Gandhi at the time of Gaza

No man’s land: Gaza   -  wikicommons

What explains India’s current moral bankruptcy on the West Asia conflict?

International mediation efforts have stepped up a notch, but the Israeli offensive against the population of the Gaza Strip shows no signs of abating. As this goes to press, the death toll among Palestinians on the Gaza Strip had crossed 700, and a staggering one-third of the civilian casualties were reported to be children.

When a debate on the Gaza situation was scheduled in the Rajya Sabha on July 21 after much handwringing — earlier stalled by the BJP-led government on July 16 — it was under a procedural rule that disallowed a vote or a resolution. As Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress rose to initiate proceedings, he appeared to be in didactic mood, launching into an extended history tutorial, beginning with the Balfour declaration of 1918.

That reference perhaps had an unintended relevance. And once opened for exploration, history was a terrain that seemed to offer much by way of an ironic retrospection in the centenary year of World War I. A conflagration, which bequeathed to Palestine and its wider region, not merely the Balfour declaration, but also the Sykes-Picot accord, a clandestine and conspiratorial deal to divide up the territories of the Ottoman Empire as it slipped rapidly towards defeat.

West Asia’s current political geography was created by two acts of imperial arrogance. The State Balfour created has since enjoyed absolute impunity to push its territorial claims while insisting it would remain a nation exclusively of the Jewish people. Sykes-Picot’s legacy, the modern nation-states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, are in contrast, being torn apart by strife or hovering perilously on the brink of cataclysmic rupture.

History though, was not where the Rajya Sabha was headed, as one speaker after another sought to nudge the discussions towards current partisan obsessions. At the end of it all, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj performed the triangulation manoeuvre that has served her recent predecessors well. India would support the Palestinian cause with sincerity, but at the same time consolidate and deepen relations with Israel.

The refrain at every conclave involving Israel and India is that these are nations with a shared interest in defeating terrorism. There is in the rote repetition of this theme, a tacit reproach of the just Palestinian struggle.

This mood originates in the early 1990s when India was in a moment of extreme insecurity, with Kashmir in a state of insurrection and the US closely bound up with Pakistan. US ardour deepened after Pakistan arranged the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, causing spasms of extreme anxiety within India.

The BJP’s ascent in 1998 changed things around. In 2000, LK Advani as home minister made an official visit to Israel to establish the framework for an extended series of interactions between security and intelligence agencies in the two countries, centred around ‘cross-border terrorism’. Inherent ironies were brushed aside in the enthusiasm of entering into a new and potentially transformative strategic relationship.

Despite its vast, continental size, India has borders that have in most part been settled with its neighbours, giving the term ‘cross-border terrorism’ a sense that can be grasped easily. Israel in contrast is a tiny country implanted in alien territory in deliberate defiance of history. Its boundaries have remained undefined since the moment of its birth, allowing it to define ‘cross-border terrorism’ in protean and flexible ways.

Jaswant Singh, the then external affairs minister, quickly followed Advani’s mission implausible. With a display of piety at a site the Jewish call the Wailing Wall to mourn lost glories, Singh brushed aside the contested cultural and political context of a location that all three Semitic religions claim as hallowed space. He then unburdened himself of the wisdom that India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause through the years gone by was a consequence of domestic “vote-bank politics”.

The trade in military hardware was showing an upturn by this time. And the truly transformative moment arrived on September 11, 2001. From that date on, India had unprecedented success in converting imagined insecurities into an identity of interests with Israel and the US. In May 2003, Brajesh Mishra, national security adviser to Prime Minister Vajpayee, in an address to the American Jewish Committee (AJC), effectively stripped the supposed struggle against terrorism of all subtlety and political content. It was “nonsense”, he said, to argue that “terrorism (could) only be eradicated by addressing its ‘root causes’”.

Soon after, Ariel Sharon, a military commander who ascended to Israel’s prime ministership in the atmosphere of heightened national paranoia following a mass Palestinian uprising in 2000, arrived in India. It was a visit replete with official rituals, including a visit to the Gandhi samadhi at Rajghat in Delhi, and an entry in the visitors’ book recording a “message of peace”.

As some remarked, it was a moment of tumultuous retreat from history. It was an unintended outcome of the sterile debate on Gaza in the Rajya Sabha, that Gandhi’s famous locutions from the 1930s have gained renewed currency, that it was a “crime against humanity” to impose the Jewish people upon Arab lands under the protection of British imperialism. Those remarks came in the context of a mass upsurge against Jewish colonisation, put down by the British colonial administration with an iron hand.

In the years that followed, Gandhi remained engaged. In 1946, and 1947, he proposed that there was a rather simple solution to the violence and bloodshed breaking out in Palestine: for the Jewish settlers to cease their terrorism and for the US and Britain to stop aiding their relentless conquest of Arab lands.

Those warnings from a man still honoured as the nation’s most revered moral preceptor have of course been thrown aside. No need to look further, it would seem, for the reasons behind India’s current moral bankruptcy on an issue of global consequence.

( Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla)

Published on July 25, 2014

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