests in the Middle East. It could now establish diplomatic relations with Israel without losing Arab countries’ support in the Middle East. Hence the timing of the decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel was crucial.

It is worth mentioning that despite no diplomatic relations with Israel, India did not shy away from seeking help from Israel on multiple fronts. In March 1949, even before it had recognized Israel, India sought agricultural assistance from Israel. The Ministry of Agriculture had asked the representative of the Jewish Agency in India, to take up the request “with your people in Palestine.” During the 1962 Sino- Indian debacle, Nehru sought military assistance from Israel. Later India would also seek Israel’s assistance during military conflicts with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. All these years, India had also established closer ties with Israel’s intelligence establishment. The help was extended by Israel despite India’s hostile attitude towards Israel because it needed India’s support but at the same time was well aware of the compulsions of the Indian government. It knew that Indian diplomatic posture was rooted in realpolitik and not some moral concept of anti-colonialism. When Palestine became irrelevant to India’s interests in the Middle East, it departed from its anti-colonial position.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is a student at Ashoka University 

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