India-Israel relations have advanced rapidly over the last twenty-one years. Israel, today, is India’s second largest arms supplier while India is Israel’s eighth largest trading partner — with exponentially increasing military collaboration and ever expanding trade relations in a whole host of sectors.

However, during its first forty five years modern India preferred to maintain strong ties with the Arab world and, later, Iran, at the expense of its relationship with Israel. What explains India’s past diplomatic hostility to the Jewish state, viewed by many as India’s natural ally?

A DIVISION BORN OF PARTISANSHIP, MISINFORMATION AND RIGID MORAL COMMITMENT

The Indian National Congress (INC) party dominated India’s freedom struggle against the British since the early twentieth century. Opposed to the partition of the subcontinent on religious (Hindu/Muslim) lines, it tried to appease Muslim favour against the rising popularity of the audaciously anti-Zionist, pro-partition Muslim League (ML) by adopting a moderately similar opposition to Jewish nationalism. Furthermore, while opposing sectarian division at home, it couldn’t possibly justify it in the Mandate while criticizing the ML for its exclusivist notions.

In the aftermath of World War I, and the subsequent British occupation of the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, Muslims in British India launched a powerful political protest campaign called the Khilafat Movement (KM) to influence the British government to protect the Ottoman Caliphate. It became a very important faction within the Indian independence movement. The KM, as is evident from the name, was radically opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Ottoman lands. The Caliphate was abolished by Ataturk in 1924 rendering the Khilafat Movement useless. It disintegrated on political lines. The ML’s rabid anti-Zionism enticed many former members of the KM. To stymie the loss of such an influential and powerful vote bank to the ML, and therefore see India partitioned, the INC hardened its opposition to Zionism. This appeasement effort ended in abject failure as India was eventually partitioned.

Also, the INC’s political views drew from the philosophies of Gandhi, the admirable poster child of non-violent resistance, who assumed leadership in 1921. Gandhi, himself, was a soft critic of the Zionist movement. His view was based on the distortion that the movement was perpetuating the continued, millennia-old Jewish presence in what was then the British Mandate by “imposing itself” on the locals. He urged that the Jews settle there by means of peaceful defiance (Satyagraha) that
he successfully employed against the British. He also STRONGLY condemned the mass Arab violence on the Jewish communities. Furthermore, his acceptance of conspiracy theories about “Zionist-British-American collaboration” cemented his outlook about Zionism — that it was a form of the very same colonialism he was fighting — leading to sympathetic leanings towards the Arabs. Being the influential figure that Gandhi was, naturally this view got standardized within the ranks of the party.

This over-principled, ideological commitment to fighting what it falsely perceived as colonialism set the tone for the INC’s outlook over the decades, starting with India’s vote against the UN Partition Plan in November 1947, while only six months prior, favouring the minority plan at the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) — which recommended a federation of an Arab and Jewish state.  India also opposed Israel’s UN membership in May 1949.  After much lobbying effort, and as retribution for Egypt’s Farouk voting in favour of Pakistan on the Hyderabad issue at the UN in 1948, New Delhi accorded official recognition to Israel in late 1950. The establishment of formal ties was put off until 1992.

From the very beginning, India strongly backed Arab causes in the international arena, as was evident from the stand taken by Indian representatives and delegations to the UN over the years. One issue that was on the forefront of India’s pro-Arab agenda was that of the Arab “refugees” from all the wars waged against Israel. India extended consistent support to all efforts aimed at providing immediate relief and permanent absorption of the Palestinian refugees into Arab countries, although, in principle, it didn’t agree with the idea of absorption.

HOWEVER, India’s support has been with FULL acceptance of the reality of Israel’s existence, without giving in to the maximalist demands of the Arab bloc, the total annihilation of Israel.

Also, it is important to note that India’s radical support for the Palestinian and other pro-Arab causes was never reciprocated by the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world on the India-Pakistan conflict in Kashmir since the very beginning. The Arabs’ — especially the Palestinians’ — religious loyalties ensured that Pakistan always had their firm backing. This was predicted by many since 1951, the year in which the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hussam ad-Din Jarallah, became a staunch defender of Pakistani claims to Kashmir after visiting Pakistan that year. But yet India’s zealous, albeit naive, pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian stance continued until the early 1990s.

On many occasions, in the early 1950s, Nehru was prepared to normalize relations with Israel, but bigger, more pressing concerns in the subcontinent either deterred or discouraged India from going down that path, as I will examine in this piece.

PAKISTAN, THE USA, THE USSR AND CHINA

Enter the primary agent that affected the course of India-Israel relations  — Pakistan. The long and drawn out Kashmir conflict — which began in 1947, immediately after Pakistan sought to forcefully acquire the legally annexed Indian territory of Jammu & Kashmir — has always dominated the Indian political discourse.

Religious loyalties ensured both popular support and unquestioning diplomatic backing for Pakistan from the Arab world. Recognising that opposition to Israel was a pan-Arabian cause, India took up a pro-Arab stance in order to placate Arab and Muslim opinion on the Kashmir issue.

Pakistan’s proximity to the USSR, and its internal struggles against the rise of Communism in both West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), made it an attractive Cold War proxy for the US. It became the beneficiary of massive American military and economic aid, risking a tilt in the balance of regional power. An example of the increasing collaboration was the establishment of a spy operations station at the military base in Peshawar, for coordinating secret signal flights to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union’s ICBMs, under President Eisenhower, in 1956.

Pakistan’s growing military cooperation with another hostile enemy, China, was also worrisome to both New Delhi and Moscow.

After a period of initial reluctance and much deliberation, as a safeguard against the growing military threat in its backyard, India established a warm and enduring military, trade and diplomatic nexus with the Soviet Union.

Although the Soviets stayed neutral during the Sino-Indian border dispute  of 1959 and the war of 1962 – angering Beijing — by the mid-1960s, India had received more Soviet assistance than China had, much to the latter’s chagrin.

In 1962, the Soviets agreed to transfer technology to co-produce MiG-21s in India, which they had earlier denied Beijing. This disparity — along with many other incidents of India receiving preferential treatment over China — was Moscow’s way of chastising the Chinese for their dealings with Pakistan, an American front.

Thanks to the Soviets, the balance of power was immovably shifted in India’s favour, however, that entailed embracing — or at least acceding to — the Kremlin’s West Asia policies which robustly favoured the Arabs post-1955, after over a decade of support for the Zionist movement.

Not to mention, the Communist bloc claimed to be the guardian of the third-world and the champion of the opposition to what it falsely promulgated was “Western Imperialism”. Their pitching of Communism as an emancipatory, anti-Colonial creed made the USSR all the more attractive to India, a country who only recently shook-off the yoke of British Imperialism.

Thus, although originally unintended, the USSR became the perfect ally to India, both practically, by providing a sturdy counter-balance to the growing US-Pakistan-China collaboration, and ideologically, as mentioned in the above paragraph.

THE NON-ALIGNED MOVEMENT (NAM)

India’s openly pro-Arab stance was furthered with advent of the Cold War and its ascension into the Non-Aligned movement (visualized at the Bandung Conference of 1955). Among its founders were Nasser of Egypt and Nehru of India. Strong relations between India and Egypt followed, as also the championing of its newfound allies’ causes in the international arena. In spite of diplomat (and later, Defence Minister) Krishna Menon’s insistence, so as to court Arab favour, Nehru blocked Israel’s inclusion in the NAM.

AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY (1950-1984)

In the decade after Independence, during the Sinai conflict of 1956, India’s hypersensitivity to Colonialism flared up — invigorated by its growing alliance with Egypt. After Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, then Prime Minister, Nehru, supported Nasser publicly. Urging Nasser privately to show restraint and warning him of consequences, Nehru sought to intervene and negotiate a peaceful solution — hoping to safeguard international interests, while respecting Egypt‘s sovereign rights. 

However, because Israel collaborated with the UK and France (still perceived as colonial powers) Nehru reacted sharply and described the event bluntly as “a flagrant case of aggression” and “a reversion to past colonial methods”. He even threatened to withdraw India from the Commonwealth.

Relations deteriorated further all through the 1960s, even after Nehru’s death in 1964. Examples – India’s refusal to accept Israeli assistance in redeveloping the barren wastelands of Rajasthan, and the outright decline of famine relief offered by Israel in response to UN Secretary General U Thant’s plea, among many others incidents.

The one sidedness of India’s pro-Arab bent started to show very early on. During the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and the India-Pakistan war of 1965, Egypt took an extremely neutral stance. The rest of the Arab world overwhelmingly supported Pakistan. Undaunted, India kept pushing in a pro-Arab direction.

In 1967, during the aftermath of the Six Day War, India strongly condemned Israel for what it perceived as “the Israeli invasion of Arab lands of Palestine”. In October 1967, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Cairo, she issued a joint India-UAR statement expressing support for “the just rights of the Palestinian people”. Thanks to Indira Gandhi, India became complicit in legitimising the fabricated “Palestinian” identity, as India was one of the first non-Arab countries to recognise it.

D.P. Dhar, a member of the Indian delegation to the UN Special Political Committee, in December 1967, reiterated the Indian position, which fully recognized the “Palestinians” as a people and not merely as refugees. It also emphasized the need for a “lasting solution” to “ensure the just rights of the Arab people of Palestine” on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

This angered many at home. Fervent popular opposition to the Indian government’s pro-Arab stance emerged — in political circles, the press, and the population in general.

The next disappointment from the Arab world came in 1969, when on Pakistani military dictator Yahya Khan’s insistence, India was barred from the Rabat conference of Islamic leaders — convened in response to the burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by deranged Australian Christian Evangelical, Denis Michael Rohan.

Furthermore, on Pakistan’s instigation, the meeting also condemned the communal riots (between Hindus and Muslims) that took place in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, further weakening India’s standing in the Arab world.

As a reaction, India recalled its senior envoys from Morocco and Jordan. Indian Foreign Affairs Minister, Dinesh Singh, held a meeting in New York with his Israeli counterpart, Abba Eban, as a first sign of improving relations with Israel.

The Rabat conference was the birthplace of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which thanks to Pakistan’s fervent persuasion, has always excluded India. Islamabad had free, unrestricted access to solicit support in the halls of the OIC and used the forum to produce strident resolutions against India –- fiercely reaffirming the Muslim world’s backing.

What really enraged the INC’s opposition at this point, was that in spite of these happenings: (1) India warmly welcomed a PLO delegation in 1969, to whom Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh assured the opening of a PLO office in New Delhi and offered a sum of INR 80,000, and (2) Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh assured the opening of a PLO information centre in New Delhi in 1970. (The latter didn’t materialize  because of the PLO conflict in Jordan in September that year, on which India decided to stay neutral as it had cordial relations with both Arab parties.)

Further disappointments would follow during the India-Pakistan war of 1971 which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh (East Pakistan then). Egypt and Syria stayed neutral while Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia condemned India. In spite of gaining regional superiority India’s position took a downward spiral in West Asia. Surprisingly, Israel sided with India and criticized Pakistan’s actions in East Bengal, especially the mass-murder of Bangladeshi Hindus. The intense speculation, that Israel heavily aided India in the conflict by providing weaponry, training and intelligence, was eventually proven true. But India’s hostility to Israel continued unabated.

In response to Chinese collaboration with Pakistan in the war India signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with the USSR.

(On a side note, General JFR Jacob, the leading commander of the Indian forces that fought this war to liberate the Islamic nation of Bangladesh –- which to this day considers Israel an illegal entity, with a complete trade and travel ban, which penalizes its citizens with serious jail time for even attempting to travel to Israel — was, himself, a Jew and an outspoken Zionist.)

At this point, in spite of India’s steadfast support, frustration from the constant let downs by the Arab world was rapidly catalyzing in New Delhi. Kishan Kant, future Vice-President of India, then an INC member of Parliament, as a result of the Arabs’ cold-shoulder during the 1971 conflict, insisted on a radical reassessment of India’s foreign policy. He was completely disregarded by then Foreign Minister, Swaran Singh, who went one step further and blamed Israel for the “refugee crisis”, demanding Israel to open its borders to the many Arabs who left in 1948 and 1967.

Nothing was to be gained from that. To add insult to injury, with a great deal of funding and moral support from the Arab world, Pakistan began its nuclear program in the early 1970s — against the wishes of its allies, the US and China. (Pakistan’s nuclear program was intended to be a direct retaliation against India’s intervention that lead to to the loss of East Pakistan.)

Yet, realizations about the futility of India’s pro-Arab stance didn’t spell action, as Pakistan –- now reinforced with the diplomatic and political might of the OIC — increased India’s already heavy dependence on Moscow, severely binding it to a rigid foreign policy platform.

Little changed for Israel as India continued its support for Egypt in the Yom Kippur conflict of 1973. Much to the shock of the Western world, the unprovoked Syrian-Egyptian attack on Israel was praised by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which had the audacity to blame the Jewish state for the war of annihilation waged against it.

Although most of India’s oil imports were (and continue to be) from Iran, a significant proportion of its energy needs are fulfilled by the Gulf States. Also, a large number of Indians found work there during the 1970s in the booming oil industry, sending home huge remittances. Both of these factors strongly reinforced India’s fledgling economy, and a boycott or sanctions by these nations would have been disastrous — disallowing any divergence with regards Israel.

India strongly backed the decade old PLO under Yasser Arafat, and its bid for UN observer status in 1974. It became the first non-Arab nation to extend formal diplomatic accreditation to the representatives of the PLO in January 1975.  In the same year, a PLO office was set up in the nation’s capital, New Delhi. All hope was lost for Israel in 1975, when under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the INC’s age old mis-characterization of Zionism as colonialism resurfaced, and — at the behest of Moscow — India voted in favour of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism.

This led to severe discord and disenchantment with the INC in Indian politics. During the state of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977, a new coalition called the Janata Party (JP) – comprised of several opposition factions — that proposed a radically divergent position on the Israel-Arab conflict emerged. Fervent indignation about India’s mistreatment of Israel would soon acquire a political platform.

Unfortunately, by now, a framework of military, political and diplomatic dependence on the USSR was forged (remnants of which still exist today) to counter the increasingly threatening Chinese and American backed Pakistan. With Israel still a tiny player in the political arena, and only emerging as a US ally, ties with her would bring in a plethora of uncertainties, and few, if any, dividends.

This handicap would manifest in 1977 with the election of the Janata Party, when –- aside from an incognito visit by then Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan in August, which was only made public in 1981 by Indira Gandhi — little changed in spite of its vehement opposition to the government’s treatment of Israel while on the sidelines. To pre-emptively counter any efforts by India to diversify its relations, the Soviet Union proffered additional weaponry and economic assistance. Janata Party Prime Minister Morarji Desai, in his meeting with Dayan, did not accept Dayan’s rationale that creating a Palestinian state would endanger Israel, and rejected his proposal that Arab refugees from 1948 and 1967 be absorbed into the countries where they lived, just as Israel absorbed roughly a million Jewish refugees from Arab lands. He even refused to exchange ambassadors and dismissed Dayan’s proposal of allowing India’s Foreign Minster to visit Israel.

In the same year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under  the leadership of future Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, issued a harsh condemnation of Israeli settlements. Despite its fiery election time rhetoric, India, under the Janata Party, in complete solidarity with the Arab world, opposed the Camp David Accords of 1978. In late 1979, the Indian National Council for Cultural Relations, jointly with the PLO, even organised a special cultural event named “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” in New Delhi.

The dependence on Moscow was further exacerbated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when the US –- in order to fight its arch-adversary, now, just next door — invested heavily in Pakistan, and by Islamabad’s foray into the NAM.

In 1980, the INC, under Indira Gandhi, was re-elected, and support for the Arabs continued. Full diplomatic recognition was extended to the Office of the PLO in New Delhi. Arafat paid state visits to India in 1980 and 1982. During his 1980 visit, Arafat described India as an “eternal friend” and vowed to continue his “armed struggle” against Israel, which should have irked I. Gandhi, but it didn’t. The first ever joint India-PLO statement was issued in the same year, highlighting the close bond between the two leaders. The friendship was so strong that the PLO representative in New Delhi, Jamil Hajaj, even urged Indira Gandhi to intervene in the factional infighting in the PLO that began two years later, in November 1983, which she decided to stay away from.

The Israeli intervention in Lebanon in 1982, to root out the PLO terrorists, invited the wrath of Indira Gandhi. In a speech at the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) in July 1982, she severely rebuked Israel’s security-guaranteeing actions. She even did the unthinkable : sent a message to Arafat in September that year, praising him wholeheartedly for his “spirited resistance” against Israel. The PLO Ambassador to India, Faisal Ahudaha, in his 1982 speech in Calcutta, said : “I can say that India has come to our aid even more than some of our closer neighbours.”

More bad news for Israel followed when Yossef Hasseen, the Israeli consul, was expelled in 1982 for a controversial interview –- a sanction never meted out to even arch-enemies like Pakistan and China.

However, this shameful behaviour on I. Gandhi’s part prompted a backlash from the opposition. The, now highly fragmented, Janata Party, attempted a resurgence. Although failing to deliver on Israel while in power, they now tried to shore up opposition support for Israel. JP member, Subramanian Swamy, became the first Indian political leader to make a publicized trip to Israel, where he met with important Israeli leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and then Prime Minister Menachem Begin. His efforts, along with those of many other opposition leaders, at normalizing relations with Israel would eventually bear fruit in 1992. (Swamy is also well respected for his pioneering efforts in the normalization of relations with China.)

EMBRACING REALITY – THE ERA OF PRAGMATISM (1984 onward)

After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, a gradual shift in outlook began under her son Rajiv Gandhi, who became PM soon after. He was known for his non-ideological and pragmatic approach to foreign affairs. He made history by meeting with his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres at the UN General Assembly session of 1985.

Although India criticized Israel’s air-raids on the PLO’s Tunis headquarters in 1985, and convened a meeting of the Non-Aligned Committee on Palestine in New Delhi in the same year, she openly rejected Arab demands to expel Israel from the UN.

Fearing Islamabad’s reciprocation of Arab financial support for its nuclear program by sharing its technology with the donors, R. Gandhi even collaborated with Israel to launch an Osirak-style attack on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities at Kahuta (the strike didn’t materialize for fear of repercussions from the Arab world.) In 1986, in response to the flourishing diamond trade between the two countries, the Arab Boycott Office blacklisted several Indian diamond trading firms for their Israeli transactions.

The 1987 indictment of India by the ADL, that was highly critical of New Delhi’s stance on Israel, is said to have influenced Gandhi’s policy making. R. Gandhi’s decision to host the 1987 Davis Cup quarter-final matchup against Israel, while not underscoring any dramatic changes, sparked a lively debate about the prolonged absence of diplomatic ties with Jerusalem. Normalization gained momentum after R. Gandhi visited the US and met with several Jewish leaders in 1988, including Morris Abrams, Malcolm Hoenlin and Congressman Stephen Solarz (a strong advocate of a powerful India-Israel-US nexus and Indian issues in the US Congress). Shortly thereafter, the Israeli representation was elevated to the pre-1982 position of consul. Visa regulations were relaxed.

Not forgetting its commitment to the Arab cause, in the same year, India was the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestinian state declared by the PNC in Tunisia, and, just before aforementioned visit to the US, R. Gandhi even visited Syria, where he was warmly greeted by President Hafez al-Assad, and reaffirmed India’s support for the Arab cause. In 1989, India hosted an ADL delegation and also Stephen Solarz.

All of these high-profile meetings are said to have had a great deal of influence on Rajiv Gandhi’s softening-up on India’s traditional anti-Israel stance. Furthermore, with China and the USSR (India’s ideological mentor) increasing collaboration with Israel, while being outwardly critical of its actions during the First Intifada, India had no reason to cling on to unrewarding sentimental commitments.

Palestinian violence during the First Intifada often rendered India’s moral support for Palestinian “resistance” difficult to justify and, as a result, some semblance of balance slowly crept in. The conflict was no longer viewed in zero sum terms. What was once referred to as the ‘Palestinian Liberation Struggle’ started accurately being labeled as ‘Palestinian TERRORISM’, a term rarely, if ever, used before in political circles.

With the INC’s defeat in 1989, and the resultant shaky governments’ pre-occupation with domestic perils, relations plateaued over the next two years. The INC victory of 1991 under PV Narsimha Rao saw a return to the prior normalization efforts, and in January 1992, after almost half a century of alienation, history was made when India formally established relations with Israel –- only two months after voting to repeal the shameful 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism at the UN.

BACKGROUND TO NORMALIZATION

The belated acceptance of the following two realities, that should have been obvious at the very start, were among the primary reasons for India’s gradual shift in policy:

•  No amount of deference to the Arab world would overpower its loyalties to Pakistan –- loyalties shaped by racism and religious supremacism.

•   Zionism was the liberation movement of the Jewish people, not even remotely akin to colonialism, imperialism, or racism; Israel was not a colonial power.

(The latter realisation sunk in only once India took off its pro-Soviet ideological blinders. I will expand on that topic in my next piece.)

Other influential factors were the decline of the Soviet Union (accompanied by the emergence of the US as a sole super power and the forging of strong US-Israel relations), the growing influence of the Indian diaspora community in the US (and its effort to build bridges between the two countries), the de-jure change of the PLO strategy towards Israel, the start of the Middle East peace process, the emergence of radical Islamism as a potent political force in the middle east (and the subcontinent), the liberalization of the Indian economy, the emergence of a powerful, business oriented Indian middle class that recognized Israel’s potential as a trading partner, Pakistan backed Islamic terrorism in India, and a change in India’s domestic politics.

CONCLUSION

India’s post-independence political opportunism and diplomatic animus toward Israel did not stem from any religious or cultural pre-disposition. It  was an over-conscientious expression of realpolitik — the act of what was then a fledgling, third world country confronted by some very powerful, well established, and hostile adversaries.

While the INC catered to the country’s large Muslim population, its post-1947 opposition to Zionism was not entirely a result of domestic appeasement. Defending itself from the acute, foreign existential threats was the priority, and not pacifying a “vote bank”. Soviet propaganda, and the Soviets’ self-proclaimed front runner status in the opposition to what it preached was Western “Imperialism” also played an important part in enticing India into Moscow’s pro-Arab stable.

Also, India’s policies were always in stark contrast to the sentiments of the overwhelming Hindu majority.

India eventually came to realize, rightly, that its interests lie in a reordering of its diplomatic allegiances and a reorientation toward Israel and the US, as no amount of appeasement to the Arab world would trump its religious affiliation with Pakistan — affiliation that guaranteed ceaseless support for Pakistan. As former Egyptian ambassador to India, Mustafa El-Feki, very aptly noted, the Arab world erred in that it “Islamized” the South Asian conflict — posing as protectors and custodians of Islam. The deeply sectarian prejudices and bigotry behind its support for Pakistan -– ironically, the entity that prompted India’s original pro-Arab bent — cost it dearly, while working fully to Israel’s advantage.

The year 1992 was the beginning of a new era.

In my next piece I will analyse the causes for India’s eventual rapprochement with Israel in detail.