Published in Al Jazeera. 26 August 2015

Once a champion of the Palestinian cause, India should now use its deepening diplomatic relations with Israel to press for an independent Palestinian state, critics say.

Zikrur Rahman – a former Indian representative to Palestine – was one of 10 delegates at a Solidarity with Palestine convention last weekend, which was held to mark the first anniversary of Israel’s attack on Gaza.

“India does not have to sever its ties with Israel, but why should it give up its stand of supporting the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine?” Rahman told Al Jazeera.

“Palestine has never been detrimental to Indian national interest,” he said, adding India should use its position as the second-largest buyer of Israeli arms to pressure Israel to end its decades-old occupation of Palestine.

“All Palestine demands is 22 percent of historic Palestine. India should play a proactive role in supporting the demand,” said Rahman.

Patronage to neglect

Though India recognised Israel in 1950, diplomatic relations were established only in 1992.

“Prior to the 1990s, there was popular support, as well as official patronage for the Palestinian struggle. Members of the Congress and the left were vocal on solidarity platforms,” said journalist Sukumar Muralidharan, who has written extensively on India-Palestine relations.

“But these platforms lost their political backbone in the 1990s. Now it is only the left and some individuals from other parts of the political spectrum that still support the [Palestinian] struggle.”

Muralidharan traced the transition to the rightward political shift and rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 1990s.

“The 1990s were a period of unrest in Kashmir, and the BJP and the mainstream media, which had no time for complexity, began increasingly to see both Palestine and Kashmir under the rubric of Islamic militancy. Following [India’s] 1998 nuclear tests, there was a big expansion in defence budgets, and India began buying increasingly from Israel,” Muralidharan said.

Guns and butter

Military ties with Israel continued under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance as well. But the victory of the BJP in 2014 led to a decisive shift, with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving clear indications of its desire to be a close ally of Israel.

India recently abstained from voting on a UN report that indicated the possibility of war crimes committed by both sides, especially Israel, during the 2014 Gaza assault – resulting in allegations of India having withdrawn its support for Palestine.

The Palestinian ambassador in India expressed shock and said the abstention was a departure from India’s traditional position, and the move was affected by India’s growing military ties with Israel.

The spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs could not be reached for comment.

The Indian government said in a statement, however: “There is no change in our policy of extending traditionally strong support for the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel.”

Currently ties between India and Israel are extensive – spanning defence, agriculture, trade, infrastructure, water, technology, and culture.

Forgetting Palestine

Popular mobilisation in India on the issue of Palestine has sharply declined over the years. While there were protests and solidarity events in 2014 over the attack on Gaza, they were not widespread.

For members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, organising the August 22-23 convention proved to be an uphill battle.

Satyam Varma, a member of the organising committee, described “threats and psychological pressure” to not hold the event, which was attended by about 350 people.

“We started receiving calls from law and enforcement agencies and right-wing organisations. Some callers wanted to know why we were supporting Palestine, others wanted to know if the organisers were Hindu or Muslim, and how many Muslims would attend,” Varma said.

Shweta Kaul, another committee member, blamed the media for not detailing the plight of the Palestinian people.

“Even educated people do not know about what is happening in Palestine,” Kaul said. “Much of the mainstream media has an ahistorical perspective of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Existing coverage tries to provide a ‘balanced’ picture, which misleads readers.

“We are organising this convention to build awareness about the situation in Palestine and why it needs India’s support.”

Flourishing ties

Israeli embassy spokesman Ohad Orsandi told Al Jazeera he was not aware of what was said at the two-day gathering.

“The Palestine solidarity convention was an Indian event, of which I do not have details. I do not see where Israel sits in this.”

Orsandi added: “Relations among India, Israel and Palestine is far from a zero sum game. India’s support for Palestine is not affected by its flourishing ties with Israel. This used to be joined in the past, but not any more.”

A Palestinian official in India, Yasser Dahlan, urged Indian officials to use their relations with Israel to promote the Palestinian cause.

“India was the first non-Arab state to recognise Palestine [Palestine Liberation Organisation]. We want India to play a positive role in putting pressure on its friend, Israel – with whose leaders it has a personal relationship – for a sovereign state of Palestine based on 1967 borders and on international agreements.”

Cover photo: Urvashi Sarkar

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