For the last few days, there have been some protests across India against the current Israeli operation in Palestine. The capital, New Delhi, witnessed a solidarity march, which included students and civil rights activists. Police, however, prevented the demonstrators from reaching the Israeli Embassy, leading to complaints of heavy-handedness as some of the protestors were injured. Many of those protesting against Israel, in addition to criticizing its operation in Gaza, are upset about India’s silence over the issue. According to Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, “the Palestinian cause is not only about the people of Palestine but is also about the spirit of India which shares a similar anti-colonial history and has been a leader of the third world.”
The Palestinian issue has taken a back seat in the Indian consciousness. This is partly due to the fact that the media is not reporting much on the issue. However, the Palestinian issue used to be more important for India in the past. Thus, it is strange that the current crisis in the Middle East has failed to generate any debate in a majority of television channels and major newspapers in India.
It is possible that the media’s position reflects the changing attitude the government in New Delhi has towards Israel and Palestine. The government does not see the Palestinian issue as meriting much comment. Since the crisis in Gaza began, the Indian government has released only one statement on the conflict. The official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement that “India is deeply concerned at the steep escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine, particularly [the] heavy air strikes on Gaza resulting in [the] tragic loss of civilian lives and heavy damage to property. At the same time, India is alarmed at the cross border provocations resulting from rocket attacks against targets in parts of Israel. India calls upon both sides to exercise maximum restraint and avoid taking actions that may further exacerbate the situation and threaten the peace and security of the region.”
Some international affairs experts call India’s position a balancing act and a sign of maturity. According to these individuals, India is showing pragmatism by not holding to the pro-Palestinian foreign policy that some previous governments maintained. Many early prominent nationalist leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru openly supported the Palestinian cause and since 1947, most governments of an independent India supported the creation of a Palestinian homeland. However, after the Cold War ended, India established ties with Israel in 1992 and has moved closer to it in recent years. Subsequently, India has been less supportive of Palestine.
Nonetheless, there are also some who view India’s present stand as an abdication of its international responsibilities and as a sign of shortsightedness.
“If India wants to be recognized as a regional power and a major international player it should be taking a clear moral position on this issue and we cannot shirk our historical role by forwarding the argument of pragmatism,” says Sujata Aishwarya Cheema, a professor at the Center for West Asian Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Cheema also blamed the role of the Indian media in failing to highlight the issue and mitigate public outrage over Israel. Cheema argued that the “mainstream media is hand in glove with the Indian government and toes the MEA line by not highlighting an issue which has been agitating large sections of Indian society. The majority of them are not doing independent reporting and this is really not good for a vibrant democracy like India.”
Additionally, the English daily The Hindu published an editorial on the ongoing conflict noting that “the studied avoidance of taking clear moral positions on the Palestinian issue hardly augurs well for a country with global aspirations, as evidenced by New Delhi’s advocacy for membership in the United Nations Security Council. Pragmatism also demands that India weighs in strongly on the unresolved Israel-Palestinian issue, a region that is vital for India’s economy and energy security. Fears of a blowback from Israel … may be exaggerated, given the relationship of deep interdependence that New Delhi and Tel Aviv have developed over the years.”
This Tuesday, opposition political parties tried to raise the issue of Palestine in India’s Parliament but the government refused to take a stand or condemn the killings of innocent civilians in Gaza. It is unlikely that India will say anything more regarding this issue. Today, Israel is one of the biggest suppliers of arms to India and closer ties between the United States, Israel, and India have changed India’s foreign policy calculus.
However, a changed strategic situation is not always reason enough to alter a policy that has placed India at the side of all those who struggle against oppression. A struggle against colonialism has shaped our history and traditional foreign policy consensus. Can we claim our rightful place in the world by bypassing our own history?