Indians in solidarity with Palestine
While many of us in India consume news about the violence in Gaza and even feel sorry for what is happening, few of us may know about the historical ties between India and Palestine, and what is being done by Indian writers, activists and intellectuals to express their solidarity with the Palestinians.
Githa Hariharan’s From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity features essays by several writers, including Ritu Menon, Aijaz Ahmad, Nayantara Sahgal, Nivedita Menon, Prabhat Patnaik, Achin Vanaik, and Meena Alexander, among others. Here she talks about her views on the conflict and how the book itself came to be:
Congratulations on your new book ‘From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity’. The title gives the sense of a letter being written; the word ‘solidarity’ seems to come from a place of feeling, not diplomatic compulsion. How did you come up with this name? When and how did you start feeling this sense of solidarity for Palestine?
The title, and the need for the book, came up naturally for all of us committed to solidarity with anti-colonial movements. In my own case, my visit to Palestine strengthened my belief in the need for such a book.
The first purpose of putting this book together was revisiting the idea of solidarity. Why do I say revisiting? In addition to an old historical relationship with the Arab world, there was already solidarity — a firm common ground – between India and Palestine during the Indian freedom movement. From its own experience of struggling for self determination, Indian leaders and freedom fighters saw that the Palestine issue was a struggle against colonialism.
But since the 90s, this solidarity, and even worse, India’s sense of itself as a partner in decolonisation, has suffered with our moving closer to Israel. The situation is so bad now that India is a major arms buyer from Israel. The Israeli arms industry, which keeps Palestinians under subjugation, is thus being subsidised by India. So our exercise of revisiting solidarity meant two big things to us: one is that India must stop its military and business ties with Israel; and the second is that our solidarity implies support for a future in the region that is democratic and inclusive. If a just two state solution is to happen, both Palestine and Israel – in which there are Arab citizens – must be secular and inclusive.
2. You are a member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in India. Could you tell us more about this committee, and the work it does?
The Palestine Solidarity Committee, made up of members from progressive political parties, women’s organisations, and committed individuals from the arts, humanities, sciences, and the media, works to disseminate information in India about the ground level situation in the occupied Palestinian territories and within Israel. Seminars and conferences, and exchanges at the political, academic and cultural levels are part of this work.
Other than disseminating information and establishing communication with Palestinian groups, our principal object is to pressurise the Indian government to put an end to military and other ties with Israel. There are international calls for a military embargo on Israel; but not only has the Indian government not taken a stand, it is also complicit through its purchase of arms from Israel.
3. Do you feel that people in India know enough about Palestine to be able to feel a sense of solidarity?
Considering the old ties with Palestine – many of us grew up with passports that said “Not valid for travel to South Africa or Israel” – it is a tragedy that young Indians are fed with the illusion that Israel and India are allies against “terror”. India does not need a state that flouts international law and treats its own Arab citizens as second class citizens to teach it security, or how to see itself as a nation.
India is a secular republic – unlike Israel which is a Jewish state, just as Pakistan is an Islamic state. Our youth need to be educated not only about the day to day life of occupied Palestine, but also about the idea of India which determined the kind of nation that was set up after independence. Let’s not forget that Golwalkar was sympathetic to both Hitler, and ironically, to the Jewish state of Israel. His idea of what India should be was defeated by the ideas of India that Gandhi, Nehru, and others in the freedom struggle had.
4. What disturbs you most about the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Most of all, Israel’s apartheid policies and the brazen way it flouts international law, confident of support from the United States. For example, the wall that Israel is building, it calls a security fence. Considering that Israel is the pre-eminent military power in the region, with nuclear capability, and considering the support it has from the principal military power in the world, what greater security does Israel need? On the other hand, the wall, which the Palestinians call the Apartheid Wall, grabs more Palestinian land; it divides cities, fields, even streets. Going to school, work, hospitals, the market – all of life is affected. And the wall is in addition to the numerous other apartheid policies which make Palestinian life uncertain, unsafe and unbearable.
5. Did the process of writing this book transform you in ways that you’d like to share? What would you like this book to be able to do as it ventures out into the world?
Looking at the injustice of colonialism, especially the settler colonialism of the Israeli variety, always transforms you because it deepens your understanding of the project of systematic subjugation. And in this case, it is especially sharp, because the Israeli state is a mirror image of the Nazi state, at the hands of which so many Jews suffered intensely.
The message such books want to send to the world, and in particular, India, is that we have the responsibility to stand up for what our idea of India demands we pursue – being part of international pressure against an occupier state. In fact, we should be one of the countries taking the lead on this, because we are a post colonial state, and we have old historic ties with the region.
6. How did you decide on the voices you would feature in this anthology?
There are several threads in the book, and we had to find appropriate contributors for each aspect. We had to provide a historical context – what Gandhi and Nehru said, for instance, about Palestine; we had to have a critical analysis on how the relationship of Palestine-India-Israel changed to reach the present state; we also needed a theoretic framework on viewing colonialism and imperialism, especially to contextualise US support for Israel.
Then we had to have voices which would provide hard data – on arms trade, business ties, surveillance partnerships. We needed data to trace the Indian position on political developments in the region and in the UN. Then we wanted the human aspects – narratives from those who had seen Palestine for themselves and had “news from the ground” on what occupation means to people’s lives.
Finally, we had to examine solidarity directly, both in terms of India, and the vision for a post Zionist future, whether in Palestine or Israel.
7. You are also a convenor of the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (InCACBI). Could you tell us more about this campaign, and also your recent call for a boycott of the Israeli Film Festival in Bangalore?
Using the South African experience as an example, Palestinian groups called for a boycott of academic and cultural transactions that involve the Israeli state directly or indirectly. This was in the early 2000s. InCACBI, the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, was set up in response to the Palestinian call. We have hundreds of members from the academic and cultural community.
I should explain the boycott strategy a little because there is confusion on this sometimes. The boycott does not apply to individual Israelis visiting India or vice versa. The boycott applies to any academic or cultural transaction between Indians and Israelis when the Israeli state is involved, directly or indirectly.
This is why there was a call for a boycott of the film festival in Bangalore. It’s not that we cannot or do not admire individual films or filmmakers. But the festival was sponsored by the Israeli Consul, a representative of the state. Israel spends a great deal to sell its “Brand Israel” to countries like India, and often the vehicle is academic or cultural exchange.
8. How would you like the Indian government to act in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
First, to put a stop to military and other ties, whether business or academic or cultural. Given the history of India’s support for Palestine, it is shocking that the present government is not only drawing closer to Israel, but is also timid about speaking up when Israel is pounding schools, hospitals, and homes in Gaza, and killing civilians, including children. Is this the India we want to be part of? Is this the government we want to lead us, to represent us in the world?