Weeks after receiving the Israeli Prime Minister and a historic visit to Israel in July 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his 3-nation West Asia tour to Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The visit to Palestine’s de facto West Bank capital, Ramallah, where Modi was received by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, became the first ever by an Indian premier. This is being looked upon with interest as a continuation of Indian foreign policy’s recent pragmatic drive to dehyphenate Israel and Palestine. Until 1992, India espoused and endorsed the Palestinian cause almost exclusively.
The evolution of India’s Palestine policy goes back to the pre-independence days, right up to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which was a public statement issued by the British government during World War I announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine — then a part of the Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population of 3-5 per cent. The first modern political ties between India and the Arab world were forged over a common opposition of British imperialism, when Palestinians were looked upon by Indian nationalists as fellow brothers-in-bondage. Narendra Modi in Palestine LIVE Updates
“Palestine for the Arabs”: Mahatma Gandhi
While expressing his deep sympathies with the long persecution of Jews, especially at the hands of Germans during World War II, Gandhi famously said in 1938, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French”. Led by him, the Indian nationalists came to view the Jewish aspirations for a national home in Palestine, through an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial prism. The Zionists were seen in the Indian perspective as European people, who went wrong by relying on imperialist powers to set up an exclusivist, theocratic state in West Asia at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs.
Writing from prison to daughter Indira, Nehru depicted the Palestine issue as analogous to the communal troubles of the Indian subcontinent. Just as the British were employing the divide and rule tactics between Hindus and Muslims to perpetuate their domination, he perceived the English in Palestine pitting “Jewish religious nationalism against Arab nationalism, and [making] it appear that [their] presence is necessary to act as an arbiter and to keep the peace between the two.”
Another important albeit less acknowledged dimension of the Palestinian issue had been the lack of communal unity in colonial India against the British Raj circa 1920s. The mass upheaval of Muslims in British India during the Khilafat Movement in the aftermath of World War I, which was meant to oppose the non-Muslim (British) interference, control and occupation of Islamic territories, including Palestine, presented a ripe opportunity for the Indian National Congress to throw its weight behind and club with the Non-Cooperation Movement in order to build Hindu-Muslim unity. Even during this time, the Muslim League rallied around the Palestine issue and projected itself as the exclusive voice of Muslims of India. This Congress-Muslim League rivalry on Palestine translated into Indo-Pakistan rivalry after independence, with neither nation wanting to be outdone by the other. As P R Kumaraswamy, Professor of Middle Eastern studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, puts it, that while Pakistan flagged its Islamic credentials, “India used a secular, nationalist, and anti-imperialist narrative to establish its pro-Palestinian track record”.
Unity with the Arab nations
Under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s steadfast, principled support to the Palestinian cause continued in its post-independence foreign policy. The intervening four decades were marked by Nehruvian idealism and Non-Alignment Movement when India as a young nation with limited international leverage searched for its ideological footing and attempted to court the friendship and support of the numerous Arab nations of West Asia. One of the key issues that India hoped to get support from Arab nations in return was neutrality on the Kashmir issue, which Pakistan incessantly cast in the Arab world with a pan-Islamic stake in order to gain allies. To this day, Delhi’s ostensible cool off with Ramallah after Modi and Netanyahu’s respective visits to each other resulted in Pakistan stepping in to establish equivalence between Kashmir and Palestine.
In 1974-75, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its leader Yasser Arafat were vilified as being a “terrorist,” India vigorously supported its bid for an Observer status within the UN General Assembly’s deliberations over Palestine and became the first non-Arab nation to recognise the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who shared a close relationship with Yasser Arafat, upgraded the Palestinian mission in India to embassy status in 1980. After the Palestinian National Council’s declaration of independence in 1988, India accorded it with official recognition, maintaining a principled position of support for the two-state solution, championing a “sovereign, independent, united” Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Within this zero-sum relationship, while India formally recognised Israel in 1950, full diplomatic relations were not established with it as a matter of principle until 1992 under the Narsimha Rao government. Throughout this period, such a steadfast stand of the Indian government was questioned by commentators, leaders and journalists in India and abroad on various grounds, including whether establishment of diplomatic relations with a country could be held tantamount to approval of that country’s domestic or foreign policies.
A unipolar world and a liberalised economy
With the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the USSR — and the domestic economic crisis forced India to respond to new challenges and dilute its hard adherence. Pragmatists received an upper hand in policy in the post-liberalisation India, which gradually began gravitating towards the United States, and strategic alliances became pre-eminent over ideological coalitions with the aim of pursuing national interest. It has been a tightrope walk for India between Palestine and Israel, ever since, in asserting its independent foreign policy.
After a normalisation of relations with Israel under PM Rao, the closeness of the two countries received a strong impetus under the BJP-led government in the late 1990s and again under the current government. Economic ties, investment, defense collaborations and technological and cultural exchanges with Israel have significantly increased in the recent years. Regardless, however, India in December 2017 voted against the United States’ decision in the UN to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.