Sun Apr 21, 2024
April 21, 2024

India’s Stance on the War in Gaza

When a resolution was put forward before the UN General Assembly calling for a humanitarian ceasefire on Gaza, India abstained. This marked a departure from India’s traditional stance of supporting a two-state solution on the Palestinian question. The excuse given by the External Affairs Minister was that “India understood terrorism,” and that the resolution did not include Israel’s “right to self-defense.” Many commentators remarked that this was a break from the traditional position held by India at the UN. Indeed, even under the Modi government, India voted several times in favour of resolutions critical of Israel.[i]

India’s changing attitude towards Israel from one of distance and hostility towards one of friendship is not an overnight phenomenon, but the result of decades of transformation that began in the 1990s. Today, pro-Palestine protesters are being arrested and harassed. In Delhi, protesters were harassed by the police and arrested, while in Kolkata people holding the Palestinian flag during a cricket match were arrested. This is reflective of a new reality in India and one which will have a larger regional impact.

The History of India’s Position on Palestine

After over a century of British rule, India emerged as an independent nation in 1947 with much of the colonial-era infrastructure and industry intact, despite the partition of the sub-continent. This unexpectedly made India the most industrialized of the formerly colonial nations. Nehru, the first Prime Minister, sought to leverage this position and place independent India as a leader of the decolonization movement. Against the two main Cold War blocs of the Soviet Union and the United States, India and several other formerly-colonized nations proposed the non-aligned movement. For decades, non-alignment was a key part of India’s foreign policy.

For the Middle East, this meant India would assume a position of opposing Israeli colonization of Palestinian lands and aligning with Arab countries, with whom Nehru wished for stronger ties. This was particularly important when Nasser led Egypt, who was another member of the non-aligned movement. India’s stance had two aspects: one was to make diplomatic gains with Arab and Muslim nations who sympathized with the Palestinian cause, and the other was to outflank Pakistan, who sought to gain the support of Arab and Muslim countries with the aim of diminishing India’s diplomatic position.

India secured good ties with gulf Arab nations and Levantine nations, even as Pakistan tried to lobby for their support. Pakistan could not isolate India from the wider Muslim world. India’s position towards Palestine was not one of ideology, but pragmatism. Even as India’s position in the non-aligned movement was smashed by the defeat suffered at the hands of China in 1962, and the movement itself unravelled in that decade, India kept its same position on the Palestinian question. India refused to recognize Israel and kept its diplomatic recognition of Palestine.

For a long time, Palestinians and the Arab world viewed India as a ‘friend’ of Palestine. This goodwill translated into stable relations with Arab countries and continued to generate economic benefits for the Indian capitalist class. However, the reality is that capitalist countries are never ‘friends’ of anyone but themselves. During its non-aligned days, India was skilful in dressing its pragmatic positions with ideological veneer. In truth, India has always sought out that position which will yield it the greatest benefit. This can be seen in India’s ‘neutrality’ over the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, and its tilt towards Israel in the current conflict in Gaza. However, there has been a marked change in India’s position with respect to Israel today since the BJP government took power under Prime Minister Modi. Now, India’s position on Israel has an ideological element.

Israel and Hindutva

One of the most unexpected things to happen since Israel’s onslaught on Gaza began, was the outpouring of support from right-wing Hindutva supporters on the internet and in the streets of India. It is difficult to imagine why a movement aiming at Hindu supremacy and Brahminical hegemony in India should express solidarity with the Zionist cause. However, this becomes clearer once we understand Israel as an apartheid state, and how Israel treats its Palestinian population generally.  

In Israel, we have a model for a bourgeois democracy functioning with a full-fledged apartheid regime against Palestinians. The native Palestinians have been displaced from their homes and towns, and many have been some concentrated into isolated besieged communities: Gaza being the worst-off among the Israeli equivalent of the infamous ‘bantustans.’[ii]

Israel is a Jewish state, even if it is not a theocracy. Only Jewish people can legally settle in Israel, even if their families have not lived in the region for generations as Palestinians have. Non-Jews cannot settle there and gain equal citizenship. As a result, the native Palestinian population has to settle for second-class citizenship and is subjected to the terror of the Israeli army and security apparatus. All the while, every recognizable institution of bourgeois democracy, including elections, parliamentary democracy, and an ostensibly independent judiciary, are kept propped up. These institutions of course are rendered meaningless, because they must operate within the framework of an inherently undemocratic Zionist settler colonialist, apartheid project.

The supposedly free press, parliament, and the judiciary can never question the basis of Israel’s existence, which cannot be secured without permanent terror upon the Palestinians. Israel presents a model for the Hindutva right in India, as well as every right-wing movement worldwide that seeks to create ethno-states, or states organized on the basis of a single religious identity. The fact that Israel’s victims are Muslims only enhances the appeal to every Islamophobic movement across the world, especially those who support and identify with Hindutva.

In Israel, the RSS and BJP (the current dominant proponents of Hindutva) have found a role model to follow. The transformation of India from an ostensibly secular state—which at least on paper does not discriminate against religious minorities—into one that is openly Hindu supremacist, is a long- term project of the Sangh. This transformation is taking place before our eyes and has been taking place for decades. In its modern-day form, we are seeing the slow but sure transformation of India’s foreign policy as well: from one of pragmatic non-alignment, to one guided by the perspectives of Hindutva.

India’s newfound “love” for Israel, especially under the present Modi government, must be seen in this context. In material terms, India’s benefits from Israel are questionable; even the weapons supplies India receives from Israel aren’t irreplaceable.[iii] India still maintains one of the largest stocks of Russian-made weapons in the world, and collectively European countries and the U.S. account for a far-greater share of India’s weapons supplies. The pivot towards Israel is fundamentally an ideological decision coming from an Islamophobic government and passed on to another regime which maintains apartheid against a largely Muslim population, and routinely desecrates some of Islam’s holiest sites. India’s Hindutva supporters dream of the day when they too can lock up, harass, and terrorize Muslims to the scale of ferocity with which Israel does. Israel’s most virulent Zionists would love nothing more than to replicate the demolition of Babri Masjid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

India’s ‘Balancing Act’ in Western Asia

In the aftermath of decolonization, India embarked on a policy of non-alignment. The objective was to assume a leadership position among decolonized nations; this included many in the Arab world, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Levant. Resistance against the colonization of Palestine by Zionists was a key programmatic position of newly independent Arab nations.

Pakistan had positioned itself to garner sympathy for its cause from other Muslim nations, while India sought to check this by garnering support from Arab countries. This is the reason why it aligned itself with Arab nations. Israel offered India practically nothing, and neither was U.S. imperialism as invested in it as it is now. India recognized Israel in 1950, but never held full diplomatic relations, preferring to keep its distance from Israel to maintain it’s relations with Arab states, particularly Egypt.[iv]  

Over the course of the 60s and 70s as India’s economy developed and gulf oil became important, India’s relationship with the wider Arab world centered around the gulf countries. After the Six-Day War, the U.S. became more invested in Israel, and the present day American-Israeli alliance emerged. At the same time, India had just fought a losing war with China, and wars with Pakistan that ended in stalemate in 1962 and 1967.

Pakistan had pivoted towards the U.S., adopting an exploitative liberal capitalist model, and joining CENTCOM. The U.S. had supplied much of Pakistan’s crucial military hardware including fighter aircrafts and tanks. India acquired its weaponry from the USSR. Thus, the Cold-War rivalry found its way to South Asia. This would inevitably put India and Israel on opposing sides of the Cold War. India’s non-aligned era relationship with Arab countries took priority over good relations with Israel. As the latter was aligned with the U.S., who in turn was aligned with Pakistan, relations were further strained.

This was a matter of pragmatism on India’s part and did not necessarily emerge from concern for Palestinians. Maintaining cordial relations with the Arab nations allowed India to build trade and investment ties over the period of congress hegemony between 1950 and 1991. With economic and strategic ties to the Soviet Union, India further entrenched itself in the anti-U.S. bloc. The status quo would end with the fall of the Soviet Union.

In 1991, India opened its economy to foreign investment and trade. It did so from a position of vulnerability as its foreign reserves had dwindled to a crisis point. Taking the IMF loan against a gold pledge, India acceded to IMF terms. However, there was no coercion; in the words of then-IMF director “we did not need to use the medicine.” India moved from a largely state capitalist economy towards a market-oriented, neo-liberal model, and with it came changes to India’s foreign policy.

Russia could no longer be relied upon as a counterweight to the U.S., therefore India had no alternative but to improve their relations with the world’s sole remaining superpower. India’s pivot towards the U.S. could counter both Pakistan and China, undercutting America’s relationship with the former and utilizing America’s existing suspicion and hostility on the latter. This also resulted in India improving its ties with Israel, as now there was a utility in bringing India’s West Asia policy more in line with that of the United States.

Pragmatism dictated India’s stand against Israel during the Cold War, and pragmatism now dictates India’s slow turn away from Palestine. At the same time, it could not jeopardize its ties with the gulf nations and Egypt. In the years after India’s liberalization, the economy expanded drastically, along with India’s appetite for oil to fuel its rise. The oil exporting countries of the Persian Gulf became crucial for India and would shape its approach to the region.

 The gulf monarchies had been the least hostile towards Israel among the bloc of Arab nations, taking no direct military action against Israel in their histories. These are among the most autocratic countries in the world, with tyrannical state apparatuses that stifle any dissent. However, no matter how tight their grip on power might seem, no dictatorship is ever immune from the threat of revolution. Saudi Arabia had to resort to economic warfare on Israel and the United States to save face from shying away from any military action: its rulers had to put up a charade before the Muslim world and their own people, claiming they can take a stand against Israel.

India is heavily invested in trade with the gulf countries, and now with Iraq as well, which has emerged as one of the largest sources of petroleum imports for India. To safeguard this relation, India has aligned its policy with the considerations of the gulf monarchies and the unpopular governments of West Asia’s Arab states. At the same time, India is also a chief importer of oil from Iran, a nation that is implacably opposed to Israel. In order to safeguard its investments and trade with Iran, India can never lean too far towards Israel. For this reason, even as India improves and deepens its ties with Israel, it continues to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause and to Palestinian concerns.[v]

This has not fundamentally changed even with a BJP government in power, notwithstanding their ideological affinity with Zionism. They must continue to play by the rules of geo-politics that have been set out long before them. The class considerations of the Indian bourgeoisie, and the machinations of imperialism, trump ideology in this regard. India’s duplicitous stance on Israel’s war on Gaza is not too different from its stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Soon after India chose to abstain from the UN resolution for a ceasefire, it sent 6.5 tonnes of aid to Palestine.[vi] India chose to vote against Israel on the resolution condemning illegal settlements. Such double speak is the expression of India’s double-dealing diplomacy, which keeps its ideologically-rooted lean towards Israel and also seeks to keep itself in the good books of Arab countries and Iran.

Conclusions

Capitalist India first and foremost stands with the interests of its capitalists, not with the interests of its people nor with the interests of oppressed people elsewhere. This must be understood first and foremost.

We cannot look to bourgeois states to stand in solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles, we must instead look towards class solidarity. Stalinists advocating for non-alignment or Nehruvian principles have no inkling of the class interests that express themselves in a state’s foreign policy. India’s foreign policy is guided by the class interests of its bourgeoisie. This was served by non-alignment in the early years of Indian independence, it no longer serves it today.

India’s bourgeoisie is aligned with the U.S. and its hegemonic project to the extent that it helps it counter China, checkmate Pakistan, and to the extent that the U.S. will accept the expansion of Indian power and influence over South Asia and the Indian Ocean. There are still many areas of contradiction and conflict between the two nations, which suggests that no matter what the mainstream press might suggest, the two countries are far from allies. Being bourgeois democracies is a meaningless basis for forging alliances. For its part, the U.S. has no problem dealing with the most tyrannical regimes in the world. For its part, India has been active in its dealings with dictatorships within South Asia and beyond.

India’s current turn towards Israel and its deepening of ties has a lot to do with the party in power that idolizes Israel as an apartheid state and seeks to emulate it. This is in addition to Israel’s role as a strategic partner to India in West Asia, and a key military equipment supplier. We are seeing a convergence of interests between ideologically rooted Hindutva and the class interests of Indian capitalists. 


[i] https://youtu.be/gPggraic-C8?si=I8vKxyIr1wPH0oAk&t=136

[ii] Bantustan was a territory that the National Party administration of South Africa set aside for black inhabitants of South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia), as part of its policy of apartheid.

[iii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-remains-biggest-arms-importer-between-2018-22-despite-drop-in-overall-imports/article66614120.ece#:~:text=India’s%20arms%20imports%20(2018%20%2D%202022,United%20Kingdom%202%25%20Germany%201.4%25&text=%E2%80%9CIndia’s%20tensions%20with%20Pakistan%20and,its%20demand%20for%20arms%20imports.

[iv] https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/India-Israel_relations.pdf

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India%E2%80%93Palestine_relations

[vi] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/israelhamas-war-india-sends-humanitarian-aid-to-palestine-11697951691938.html

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