Palestine, Israeli Occupation and India’s Foreign Policy

Book Review: Githa Hariharan, ed., From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity, LeftWord, New Delhi, 2014, Rs. 350.



India’s foreign policy has undergone a major shift since 1990s. The immediate context of this change was the fall of the USSR, which marked the end of bipolarity and the establishment of US hegemony at global level. Against the backdrop of the end of Cold War, the advocates of India’s strategic relations with the USA and Israel launched a massive assault on the four-decade old Nehruvian foreign policy, which  upholds, at least in theory, normative values like Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), anti-colonialism, Third-World Unity, disarmament, etc.

The balance of power, in the foreign policy establishment, soon swung in favour of American and Israeli supporters, who welcomed the new foreign policy as a “pragmatic” one. C. Raja Mohan, one such advocate of India’s strategic relation with the USA, delineates some of the key changes in India’s foreign policy: its focus shifted from domain of politics to that of economics; the state socialism yielded place to liberal capitalism; “Third Worldism” gave way to the promotion of India’s own self-interest; and the anti-West mode of foreign policy was discarded.  Interestingly, the “pragmatic” foreign policy, which was initiated by the Congress Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, was later vigorously as well as uninterruptedly pursued by the subsequent BJP and Congress governments. It is ironical that the BJP and the Congress, which are otherwise political adversaries, have largely converged on adopting a pro-American and Israeli foreign policy since then.

Amid this growing consensus among the ruling elites, the dissenters – drawing mostly from the Left and people’s movements – have been expressing their note of dissent against this shift in India’s foreign policy, particularly its betrayal to the historical commitment to the struggle for Palestinian Liberation from Israeli occupation.

The recent book, From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity is yet another voice of dissent on India’s pro-Israeli foreign policy. Noted novelist Githa Hariharan, editor of this book, is emphatic that this work aims at pressurising the Government of India to “eschew” its pro-Israeli policy. This can, says Hariharan, be done by educating people against the horror of Israeli occupation in Palestine and countering the pro-Zionist propaganda fanned by mainstream media. (p. 32.)

To achieve this objective, the book contains a variety of insightful and moving essays, dealing with at least two broad themes. First, a bunch of essays offers an analysis of a “qualitative change” in India’s foreign policy and then expresses concerns about its deepening strategic ties with Israel. Second, another set of essay gives a first-hand account of the sufferings of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli occupiers and draw our attention to the horror of “the longest running illegal military occupation (and blockade) of the last 150 years, sustained by the most brutal forms of overt and covert violence”.



Tracing India’s historical support to Palestinian struggle, A. K. Ramakrishnan does a close reading of the writings of Gandhi. He shows that Gandhi was “fairly consistent” about his support to the issue of Palestine and his “opposition to Zionism and its linkage with British colonialism”. The relevance to his article is its strong refutation to the growing propaganda by Zionist scholars to appropriate Gandhi. Contrary to this, Ramakrishnan, in his essay ‘Gandhi on Zionism and the Palestine Question’, contends that ‘Gandhi thus questioned the very foundational logic of political Zionism, who rejected the idea of a Jewish state in the “Promised Land” by pointing out that the “Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract”. (pp. 36-37.) Apart from Gandhi, Nehru too, as shown by Nayantara Sahgal in her essay, ‘Nehru and Palestine’, was critical of the occupation of West Asian regions by the major powers like Britain and France after the World War I.

In a similar vein, Githa Hariharan asserts that India’s foreign policy was historically committed to the cause of Palestine. She, in her essay ‘From India to Palestine: Revisiting Solidarity’, says that India, during the Freedom Struggle, “took an anti-colonial position on Palestine” and through the decades of 1960s it supported the struggle of Palestine from the platform of NAM. She goes on to say that India even banned visit to Israel, holding it responsible for the sufferings of Palestinians. But unlike such solidarity in the past, India’s commitment to Palestine, she rues, has been diluted in last two decades and a half. ‘All those ideals of self-determination and anti-colonialism, our legacies from the Indian freedom movement, seem to have been put in cold storage.’ (pp. 29-30.) She, like all other contributors of essays, is deeply concerned about India’s emerging as a “major buyer of Israeli weapons and military technology” which, in turn, is “subsidising the Israel Armed Forces and its occupation” in Palestine. She, quoting a report of Israeli Defence Ministry, laments that India accounts for more than 50 per cent of Israel’s military exports.

Discussing, in detail, India’s growing dependency on Israel for arms and weapons, Prabir Purkayastha’s article ‘The Military Fulcrum of Strategic Relations: India and Israel-Palestine’ calculates that since 1999 India has purchased Israeli military hardware worth more than 10 billion US dollars. As arms sales hugely contribute to Israeli national income with estimated revenues of 3.5-4 US billion dollars earned from nearly 150 defence firms, he argues that the establishment of Indo-Israel diplomatic relation in January 1992 was a “blessing in disguise” for Israel as it found in India one of the top buyers of its military weapons at a time when there was a “shrinkage” in arms trade export for Israel due to the end of the Cold War. (p. 63.)

Besides,  he is critical of the “contradiction” in India’s  foreign policy towards West Asia as it, despite being a “bigger buyer” of Israeli weapons, only pays lip service to Palestinian right to independent state. In his essay, ‘Looking Ahead: The Palestinian Cause and the Palestinian National Movement’, Aijaz Ahmad, too, identifies India’s official circles’ “rightward, pro-imperialist and pro-Zionist drift” since the 1980s. (p. 183.)

But unlike Purkayastha, Ahmad, Hariharan and other scholars of parliamentary Left persuasion, Achin Vanaik asserts that India’s foreign policy was never truly consistent to the cause of Palestine as it is made out. In his essay, ‘The Art of Accepting Fait Accompli’, Vanaik, who blames India for having double stand on the Palestine issue since the 1990s, is emphatic that Nehruvian foreign policy had never been always based on principled stand. ‘Even so, there was a qualitative change in political priorities after the passing of the Cold War…The point is that the Indian government played around with realpolitik considerations. Its support to Palestine was never as principled as made out.’ (p. 104.) Arguing that Indian state and its leaders have not been always opposed to Israel, Vanaik details how India’s top leaders, diplomats and intelligence officers have been in touch with Israel.

For example, India, in 1950, did not hesitate to officially recognise the state of Israel along with the borders which were acquired in the 1948 War. Nehru, according to Vanaik, had “certain admiration” for Israel, who, in 1954, pressed for inclusion of Israel as a member in the Bandung Conference but it was opposed by Pakistan. In 1968, the newly-formed RAW chief R.N. Kao, with the permission from then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, established a secret contact with Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

Moreover, with the Janata Party coming to power in 1977, A. B. Vajpayee as External Affairs Minister endeavoured to bring Israel and India closer and even a secret meeting was held between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Indian representatives in Kathmandu. (pp. 103-104). Though Vanaik persuasively shows a covert collaboration between Israeli and Indian ruling elites, he does not explain the reason behind it. One plausible answer to this may be found in the legacy of Partition and religious conflicts of Hindus and Muslims. Since Partition, the hostility between India and Pakistan has been boiling and the more Pakistan has projected itself as a “fort” (qila) of Islam, the closer India has got to Israel, perceiving it as a bulwark against Islamic forces. Similarly, the more India has strengthened its ties with Israel, the more Pakistan has resorted to manipulate Islam as its state ideology.

This perhaps lies at the core of Hindutva forces’ unholy alliance with Zionists. Sukumar Muralidharan, in his piece ‘Parallel Trajectories: Zionism as Conquest, Hindutva as Exclusion’, shows a similarity between the approach of Hindutva and Zionist nationalism based on religion and race. One common thread, which runs through Hindutva and Zionism, is their shared Islamophobia, to which Vijay Prashad draws our attention in his essay ‘Israel and I’. Prasad points out how the senior BJP leader and former Home Minister L.K. Advani shared Israeli establishment’s concern to fight “Islamic terrorism”. According to him, Advani, who had met the head of Mossad during his visit to Israel, has been a firm support of adopting Israeli method in countering “Islamic terrorism” in India. Even during the Kargil War, Israel, as revealed by the Israel’s former ambassador to India Yehoyada Haim, supported India as the intelligence agencies of two countries worked in a close cooperation. (pp. 94-95.)

It is not only Hindutva which admires Zionism but a huge chunk of mainstream Indian media do not get weary of praising Israel for being only “democracy” in Arab regions which has been firm on weeding out “Islamic terrorism’. Apart from this, a number of “secular” and “liberal” journalists of Indian media have joined the fan club of Israel. For example, the veteran journalist and former member of the National Minority Commission Dileep Padgaonkar was all euphoria about welcoming Ariel Sharon during his visit to India in 2003, forgetting Sharon’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982.

Seema Mustafa, who has an experience of three decades in Indian journalism, points to the biasness of media in favour of Israel. Her essay ‘Covering the Region: From a Reporter’s Diary’ is about her shocking experience of reporting Israel and Palestine War. She remembers how her opinion constructed by media got completely changed when she visited war-ravaged Beirut. “And everything I had read or believed to be the truth was reversed” and she found that Israel, unlike the depiction of media, “violated every rule in the international book of law”. (p. 166.)

She, therefore, concludes that without countering Israeli propaganda through an alternative media, supports for Palestinian cause will be difficult to be mobilised. ‘The Palestinians and their supporters have to challenge this media. They have to create a credible and effective alternative if they are to win the struggle for their homeland. Propaganda has eaten into the rights of the Palestinians by creating a stereotype and influencing how they are perceived by the world. It is imperative to challenge this stereotype – both its production and reinforcement – by using the Internet and the social media as effective vehicles for change.’ (p. 170.)

In accordance with Mustafa’s emphasis on presenting an alternative view, a set of essays, unlike biased media reports, give a first-hand account of the everyday sufferings of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli occupation.



For example, Githa Hariharan vividly describes what she “saw the face of occupation close up” during her visit to Palestine in 2013 (p. 19) Similarly, Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam, in their essay ‘Everyday Occupation and Post-Zionist Futures’, narrate a heart-breaking description of the horror and tragedy of everyday life which Palestinians have been forced to undergo in their own country. Their movement is curtailed; their freedom is denied and their lives are kept under strict surveillance. Due to this restriction on the mobility of Palestinians, those, who are living in Jerusalem and West Bank, are not allowed to interact with each other.

Ritu Menon, in her article ‘Grace under Repression’, shows how the free movements are checked. ‘It is illegal for Israelis to enter the West Bank, for Palestinians to go to Israel; both are punishable offences.’ (p. 136.)

Sunaina Maira, in her article ‘Where is India’s Palestine’, talks about how racist Israeli security agencies harass Palestinians. Maira recalls her chilling experience at the hands of Israeli forces because she was suspected as “some kind of crypto-Arab or perhaps a Palestinian in disguise”. (pp. 172-173). Besides, Palestinians have been forcefully evicted and expelled out of their own homes by occupying Israeli forces. Meena Alexander, in her piece ‘Journey to Jerusalem: A Poet Faces the Separation of Wall’, describes how the buildings and homes of Palestinians have been demolished as a part of Israeli drive to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem. Worse still, the basic facilities, like water, are denied to Palestinians. The areas with mostly Palestinian population suffer irregular water supply, while the Israeli settlements have no such scarcity with their lush green lawns getting thoroughly watered.



While all the essayists in the book have expressed their rock solidarity for the cause of Palestine and provided a trenchant critique of India’s foreign policy, particularly its pragmatic shift since the 1990s, they do not seem to reach a consensus on the solution to Palestinian question. While considering it urgent to change US-Israel relation and weaken US politically, Vanaik leaves the solution of Palestinian problem, such as one state or two-state, to Palestinians themselves. (p. 113.)

Like Vanaik, Prabhat Patnaik, in his essay ‘Imperialism and the Palestinian Struggle’, is critical of the meddling of US imperialism in Arab regions but his formula to Palestine question is democracy and two equal states. ‘Justice for the Palestinian people, it follows, requires more than the formal setting up of two states. It requires, above all, progress towards democracy, in the comprehensive sense of the term, in the region as a whole, within both Palestine and Israel. Indeed this struggle for democracy is immanent in the struggle for the setting up of two states on an equal footing, within each of which the people have equal rights.’ (pp. 52-53.)

More than any other contributors, Menon and Nigam are perceptive to notice the beginning of the new phase of resistance for Palestinian Liberation, articulated through grassroots movements. To them, two separate sovereign states have found “greater acceptability in practice” than the position of one state either a Jewish Israeli state or a sovereign Palestine. (p. 127.)

Though the scholars are divided over the solution to Palestinian question, it does not diminish the importance to this anthology. From India to Palestine is a much needed intervention for mobilising public opinion against the callous ruling political establishment and media of India, which have been implicit in Israel’s brutal violence against humanity.

[SYED MOHAMMAD RAGHIB (, and ABHAY KUMAR ( are pursuing PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.]

First published Radiance

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