How Colonialism 1st Shaped India’s Solidarity & Now Indifference To Palestine

Bitter fruits of British colonialism—India’s division in 1947 and expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland for Israel’s creation a year later—informed Indian policies towards Palestine until the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power in 2014

Bitter fruits of colonialism—India's vivisection and Palestinian dispossession—informed Indian policies towards Palestinians until the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power in 2014

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Eight years after exacerbating the Hindu-Muslim divide through religion-based electorates in India, the British in 1917 promised the European Zionist movement a national home for Jews in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration issued after the occupation of Jerusalem promised existing ‘non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ that ‘nothing shall be done’ to prejudice their civil and religious rights.

The promise was meant to be broken. The British did the opposite by encouraging Jewish migration to Palestine over the following decades. They increased the population of Jews there from 9% in 1922 to 27% in 1935 and began dispossessing native Arabs accounting for 90% of the Palestinian population in 1917 through demolitions under the garb of ‘urban regeneration.’ The Nakba (catastrophe) struck when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, were forced out of their homes in 1948 with Israel’s creation.

Around the time they were encouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine, the British deepened religious divisions in India as part of the divide-and-rule-policy, culminating in the redrawing of maps with disastrous consequences to this day. The departing British divided India based on religion in 1947 and triggered genocidal violence that left a million dead and 17 million displaced. The Palestinians were subjected to much worse. They lost their homeland altogether.

Zionist militias attacked Palestinian villages and forced Palestinians to flee after the UN General Assembly passed a resolution for partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state in November 1947 with Jerusalem under the UN administration. Israel declared independence with the departure of British forces and launched an offensive in Palestine that led to the permanent displacement of over half of the Palestinians a year later.

Besides losing their homes and land, the Palestinians also lost and way of life. Seventy-five years after their mass displacement and dispossession, over five million Palestinians remain scattered throughout the Middle East despite multiple UN resolutions for their return, property restitution, and compensation. Israeli settlements, evictions, land confiscation, and home demolitions continue to dispossess and displace them in Palestinian territories.

Shared Experiences

Bitter fruits of colonialism—India’s vivisection and Palestinian dispossession—informed Indian policies towards Palestinians until the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power in 2014. With antipathy towards Muslims at its core, the BJP admired Israel, Zionism, and their ruthless approach towards Palestinians long before it came to power.

India spurned Israel’s overtures for closer ties for over four decades of their creation as nation states due to New Delhi’s anti-colonial stance and bitter experience of its partition and Pakistan’s creation. Pakistan like Israel was founded based on religion, which Indian founding fathers were opposed to and prompted secular nationalism.

The plight of the Palestinians due to British imperialism shaped India’s sympathetic approach to Palestine. India did not even have a formal diplomatic relationship with Israel until 1992. India condemned Israel regularly and voted against it in the UN General Assembly.

Ariel Sharon’s visit, the first by an Israeli prime minister to India in 2003, triggered protests. The nature of India-Israel ties changed dramatically when the BJP was voted to power. India abstained from UN debates in 2015 and 2016 over alleged Israeli war crimes in 2014 in Gaza and whether Israel should be brought before the International Criminal Court over them.

India was unequivocal when it quickly sided with Israel after the deadliest incursion of Palestinian group Hamas, which the Israelis financed as a counterweight to the secularists and leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1980s, into Israel in decades in October 2023. Manjari Chatterjee Miller, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote India’s statement in Israel’s support, and its speed was striking. She noted India had no diplomatic relationship with Israel until 1992 while underlining New Delhi is not ‘a country known to be quick to choose sides in a crisis.’

Miller wrote the India-Israel relationship now spans a broad spectrum—from tourism to defense. She added some have even argued that BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and its alliance with far-right ultranationalists ‘have a common ethnonational, anti-Muslim ideology that has drawn the two countries closer together.’

Selective Shedding Of Colonial Legacies

The BJP has championed the shedding of remaining colonial legacies. But it has steadfastly held on to British colonialists’ legacy of demonization of Muslims, which they resorted to as part of their divide-and-rule policy. The British implemented the policy after the 1857 revolt threatened to end the rule in India, the jewel in the imperial crown that was key to the goal of making Britain the world’s sole superpower.

The British also took upon themselves the mission of pulling out people of their Asiatic territories from the ‘darkness’ they thought they had long been sunk in. Missionaries made most of the opportunity to make inroads into India and propagate what they thought was the rationality ’embodied in Christianity’ to challenge the ignorance and ‘superstition Asian religions’ entailed.

The British rulers sought to diffuse among Indians ‘the light of Truth’ through the imposition of British laws, religion, and values. India was not just to be ruled, it was also to be redeemed. The annulment of ‘local laws which offended Christian sensibilities’ was central to the redemption project.

The reformist zeal would stoke anxieties about a threat to Indian religious and social norms. By the 1850s, the fears would soon get mixed up with economic and political grievances. The introduction of Enfield rifles in the army provided the spark to light the fires of the rebellion in 1857. The cartridges for the rifles were greased with pig and cow fat. They had to be bitten off before use.

The cartridges offended both Muslim and Hindu soldiers since pigs are abominable for Muslims and Hindus consider cows sacred and their slaughter sacrilegious. The British ignored their objections and fuelled anger by imprisoning soldiers who had refused to use the cartridges. The anger boiled over in May 1857 when Indian soldiers turned their guns on their British officers to free their colleagues in Meerut.

The British proved no match to the Indian soldiers, who marched to Delhi, around 60 km away, in May 1857 hoping to strike the final blow to British rule under the guidance of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim. All but 7796 of 1,39,000 Indian troops revolted. Civilians joined the soldiers at many places to make it the largest and bloodiest anticolonial revolt against any European empire in the 19th century.

In a 2017 piece, Indian politician Shashi Tharoor wrote the British were horrified during the revolt to see Hindus and Muslims fighting side by side and under each other’s command against the foreign oppressor. He added they vowed this would not happen again. ‘Divide et impera was an old Roman maxim, and it shall be ours,’ wrote British official Lord Elphinstone.

Tharoor wrote a systematic policy of fomenting separate consciousness among Muslims and Hindus was launched with overt British sponsorship to prevent a unified nationalist movement that could overthrow the British. He added no one in any responsible position in Britain as late as 1940 had any serious intention of relinquishing the Empire or surrendering the jewel in His Majesty’s Crown to a rabble of nationalist Indians clad in homespun.

The idea of a separate Muslim homeland, which was dismissed as ‘chimerical and impractical’ in the 1930s, suddenly gathered steam with tacit British support to Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah for backing the British war effort. Jinnah revived a moribund Muslim League to rally support for Pakistan’s creation while his opponent Jawaharlal Nehru and other major proponents of a united India were jailed until the end of the war in 1945.

The Empire was bankrupt. It quit India two years later, but not before having Indians at each other’s throats. Discord had sustained British rule in India. It manifested as genocidal violence when it ended with the haphazard division of India. Tharoor wrote that bled, bombed, and battered for six years, Britain could divide, but it could no longer rule.

Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer who drew the unnatural border between India and Pakistan splitting homes, villages, fields, and rivers, had never visited the region before. He left immediately after completing the task in August 1947, barely five weeks after he had arrived in Delhi to draw the border. He knew little about the regions he was supposed to divide, and he did not have the luxury of time to study them.

Radcliffe spent most of the five weeks in a Delhi bungalow, struggling with heat and humidity. He relied on demographics and census tables for the division. Later, he would accept that it would have taken years to settle on a proper boundary, which considered natural features, canal headworks, communications, and culture. He would never return after finishing his task. Radcliffe suspected he would be shot if he did.

The scars of the partition and how their colonizers rode a roughshod over them shaped India’s attitude of solidarity with the Palestinians, who got the shortest end of the stick in the British zeal for redrawing borders. British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French lawyer-diplomat François Georges-Picot were to the Middle East what Radcliffe was to India.

In 1915, Sykes slid his finger across a map on a table he sat across with British Prime Minister H H Asquith to discuss the Middle East’s political future. Sykes told Asquith he would like to draw a line from Acre, now on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, to Kirkukin modern-day Iraq’s northern mountains region, on the map as their sphere of influence.

A year later, Sykes and Picot secretly hammered out an accord to formalise the scheme as their shared spoils of the First World War. They arbitrarily drew straight lines with, as Tarek Osman noted in a December 2013 piece on, a ‘crude chinagraph pencil’ and a ruler on the region’s map. The territories Sykes and Picot marked as ‘A’ went to France and ‘B’ to Britain, ignoring local identities and preferences. The pact created a geo-political order for the West’s benefit but spawned troubles that the region continues to grapple with.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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