Reflections on Solidarity for Palestine in India: Urvashi Sarkar

Guest post by URVASHI SARKAR

Some sections of Indian civil society have reacted to Israel’s most recent brutalities in Gaza with outrage, and rightly so. In its pounding of Gaza which lasted over a month, Israel destroyed essential services and infrastructure, razed houses to debris and wiped out entire families.  Over 2000 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians, and of which over 400 were children. On the Israeli side, sixty-four soldiers and four civilians died. A shaky ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, announced in early August, did not last, with hostilities resuming almost immediately.

It is not uncommon to hear Indian voices supporting Palestine even at a time when right wing forces hold sway in the country; yet there is more to this support than meets the eye. There are internal differences on the matter of Kashmir for instance, regarding the extent to which parallels can be drawn between the Palestine and Kashmir conflicts.  The actualization of both conflicts dates back to the 1940s.  Both regions are heavily militarized; its people suffer routine human rights violations and both are undergoing prolonged self-determination struggles. Each year, Kashmir joins different parts of the world to observe Al-Quds day, held on the last Friday of Ramzan, to observe solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.  Popular anti-India protest sites in Kashmir, such as Ramban Chowk and Maisuma, are referred to as ‘Gaza’ in local parlance.  A Kashmiri teenager lost his life during firing by security forces, in an anti-Israel protest in South Kashmir in July this year.

Yet, as senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari argues: “Whenever Muslims have been repressed anywhere in the world, Kashmiris have expressed solidarity. But it is difficult to compare the two. Kashmir represents a political problem in South Asia and involves the disputing claims of three countries- India, Pakistan and China. Even though there are similarities, the dynamics and contexts of Kashmir and Palestine are different.”

When it comes to mobilizing, it is more common to see Indian civil society coming out in support of Palestine than Kashmir, and this leads to accusations of hypocrisy from some sections within the solidarity camp.

Mobilizations on August 9, 2014

Protests have been held in different parts of India to condemn Israel’s latest brutalities in Gaza.  One of them, held in July, near the Israel embassy in Delhi turned violent with the Delhi Police attacking protesters with batons and detaining them at a police station. Women were injured in the protest too. Many establishments in parts of Mumbai boycotted the sale of Israeli and American brands.

On August 9, when masses mobilized across the world in solidarity with Gaza, protests were reported from different parts of India, including Ahmedabad, Jalgaon and Bangalore. But the few hundreds who turned up for the Delhi protests, the major Indian city of mobilization, were no match for the several thousands who mobilized in London and Cape Town and other parts of the world. Delhi also witnessed two different protests on the same day in which more than 70 organizations participated. Most of these organizations were represented at Jantar Mantar, and others near the Israel embassy.  Several activists did agree that more numbers on a single platform would have sent out a greater message for solidarity, but also felt that it was a positive sign that people were turning out in support of Palestine, even if on different platforms.

The left, usually at the forefront of dissent against most forms of oppression, has divisions which impact solidarity.  According to a political commentator close to the Indian left,  certain ‘sectarian sections’ of the left in India insist on bringing every item on their agenda to every protest, and refuse to unite on a common minimum programme in wider solidarity actions. Such sections want all groups participating in a common protest to endorse their own stand on everything from Kashmir to Maoism – even though the protest may be about a completely different issue.  This is unlike the situation in Europe, where cities witness massive demonstrations, since different hues of the left spectrum are able to come together on some crucial issues.

Some attribute this to differences in methods and tactics, not politics, but it cannot be denied that solidarity suffers in the end.

The dilution of solidarity for Palestine has manifested itself in other ways as well. The issue of Palestine has been painted as a ‘Muslim issue’. However, Palestine is home not only to Muslim Arabs but also Christians and Jews.  Many Palestine supporters across the world are not Muslim either.

Arguments labeling Hamas a terrorist/militant Islamist organization also fit within this discourse. While Hamas is not beyond scrutiny, it must be emphasized that while it represents a particular ideology among national liberation movements which is religious, its goals are political – the liberation of and the establishment of an independent Palestine. The vilification of Islam, a legacy of the US war on terror, is also practiced by the Indian state.  Therefore, possible broader support for the Palestinian resistance has been undercut – especially by media references – which portray the Palestine problem as a Muslim problem.

Many activists, artists, and concerned citizens are part of Indian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (InCACBI) which is opposed to India’s strategic, scientific, military and economic relations with Israel. But the incumbent government’s close ties with Israel are clear – it sought to buy the Barak missile from Israel, ironically after it became one of the 29 countries which voted for an international probe into Israel’s offensive in Gaza at the UN Human Rights Council. It is also negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with Israel.

For the corporate sector, it is business as usual. icreate, an Ahmedabad-based centre for entrepreneurship and technology  signed a MoU in 2012 with Technion, an Israeli technology institute believed to have close ties the Israeli military establishment, according to an InCACBI statement.

icreate’s website has details of a recent collaboration with Technion- a programme  was scheduled for May involving the participation of 25 students from Gujarat institutions in a  training programme at Technion in Haifa, Israel.   icreate’s advisory board is headed by Infosys founder Narayana Murthy.

Views from the right 

With the right wing BJP at the helm, Indian civil society is registering the presence of several voices from the right, and making it increasingly acceptable to be pro-Israel. BJP member Subramanian Swamy, for instance, recently gave a call for India-Israel solidarity.  The Zionist ideology, which forms the basis of the Israeli state, and Hindutva – which forms the ideological framework for the BJP are closely aligned.

Interestingly, there are many who do not constitute the political right, or endorse Hindutva, but support Israel on grounds of basic ‘national interest’- since Israel can supply India with arms and technology. This marks a sharp change from the 1980s and early ’90s when solidarity with the Palestinian cause was direct and far more visible.

The Indian government refused to move a resolution on Gaza; its stand being summarised by Sushma Swaraj:

There is absolutely no change in India’s policy towards Palestine, which is that we fully support the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel.

Though symbolic solidarity with Palestine may be a recurring notional element in Indian foreign policy, actual support has dwindled over the years. On the other hand, since 1992, when India established formal diplomatic ties with Israel, the ties with the latter have strengthened and encompass a wide range of areas including defence, culture, education, technology and tourism.

Thus changes in India’s foreign policy over the last two decades which have resulted in closer ties with Israel, and civil society’s own tenuousness, has meant less consolidated support for Palestine. Existing pockets of solidarity need to be consolidated, and new ways to resurrect it consciously sought.  In order to do this, we must question the existing culture of protest, which prevents sustained and inclusive mobilization on most issues, and has resulted in the disintegration of many a progressive campaign.

Urvashi Sarkar is a freelance journalist and currently works in the development sector. Views are personal

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