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Making sense of India's response to the Gaza crisis

Last updated on: August 12, 2014 17:49 IST

Gaza conflict'Earlier India as part of the Third World fought for the rights of the Palestinians. But oddly the defeat of the Congress and the decline of the Nehruvian imagination has altered such perceptions. The new middle class expresses an open sympathy for Israel, contending that Jews like many Hindus has been misunderstood,' says Shiv Visvanathan.

This essay is one Indian's response to Israel and the current crisis of Gaza. It is not an attempt to judge and condemn but to make some sense of India's response to it. I admit catastrophes often elude storytelling. One can read the classics on Hiroshima, the Gulag or Auschwitz and still feel something is missing. It is not the mistake of the story-teller.

The limits lie in the nature of the event. It keeps on demanding new stories -- a fragment, a morsel, an angle -- which has not been told. Gaza has had good story-tellers like Vijay Prashad and Sreenivasan Jain and yet there is a banalisation of Israel and Palestine which is disturbing.

Let me begin autobiographically. To a historian of science, Israel has a special fascination. It was the only country triggered by chemical research. Chaim Weizmann's work on acetone during WWI triggered Arthur Balfour into asking him what he wished for in return. Weizmann asks him for a homeland for the Jews. He refused Balfour's offer of Uganda contending memory, history and geography should meet. There was magic to the early Israel.

Everyone knows the Israeli State grew out of the Holocaust with the West and its sense of guilt over the camps. Yet it was a muddy solution because Israel became a sovereign State by rendering Palestine homeless. There was a bigger irony that few noticed at that time. The Israelis were embarrassed by the Holocaust survivors, incredulous that many had gone willingly to their deaths. The sabra (local born) was seen as a tougher specimen than the victim. Oddly, a lot of camp literature was sold as pornography in Israel. While the world mediated on the word genocide (a term invented by the jurist Raphael Lemkin), Israelis had developed a more problematic understanding of the Shoah (The Holocaust).

I was invited by Israeli scholars for a major conference on disasters. The conference allowed me to visit Ramallah, the Palestine section under Israeli control. I was aghast. I could not understand how a nation which had gone through so much suffering could impose so much brutality on another people. Ramallah functions like a Gulag where Palestinians face all forms of everyday harassment.

One has to also face the fact that Israel is intolerant of dissent even among its own people. Civil rights activists objecting to conscription are arrested in cycles, destroying any sense of their normality. The fundamentalism and fascism within the society add a sense of tragic irony to the old dreams of the socialist Kibbutzim.

Yet the Holocaust of the Jews also haunts us. Like many catastrophes, like Rwanda, Hiroshima, Kampuchea, the place by itself has a different resonance. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belsen are not a part of physical geography, a location with a territory. They are part of an emotional geography, of trails of suffering. One does not have to know where they are as location. They are travelling fragments of memory, consumed in different ways. In India, we consume Gaza and Israel at a distance. The tragedy is our narratives banalise it in several ways.

First the very fact of distance lets us banalise it. It becomes more a metaphor to battle with. Earlier Palestine had a history and India as part of the Third World fought for the rights of the Palestinians. But oddly, the defeat of the Congress and the decline of the Nehruvian imagination have altered such perceptions.

Firstly, the new middle class expresses an open sympathy for Israel contending that Jews like many Hindus have been misunderstood. Israel is seen as a sibling in violence as our two countries confront forces of terror. It is almost suggested that Israel has the machismo to fight terror which India does not.

Battles in social media revealed that one of the biggest sources of support for Israel came from the Hindu Right. There was also a pragmatic element as Israel was to collaborate with us in defence and agriculture.

Indians also project into Israel their own politics. The majoritarian Right has often felt that in the Leftist 'secular' scale of suffering, some forms of suffering were seen as more equal than others. The Left could value some forms of suffering, especially that of Muslims in Gujarat or Muzzafarnagar, talk of human rights in Kashmir but ignore the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits.

The fact that a people, a group of Hindus, are displaced from their homeland had little impact on the 'Left' theory of suffering. The Pandits lived as refugees fighting for survival, while rights groups erased them through silence.

Today the majoritarian Right fresh from electoral victory feels it has to pay back in kind. It claims that Palestine is overblown as an issue, that the Muslim reaction In India is knee-jerk and asks where was the Left when Kashmiri Pandits were being displaced. It is an amnesia, an indifference the Right cannot forgive.

There is a strange sense of injustice here. It is as if the world is divided into separate registers of suffering -- Right and Left. Each group tries to erase and ignore the narratives of suffering in the opposite list. It is as if the Left and Right can decide who can suffer. It is a strange calculus that when the Right comes to power Israel becomes the sibling, the other victim. The sadness is that justice is always one-sided and that suffering is allowed to speak only in particular ideologies.

This also banalises suffering. It creates a voyeurism around the Israeli massacres of Gaza. Palestinian groups are more like partisans fighting for a particular territory. To paint all of Palestinian Gaza as terrorist is historically unfair. It turns history into a stupid fiction for political use. It destroys the very principles of justice and judgment one needs to fight terror.

One cannot fight such surrogate wars, it demeans politics and fetishes some forms of suffering.

There is a deeper moral problem. There is no sense of ethical repair, no opportunity for injustice to be rectified, for people to rethink. Repair is a part of politics, of rectifying mistakes. The dualisms of suffering are so devastating that there is no dialogue, no conversation which lets us admit mistakes, apologise, and humbly make up for the wrongs of history.

Mistakes can be liberating, but here they become frozen around historical categories. Repair is not possible because we are not allowing for the possibilities of politics. Politics as an act of imagination can rectify this injustice.

In a sad way, India, middle-class majoritarian India, can rectify both the injustice we have done to the Kashmiri Pandits and the brutality inflicted on Palestine.

Democracy cannot only be restricted to the language of nation States. It has to speak the languages of people and allow Palestine and Israel not to replicate this spiral of suffering. By rectifying our warped ideas of justice and initiating ethical repair, one can repair borders, lives and weave a new imagination for peace in the Middle East.

However, this cannot be a mechanical act fought in terms of the old categories of nation State, security and territoriality. Civil society had to step in to add to the current imagination. One model was suggested in a different context by the trade union leader Ela Bhatt, a member of the council of elders, a team of wise people, who have thought of peace in terms of new weaves. She remarked that peace is not a suspension of hostilities. It is an attempt to link a notion of non-violence and gender to the everydayness of life and livelihood.

Such a peace demands we return to Palestine the peace of everydayness, where women can return to work, to homes, to their children, to their acts of caring. It allows for acts of healing, sharing, where everydayness returns to the Gaza Strip.

Peace is a set of concrete acts. It is a restoration of electricity to a neighborhood, it is the right to work, the right of the young to go to school, to dream of eating cooked food peacefully: To eat and play without expecting a missile to bombard your home and maul your future.

What we have traumatised in Palestine is the sense of the future. Peace within cannot be separated from peace without. Anything less would be unacceptable.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

Shiv Visvanathan