Did India Previously Support Palestine? What Happened?

Protests for Palestine in Bengaluru were met with police suppression and arrests.1 In Delhi, police arrested protestors at a vigil for victims killed in Israel’s decades of occupation of Palestine.2 Sources cite a lack of permission as the reason for suppression; what is clear, however, is the genocidal rhetoric dominating Indian newsfeed and media. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet expressing solidarity with Israel last week, anti-Muslim discourse (more than usual, that is) flooded Indian networks.

“It is dishonest,” Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa rebuked on a reporter on an Indian English news channel, “you are participating in the manufacturing of consent for another western imperial genocidal war. And we are paying the price. How can India, a formerly colony that endured the unspeakable under the British, how can you now be saying what you’re saying? That is the mind-blowing part: how quickly you have forgotten what the West has done to you. And now you are allying with a Western settler-colonial state that has been devastating and terrorizing wholesale the indigenous Palestinian population for decades under full view of the world.”3 The comments, unfortunately, openly celebrate the turn, and find no problem in changing tides towards celebration of genocide.

What is less well-known is that the country’s official stance, if we take it at face value, that reiterates its “longstanding and consistent” call for the creation of a sovereign Palestine.4 So where and how did this divergence come to be?

Researcher Sharjeel Usmani recently posted: “Unsurprising that [the] Indian Hindu right wing is cheering for Israel as their entire existence is defined by opposition to what or who Muslims in India support.”5

Is it truly that simple? 

Sometimes, it is. 

Formerly occupied territories tend to lend the most vocal support to Palestine. While belief in an existence of a nation operating on little else than its own financial and territorial concerns is unfounded, where support exists, it is usually vocalized in such regions. Although there are no formal diplomatic relations between Ireland and Palestine, it is often the only country in the West to decry Israeli apartheid, given its own bloody history and Britain’s carve-up of the land.6 In countries such as South Korea, videos and pictures of protests show the people’s comparisons to imperial Japan’s crimes in South Korea.7 In like manner, Bolivia’s former President declared, “the Bolivian people will always condemn the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories.”8

And yet, India, despite its tenuous history under Britain’s barbaric occupation, continues to desperately grovel for some deluded Israel-India alliance. The social animosity is particularly evident on X (formerly Twitter), where replies to any post in support of Israel are dominated by Indian constituents, celebrating and actively calling for the destruction of Gaza. Prominent social media accounts9 post blatant mistranslations and lies to sow discord between Indian and Arab Muslims.

This was not always the case. Mahatma Gandhi famously called for a Palestinian state and viewed settlement without their goodwill as an “imposition of Jews on Arabs in Palestine.”10 In 1974, India became the first country outside the Middle East to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole (and legitimate) representative of the Palestinian people.11 Throughout the decades, India provided aid to Palestine on multiple occasions and voted in favor of a resolution changing Palestine’s observer status from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state” in 2012.12 The late Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) party, even said in 2014 “we fully support the Palestinian cause.”11

I believe that India’s conflicting words and actions are on account of President Modi’s reign and recent escalation of Hindutva. Previous support of Palestine can be understood as one of political benefit. In his book Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, journalist Azad Essa argues that India’s support of Palestine helped bolster its credibility as an anti-imperial nation.13 Similarly, columnist Sumit Ganguli and associate Professor Nicolas Blarel argue that in wake of the Partition of India and Pakistan, an unwillingness to disturb the status quo regarding the sizable Muslim population in India shaped the country’s stance.14 Furthermore, despite occasions of Palestinian support, India was simultaneously engaging Israel for access to the West. In 1950, India recognized Israel as a state (although there was no unanimity as to whether recognition was de facto or de jure) and opened an embassy in Israel in 1992. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, despite voting against the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, was said to have reneged on his previous stance, writing in a letter to his Chief Ministers, “…we would have [recognized Israel] long ago, because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab countries.”15

One argument for India’s growing support for Israel is India’s shift towards neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, marked by the privatization of its economy, which paved the way for a robust alliance with the United States. Neoliberal economic policies generated opportunities across various sectors, including agriculture, technology, and security. Israel seized these opportunities, resulting in substantial trade deals reportedly amounting to over $7 billion annually.16 Currently, India accounts for over 40 percent of Israel’s arms sales.17 As India became one of Israel’s largest arms customer, and Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the dominant narrative morphed into open support of the apartheid regime (it is worth noting that Modi first visited Israel when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2006, four years after a mob massacred a Muslim neighborhood in Gujarat). This coincides with the spread of extreme views on the treatment of Muslims, perhaps in subservience to or exacerbated by the normalization of ties with Israel.

Additionally, Essa scrutinizes the historical roots of the kinship early Indian leaders and figures expressed with zionism. For example, Vinayak Savarkar (d. 1966), the father of Hindutva ideology, wrote, “If the Zionists’ dreams are ever realized — if Palestine becomes a Jewish state — it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends.”13 He believed that Hindutva would finally put Muslims in their place.13 An admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, he argued for the legitimacy of punitive, indiscriminate violence against Muslims and justified the rape of Muslim women as a political tool. This beastly, rotten foundation is no surprise to anyone who has been targeted by Hindutva, online and in-person, as his followers resort to the vilest sort of threats with no provocation. Savarkar’s ideology is one that birthed the BJP (the current ruling party), Bajrang Dal, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), and a slew of fascist nationalist movements.

The current sociopolitical climate of India admires Israel’s strategy and domination over the occupied territories as a sort of blueprint for their country to follow. Take for example the “homeland security methods” and counter-terrorism strategies in response to any type of action beyond meek acceptance, or the 2019 Citizenship Act, expediting the naturalization process for non-Muslim minorities from certain neighboring countries, that is akin to Israel’s return law.13 Pegasus, a spyware developed by an Israeli cyber-arms company, was used to surveil opposition in India. Furthermore, India’s actions in Kashmir, particularly the complete annexation of the region, draw parallels to Israel’s settler-colonialism in Palestine. Kashmir remains one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world, all the more so after Prime Minister Modi revoked its semi-autonomous status in 2019.

Curiously, one writer describes early Indian policies as “hostage” to the Muslim voting bloc.18 Whatever one wishes to term a government’s obligation to govern all of its constituents, the Indian government no longer cares to justify itself to Muslims and other religious minorities. They invoke the Savarkar-era notion that Muslims are bastardized Arabs and foreign to the land, a framing that opposes “the reality fluidity of state formation in pre-colonial India and flattens the diverse ethnic and regional political units along religious lines”.13 There is no onus on Hindutva to condemn the countless acts of violence its supporters have spread, nor apologize for its wrongdoings — yet they hope the more India can distinguish itself as a victim of Muslim terror, the more it can gain the respect of world superpowers. The irony is egregious.

While historian and journalist Vijay Prashad in his journal article “How the Hindus Became Jews: American Racism after 9/11” writes in the Indian-American context post 9/11, his analysis is applicable at large:

Some Indian Americans sought shelter from this storm not so much in the category of ‘whiteness,’ but in an attempt to manufacture an alliance with Jewish American organizations. The game for this set of influential Indian Americans was to see in Jewish Americans a model for their own attempt not simply to gain respectability in mainstream America, but to gain power in Washington. These are the ‘Hindus’ who want to repudiate the hundreds of millions of Muslims in South Asia, to create an image of American Racism after 9/11 the Indian as a victim of Muslim terrorism in South Asia, and therefore the Indian American’s dilemma as akin to the Jewish American’s distress over Muslim terrorism in Israel. That those who operate with terrorist means are not simply Muslims is the exact idea that had to be demolished, because what allowed ‘Hindus’ and ‘Jews’ to become kin relied principally on the reduction of Palestinians and Kashmiris to ‘‘Muslim.’19

In the same manner the aforementioned Indian Americans post-9/11 sought to gain power and respectability by allying themselves with what opposed Muslims, the narrative that portrays Hindus as victims of Muslim terrorism is furthered by drawing parallels with the distress of Jewish communities over terrorism in Israel. For India, Israel – and Zionism – is the manifestation of domestic fantasies, a vehicle through which people of the world can hold Islam and its seemingly endless list of crimes at bay with.

Usmani is correct in his description of what determines any Hindutva position, but being driven to oppose what the Muslims support, not what is just, is not a principle limited to only the Hindu right wing. Liberal segments are falling prey to the Muslim-foreign rhetoric as well, expecting continuous disclaimers and condemnations from Muslims at every turn before an ounce of empathy is expressed towards the genocide unfolding in Palestine. Not all hope is lost, however. There are parties such as the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and grassroots organizations calling to support Palestinian liberation and a ceasefire.20 However, media coverage remains grotesquely one-sided, worsened by slack reporting criteria that somehow makes Britain and U.S. coverage seem neutral.

In perfect accordance to the BJP supporter playbook, despite previous attempts at centrist and duplicitous engagement with both Israel and Palestine, India now uses the Palestinian struggle to build on the anti-Muslim climate in the dregs of British colonial rule: Palestine’s struggles are due to perceived wrongdoing, the people are reaping what they sow like the Muslims in India, etc. What is humorously macabre is that Zionists insult and reject Indian support. Not only do Hindutva supporters tolerate this degradation, they continue drooling for their approval.

India wishes for respect and hopes to be heralded as a leader on a global scale; but selling out their own constituents while their morals erode will not grant them dignity, not by the standards of dominant Western geopolitical structure nor by those with an iota of morality.

Photo by Arpit Rastogi on Unsplash

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

  1. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/case-against-protesters-condemning-attack-on-palestine-in-bengaluru-for-not-seeking-prior-permission-for-stir/article67430729.ece[]
  2. https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/delhi-police-detain-pro-palestine-supporters-for-holding-protests-without-permission/cid/1973817[]
  3. India Today, “It’s Really Sad To See The Way India Has Changed From The Times Of Nehru To Now: Susan Abulhawa,” YouTube (Oct. 16, 2023), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eGNiznkQYY[]
  4. Khallol Bhattacherjee, “India reiterates call for ‘sovereign, independent, viable state of Palestine’,”, The Hindu (Oct. 12, 2023) https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-reiterates-call-for-sovereign-independent-viable-state-of-palestine/article67411994.ece[]
  5. Sharjeel Usmani, Twitter, (Oct. 7, 2023), https://twitter.com/SharjeelUsmani/status/1710597459771281482[]
  6. Ruairi Casey, “What’s behind Ireland’s support for Palestine?”, AlJazeera, (Jun. 7, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/7/whats-behind-irelands-support-for-palestine[]
  7. Forbes Breaking News, “Activists Rally In Support Of Palestine In Seoul, South Korea,” YouTube (Oct. 11, 2023), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2Y33dNVrbE[]
  8. Evo Morales Ayma, “El comunicado de la cancillería boliviana no refleja el sentimiento de solidaridad del pueblo boliviano con el pueblo palestino. El pueblo boliviano siempre condenará la ilegal ocupación israelí de Territorios Palestinos, las sistemáticas agresiones contra el pueblo palestino y su lucha por la independencia. Esas son las verdaderas causas del conflicto, no denunciarlas es ser cómplice.”, Twitter (Oct. 8, 2023) https://twitter.com/evoespueblo/status/1711088067887415691[]
  9. Sheetal Chopra, “Indian Muslims are not even considered as Muslims by Arabs | Indian Muslims should stop interfering in Arab issues -👇🏽”, Twitter (Oct. 14, 2023), https://twitter.com/SheetalPronamo/status/1713140868117668038[]
  10. Arjun Sengupta, “Why Mahatma Gandhi opposed a Jewish nation-state in Palestine,” Indian Express (Oct. 12, 2023), https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-history/gandhi-opposed-jewish-nation-state-palestine-8975964/[]
  11. Rohit Kahnna, “By Siding With Israel, India Is Jettisoning Decades of Middle East Statesmanship,” The Wire (Oct. 15, 2023), https://thewire.in/diplomacy/by-siding-with-israel-india-is-jettisoning-decades-of-middle-east-statesmanship[][]
  12. UN Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, “General Assembly Votes Overwhelmingly to Accord Palestine ‘Non-Member Observer State’ Status in United Nations,” UN (Nov. 29, 2012), https://press.un.org/en/2012/ga11317.doc.htm[]
  13. Azad Essa, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel (2023) [][][][][]
  14. Sumit Ganguli & Nicolas Blarel, “Modi’s Comments on Israel-Gaza War Signal Shift,” Foreign Policy (Oct. 12, 2023), https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/10/12/israel-hamas-gaza-war-modi-response-shift/[]
  15. Nehru Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 217 (written Oct. 1, 1950[]
  16. Embassy of India in Tel Aviv, “India-Israel Economic and Commercial Relations,” (May 2023), https://www.indembassyisrael.gov.in/pages?id=nel5a&subid=7ax9b[]
  17. Azad Essa, “India and Israel: The arms trade in charts and numbers,” Middle East Eye (May 21, 2022) https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/india-israel-arms-trade-numbers[]
  18. Hasan Suroor, West Asia policy hostage to Muslim vote, The Hindu (Dec. 4, 2021) https://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/West-Asia-policy-hostage-to-lsquoMuslim-vote/article14949553.ece[]
  19. Vijay Prashad, “How the Hindus Became Jews: American Racism After 9/11,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 104:3, Summer 2005, pp. 586-587[]
  20. Chandan Haygunde, “Groups supporting Palestine hold protest against Israel,” The Indian Express (Oct. 15, 2023) https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/groups-supporting-palestine-hold-protest-against-israel-8982105/#:~:text=Activists%20of%20the%20Revolutionary%20Workers,of%20Palestine%20by%20Zionist%20Israel%E2%80%9D[]
Farhana Khan

Farhana Khan is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.

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