Soon after returning from Europe in 1938, Jawaharlal Nehru, having seen firsthand the plight of European Jews before the onslaught of Fascism, sponsored a resolution in the Congress Working Committee: “The Committee sees no objection to the employment in India of such Jewish refugees as are experts and specialists and who can fit in with the new order in India and accept Indian standards”.
The CWC and, in particular, then Congress president Subhas Chandra Bose, however, did not agree — in a letter written to Bose on April 3, 1939, Nehru recalled that Bose had been “astounded” by the suggestion “to make India an asylum for the Jews”. (P R Kumaraswamy, India’s Israel Policy, Columbia University Press, 2010)
Subsequently, in 1942, The Jewish Chronicle of London, the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper, reported that Bose had, in an article written for Der Angriff, the newspaper set up by Adolf Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, said that “anti-Semitism should become part of the Indian liberation movement because the Jews had helped the British to exploit Indians”. (Yulia Egorova, Jews and India: Perceptions and Image, RoutledgeCurzon, 2006) It must be remembered, however, that in 1942, Bose was Hitler’s guest and focussed on India’s liberation, which he hoped to achieve with German help — it is unclear whether he really accepted the ideology of the Nazis.
Nehru’s proposal was also opposed by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, then the president of the Hindu Mahasabha. Speaking in Nagpur, Savarkar, while accepting that Indian Jews “have given us no political or cultural troubles and are not in the main a proselytising people”, warned against repeating “the suicidal generosity our forefathers” who had “invit[ed] colonies of non-Hindus to India”.
“…The Hindus must”, Savarkar said, “oppose the present Congressite proposal of inviting or allowing any new Jewish colony to settle in India. India must be a Hindu land, reserved for the Hindus”. (Egorova, 2006)
When Narendra Modi lands at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport today — the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel — he will be initiating a historic process of formally changing India’s public and political approach towards dealing with the Jewish nation. And make polite amends for what one of his ideological gurus had said almost 80 years ago.
Nehru’s empathy for the persecuted Jewish people notwithstanding, India’s political attitude towards Israel was set shortly after Independence, when he and Mahatma Gandhi vowed to support the Palestinian cause, and rejected the idea of two nations based on religion. Nehru declined to honour a request from Albert Einstein for India’s support for the United Nations resolution proposing the partition of Palestine.
“Perhaps he (Nehru) was influenced by India’s own experience of Partition. He strongly favoured a federation of two states, with a special regime for Jerusalem for a period of 10 years, to be followed by a referendum,” Chinmaya R Gharekhan, a former Indian Permanent Representative to the UN and former Special Envoy to West Asia, wrote in the journal of the foreign policy thinktank Gateway House in August 2014.
It took about 45 years to unlock the relationship — India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, days after the Chinese did the same.
In January 1992, during a meeting between Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and the visiting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Arafat was told that it would help the Palestinian cause if India established diplomatic relationship with Israel, and had an ambassador in Tel Aviv. Arafat came on board — and, at his press conference, famously said, “Exchange of ambassadors and recognition (of Israel) are acts of sovereignty in which I cannot interfere… I respect any choice of the Indian government.”
It was the game-changer moment. About 10 days after Arafat’s publicly-stated approval, on January 29, 1992, India established diplomatic ties with Israel.
India’s military ties with Israel are older — new material has revealed that India had sourced Israeli weapons during the war with China in 1962. And later, during the 1999 Kargil conflict, the Indian Air Force, in desperate need of munitions to target Pakistani intruders hiding in caves and bunkers, received political approval to reach out to their Israeli counterparts for help. The Israelis wasted no time in digging into emergency stockpiles that reached Indian airbases within days, providing a decisive edge to the IAF.
In 2000, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Home Minister L K Advani paid high-level visits to Israel, and in order to blunt criticism from the Left and minority groups, the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee arranged for CPI(M) veteran Jyoti Basu and Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson and then a leader of the Congress, Najma Heptulla, to also make the trip the same year.
As defence and security cooperation picked up, in September 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Prime Minister of Israel to visit India. When the UPA was in power, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna travelled to Israel in 2012, and the conversation revolved around cooperation on science and technology, agriculture and commerce — talks on defence and security were avoided in public.
The three years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have seen the bilateral relationship become increasingly more visible. Modi met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA in September 2014 — the first such meeting in a decade. Home Minister Rajnath Singh travelled to Israel in November 2014, President Pranab Mukherjee in October 2015 — the first visit by an Indian President — and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in January 2016. A number of Ministers and parliamentarians too have visited Israel in the past three years, and in February 2015, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon openly discussed security and defence cooperation during a visit to India.
While Modi will skip the customary stop at Palestine — a given during all previous Indian ministerial-level visits — India has been careful to make sure the Prime Minister has already visited Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and the UAE, Israel’s regional rivals, over the last three years. New Delhi, in fact, hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this May — his second meeting with Modi after the one in New York in September 2015. And in all public pronouncements, External Affairs Minister Swaraj and South Block officials have maintained India’s position on support for the Palestinian cause — even as India has been able to de-hyphenate its Israel-Palestine relationship.
Kumaraswamy, a professor at JNU’s Centre for West Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, and one of the foremost scholars on Indo-Israel relations, summed up the change: “The relationship with Israel, so far, was like the one with a mistress, a clandestine affair. One can go out in public with one’s wife, but with a mistress, one will have to explain. Now, there is growing maturity, because the regional and domestic situation has changed. Now it feels like one is confident of taking the girl to meet one’s parents… one is not apologetic about it.”
A year after he announced to the US Congress that the Indo-US “relationship has overcome the hesitations of history”, Prime Minister Modi will aim to do the same with respect to Israel, and to set a strategic and political direction for the bilateral relationship.