The Gaza debate in Parliament is about the domestic politics of left and right

Israel's attitude towards Palestinian civilian casualties must not be replicated in India.
Photo Credit: Jack Guez/AFP
One of the great things about political debate on the Internet is it brings people’s preferences and prejudices into sharp relief. A simple retweet or Facebook like offers a compelling picture of where a person’s instinctive allegiances lie. If you have retweeted statistics, photographs, news reports or even jokes in solidarity with Palestinians in the last few days, you have no doubt also faced a barrage of interrogations from India’s huge far-right online population – who, rather satisfyingly, seem just as angry though their five-year mission to make Narendra Modi prime minister has been successful – about why Israel does not elicit the same sympathy. These keyboard warriors draw an easy equivalence between the violence perpetrated by the Israeli government and the terrorist organisation of Hamas – finding no conceptual fallacy there – and remain oblivious or uncaring of the relative impacts of that violence.

But, even as more of Israel’s citizens and Jews across the world question the state’s chosen method of battling terrorist attacks, in India support for the state’s right to deadly action upon civilian populations grows every day. Now, this could be parsed as a natural corollary to the key right-wing assertion that the policies of the Congress and the self-styled secular parties are motivated by their electoral need to pander to India’s largest religious minority, Muslims. Indeed, this is what a few commentators on the right argued on Sunday, one managing to call Palestine an embryonic state when even a cursory examination of the past indicates that it is Israel that was planted into Palestine’s womb.

Those on the other side of the divide – betraying their own prejudices, perhaps – have instead characterised this avowal of Israel’s actions as a natural corollary to the alleged anti-Muslim sentiment that motivates many of the far-right in India. If we deem this also as unfair, what could explain this ideological correspondence between the far-right in India and the right in Israel?

Return to the first argument: that India’s official policy is to support Palestine as a means of pandering to India’s Muslims. India’s support for Palestine’s right to a state has been stated policy of the government since independence, when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government voted against Israel’s admission into the United Nations in 1949. Yet, by 1950 India had recognised the nation of Israel. Commentators rarely acknowledge it now, but initial support for Palestine is more reliably understood as part of Nehru’s vision for kindred post-colonial states. He is still an admired figure in much of Africa because he acted upon this perception of comity between colonised peoples.

India’s determination to remain non-aligned during the Cold War, and Israel’s close kinship with the United States, further complicated healthy relations between the two Asian states. It is no coincidence that in 1992, as the Cold War petered out, India established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Since then relations between the two states have flourished, especially in militarist matters. India is now the largest customer of Israeli defence equipment and Israel is India’s second largest military-partner. In 2009, they engaged in $9 billion worth of arms trade. They also have extensive joint military training exercises and share space technology. Bilateral trade in 2009 was worth $4.9 billion. Hardly a pariah state, then.

As for undesirable state pandering: while Muslim and leftist groups have protested against India’s increasing engagement with Israel, memorably during prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2003, both of the last two ruling coalitions have been happy to increase ties between the states. If the so-called secular parties of India had submitted to the sentiments of Muslims, surely it would be visible in state policy?

It is interesting that the far-right has its own historic allegiance in this conflict. Veer Savarkar was a firm advocate of Israeli interests. Additionally, a number of Hindutva ideologues have tried to characterise Israel’s sixty-year struggle against its Muslim adjunct as the same as the eight hundred year pre-colonial struggle between Hindu and Muslim kings on the subcontinent.

It seems unlikely, despite the Parliament debate on Gaza today, that India will shift from its meaningless perch on the fence. Yet it is important to understand why the debate is vital to India’s domestic policies, and why so many on the right are urging India to support Israel.

It is not, as one writer claimed, because of the threat posed by a small number of Indians have joined the Sunni jihad of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It is because India deals with terrorist threats of its own. The insurgencies in Kashmir, the North Eastern states and central India have to be addressed, and many on the right favour a strong military solution. To applaud Israel’s actions today means India will support state-ordained violence against civilian populations. Israel says its actions against civilian populations are justified because they shield terrorists. The Indian security establishment already has an abysmal human rights record in each of these conflicts. The government should not be given this kind of unofficial Parliamentary sanction for similar action – however unlikely – against its own people.


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