In September 2010, a landmark conference titled “A Just Peace for Palestine” held in New Delhi, India ended with a clear call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as a strategy for realizing justice for Palestinians. The conference was co-organized by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, the All India Peace and Solidarity Organization, and the recently established Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, (INCACBI). The conference ended with a resolution that called upon “the Indian government to end its military ties with Israel and return to its earlier commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people.” The conference also affirmed, “the world must declare that Israel is an apartheid state. It must call for global boycott and sanctions on Israel as long as it continues its illegal occupation of Palestine and its apartheid policies.” The resolution appealed to “people in India to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign as a show of solidarity with the Palestine people and their just struggle.” A plan of action was announced, in which several steps to show solidarity with Palestinians were outlined, particularly the launching of BDS campaigns and other measures by people’s action groups in the Asian region.
One of the speakers at the 2010 Conference was Achin Vanaik. Vanaik is a long-time activist and scholar. He is an active member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). His books and writings range from studies of India`s political economy, issues concerning religion, communalism and secularism as well as international contemporary politics and nuclear disarmament. Among his prominent publications are The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity, and Secularization (Verso, 1997); New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament (Interlink Publishing Group, 1999); and The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India (Verso, 1990). Most recently he is a contributor to From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (Leftword Press, 2014), the first book published in India to make an historical and political argument for Indian support for BDS against Israel.
In this electronic interview, Vanaik assesses the national, political and geopolitical factors structuring India’s present relationship to Israel, the need for solidarity with Palestinian self-determination, and the prospects for an expanded BDS movement in India.
Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill V. Mullen (TB&BM): What is the state of the INCACBI movement in India today?
Achin Vanaik (AV): One must distinguish between INCACBI (Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) whose focus is narrower than that of other broader solidarity networks on Palestine. These are of three types. You have the Palestine Solidarity Committee, basically controlled by the two mainstream left parties, the CPM and CPI with representatives from their women’s wings, other affiliated bodies plus some sympathetic prominent academic, journalist and cultural figures. It is there as an umbrella body to organize seminars and solidarity programs on Palestine in India, offer support to international solidarity actions, and to put pressure on the Indian government regarding its military and trade ties with Israel.
You then have the India-Palestine Peoples Solidarity Forum in which specifically religious Muslim organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami play a very big role since they have a faith-based mass following, have considerable financial and other resources and relatively close ties with Islamic states in West Asia including Iran and others. On occasions such as the assaults on Gaza, this Forum could bring several thousand followers out on to the streets of Mumbai. This forum in collaboration with other Muslim organizations in Asia (and Islamic governments) organized in 2011 the First Asian Convoy to Gaza where over 50 of the contingent of around 120 were Indians and went on an 8000 km bus trip via Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to Gaza. Other groups and networks have tensions with this Forum because of the support of some of its key components for oppressive Personal Laws and their largely uncritical support of certain Islamic regimes. This limits but does not totally exclude a degree of cooperation.
The third category comprises independent civil society bodies such as the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), India, which rejects nuclear weaponization and energy, works for South Asian people-to-people solidarity, and opposes the illegal occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine; certain civil liberties groups in states like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, and metropolises like Hyderabad which have, among their other activities, sought to highlight the Palestinian cause. Their work generally takes the form of publication of materials in local languages and holding of college and public seminars. In collaboration with others including the mentioned networks, there have even been from time to time a few international conferences usually held in New Delhi which have been attended by Palestinian and other anti-Zionist notables, e.g. Mustafa Bhargouti, Suad Amiry, Ilan Pappe, Michel Warshawski which at least get coverage in the mainstream media presenting some degree of criticism of the Indian government and of an Israel which otherwise receives regular and favorable treatment in that media.
Also, sociocultural groups like the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) and Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD) in the summer of 2014 organized open-air public cultural events in New Delhi in solidarity with the Gaza victims of “Operation Protective Edge”. What was encouraging was that while the events were predominantly filled with musical and theatre performances and readings, they did feature very short speeches from various political leaders from the left and some regional parties, as well as short solidarity messages from representatives of an array of groups which though having their own focus of activity from tribal rights to issues concerning domestic violence, for the first time came together to protest. Clearly, the sheer horror of what Israel was doing has generated wider humanitarian concern with the Palestinian cause, especially among a younger generation relatively unfamiliar with this history.
INACBI besides lending support to solidarity actions by others, itself focuses on opposing institutionalized forms of academic and scientific cooperation between India and Israel and on cultural boycotts and appeals to prominent Indian and international figures like Amitav Ghosh and Ian McEwan not to legitimize Tel Aviv and therefore refuse the honors offered to them (the Dan David and Jerusalem Prizes respectively) and to Indian artists to reject performance invitations. One success was the 2012 cancellation of an earlier announced Zakir Hussain musical performance in Israel. Here at home INCACBI has organized an exhibition of posters, photos, videos and films on and by Palestinians and this also constitutes a resource base for others to use. One earlier initiative was brought to fruition in 2014 by the publication of the book From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity. INCACBI is small but growing and now has an all-India coordinator.
TB&BM: Before independence both Gandhi and Nehru viewed the Palestinians as a colonized people. India opposed the proposal for a state of Israel at the United Nations in 1948. After independence Nehru recognized Israeli statehood. In the early 1990s India began to develop friendly relations with Israel as it turned towards neoliberal economic policies. How does this history affect political consciousness in India today regarding the Israeli Occupation and Palestinian self-determination.
AV: After India became a prominent member of the Nonaligned Movement and declared its own official foreign policy as one of nonalignment it could hardly be seen as endorsing colonial-type behavior and therefore strongly condemned the illegal occupations after the 1967 war. There was however some covert sharing of information between the two countries’ intelligence services from the late seventies onwards justified in the name countering Pakistan. But the secrecy was also testimony to an India not wishing to change its overall political posture towards Israel. In the eighties India began to economically liberalize and there was the rise of the Hindutva right in the latter part of that decade pulling the Congress to the right on social and cultural issues as well. As it was, Indian nonalignment over the seventies and eighties was really a covering label for an ever stronger economic tilt to the West and a slowly eroding strategic tilt towards the USSR. Once the latter collapsed, the shift towards neoliberalism accelerated and the search for strategic friendship and later strategic partnership with the US emerged. Concomitantly, the Indian elite within and outside the Congress, let alone the Hindutva right, were increasingly pushing for a ‘revaluation’ of ties with Israel. The Congress government in power after the 1991 elections established full diplomatic relations in 1992 and could legitimize this after the 1993 Oslo Accords. Why should India be more ‘Arab’ than some of the Arab states or more ‘Palestinian than Arafat’?
In a backward and highly unequal capitalist society where mass preoccupations were never focused on foreign policy or international issues, mainstream views were essentially shaped by the state and an elite-controlled media getting increasingly corporatized and largely supportive of the rightwards shift on the economic and foreign policy fronts. Solidarity activities with Palestine up until more recently in the new millennium, has never been an affair of independent civil society movements. The Congress party which has been the ruling force for most of the post-independence era would on occasions, officially sanction solidarity actions of some sort. Even the left parties which remain more genuinely committed to the Palestinian cause basically decide top-down the form, duration and content of their solidarity actions. The rise of the right especially among the growing middle class has further shrunk the liberal space and most of the prominent liberal intellectual voices (leave aside the more hard-nosed ‘strategic experts’) endorse in the name of realism and the national interest, the shift in the economic and foreign policy paradigms and at best are mildly, superficially and infrequently critical of the US and Israel. The overall result is that whenever today there are Indian voices raised that are aggressively critical of Israel and of India’s relationship with it, these are invariably labeled as coming from Muslims or leftists. The problem is that this is largely correct!
TB&BM: Hindu nationalism has always aligned itself with Israel by declaring both India and Israel partners in the fight against Islamic ‘terrorism.’ Can you comment on this history and how it might affect efforts to build a BDS movement in India today.
AV: Jews in India are utterly insignificant numerically and almost non-existent now. They pose no threat to Hindu Nationalists of the kind that they perceive coming from, say Christians who are less than 3% of the total population of the country. Moreover, Hindutva–the strongest form of Hindu nationalism (there are milder and more partial variants of the same theme to which some would say that Gandhi’s thought has also made contributions)—does see Israel and Zionism through the prism of its hatred for Islam and Muslims. Moreover, Israel is admired as a garrison state with a garrison mentality that has militarily asserted itself successfully against Muslim neighbors from time to time since 1948. It is thus also seen as having gone down a path which Hindutva must emulate except on a much large scale. After all, a key dictum of Savarkar who is one of Hindutva’s key intellectual progenitors is that if India is to become strong then one must “Unite Hindus and Militarize Hinduism”! Savarkar called the formation of Israel in 1948 “joyous” and condemned at the time the Indian opposition to this in the United Nations.
Actually, there is a misinterpretation in Hindutva circles about Zionism, which is in essence, anti-Palestinian, rather than anti-Muslim. The bogey of Islamic terrorism is relatively new and the more recent leadership of Israel has seen the political value of riding piggy back on the growing demonization of Islam and Muslims in Europe and elsewhere (including India) as a way of rationalizing its own brutalities and determined refusal to seek any kind of a just settlement. So Hamas is a terrorist organization which cannot be trusted or negotiated with; building the Apartheid Wall is justified in the name of curtailing terrorist attacks when over seventy percent of it snakes into the West Bank to make land and water grabs more permanent.
Building solidarity with Palestine and with the BDS movement means that one has to also take up and expose in one’s activities, this ridiculous ‘war on terror’ which militarizes any attempt to address the genuine problem of terrorism (state and non-state) and thereby justifies violence and terrorism on a much grander scale by states like Israel and the United States (and not only them) in the name of fighting another kind of violence and terrorism. Exposing this fraudulent banner is, in the case of Israel made somewhat easier by the sheer scale, depth and brazenness of its violent actions. Whenever Hindutva tries to rationalize Israeli behavior in the name of fighting Islamic terrorism the solidarity movement here will need to seek various ways to reverse the accusation highlighting the fact that in India it is the forces of Hindutva that are responsible for exercising communal terror. More than 85% of all victims in communal riots, clashes and pogroms are Muslim when they are about 13% of the total population. Obviously there is some overlap between Palestinian solidarity and anti-communal activism here.
TB&BM: India buys more of its weapons from Israel than any other state. How can activists link the efforts to demilitarize the Indian state to a campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel.
AV: The Indian government buys military equipment from Israel not the reverse because it is Israel that has the superior technologies. A campaign calling on the government not to do this or to pursue other forms of military-related engagements–the left parties already do this–cannot then be separated from the larger focus on India’s more general foreign policy needs, ambitions and directions. That kind of campaign has its own dynamic. There was a furor raised by the left parties about bribes and underhand dealings between Israeli defense equipment suppliers and Indian procurers which did for a time create legal and political obstacles delaying the deals, but no more. Moreover such an approach useful and necessary as it is also tends to prioritize the issue of corruption rather than indicting the overall military relationship between the two countries.
The Indian government has already declared that it wants to build a military–industrial complex with far greater involvement than ever before of Indian and foreign companies producing defense related equipment and services. This also means there will be greater private sector collaboration between Indian and foreign, for example with US and European giants and no doubt with Israeli companies as well. One will be unhappy over this general thrust towards greater militarization and oppose it but it still would be necessary to distinguish between this and a more specific and focused BDS campaign against Israeli firms and their Indian private sector partners, for which profits rather than national security is the primary consideration. The two prongs are separate but also linked. Opposition to the first wider issue of militarization brings in various groups and movements concerned about development needs of different sections of society being subordinated to wasteful spending on military priorities. Then there are the concerns of peace groups opposed to arms racing with Pakistan as well as feminist concerns about the patriarchal-masculinist assumptions inherent in the promotion of militarism as an ideology. This can thus create a wider catchment area for recruitment towards campaigning on the second prong.
TB&BM: The BJP was instrumental in helping to push for stronger ties with Israel in the early 1990s on the basis of a shared ethno-nationalist project of standing against Islam. How does Modi`s recent election to Prime Minister complicate or motivate efforts to building a grassroots campaign for BDS and solidarity with Palestinian self-determination efforts.
AV: I have already pointed out that both have an ethno-nationalist project of their own even though, currently, there is an overlapping discourse of denouncing Islamic terrorism. But Zionism is directed against Palestinian nationalism not Islamic nationalism in general. Saudi Arabian Wahhabi nationalism is not a problem for either Tel Aviv or Washington. Whereas since the beginning of the nineties the Congress party has wanted closer ties with Israel for strategic-military reasons, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar (the larger cohort of Hindutva forces) add an ideological dimension to reinforce the relationship. It is not a coincidence that the military relationship took a qualitative leap during the 1999 armed conflict with Pakistan in Kargil or that the first ever official visit by an Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to India took place in Sept. 2003 under a BJP-led coalition government of the so-called moderate Atal Behari Vajpayee. It is quite likely that Modi will be the first ever Indian Prime Minister to make an official visit to Israel.
Of course solidarity with Palestine demands opposition to any such development but its effectivity here will also be connected a) to how the Palestinian leaderships would respond to such a development–whether they will go along with this howsoever reluctantly or unhappily; and b) how other Arab governments would react. That is to say, what could act as a restraint on Modi’s determined efforts to shift away from even the currently ‘for form’s sake’ stand of India on Palestinian rights, would be strategic considerations regarding the extent to which such a trip to Israel could negatively affect its relations with Iran and the Arab World. Similarly, while the growing trilateral strategic relationship with Israel and the United States pushes in one direction, if developments over the coming period in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region make life more difficult and complicated for the geopolitical ambitions of the US then this clearly acts as a restraining factor on the momentum of this trilateral relationship.
There is another important consideration. The earlier NDA period of coalition rule led by the BJP (1998-2004) not only actively wooed the upper class Indian diaspora in the US but sought to connect it to the powerful AIPAC which it could seek to both emulate as a lobby group, and to collaborate with. The previous Congress-led governments continued along this path but Modi will invest even more in strengthening such forms of collaboration. There is then an obvious and organic connection between the efforts of anti-Zionist and anti-Hindutva groups in the US and pro-Palestinian solidarity groups in India.
TB&BM: Since the 1980s, India is increasingly emerging as the stable sub-imperialist ally of the United States in South Asia. This is clearly the backdrop to India`s increasing strategic intimacy with Israel. Do you see the general fight against US imperialism in India aiding or feeding into the struggle for justice for Palestine?
AV: Of course this is necessary. This point has been stressed earlier and is very important. Democratic upsurges in West Asia and North Africa, political defeats of the US, the undermining of authoritarian Arab regimes—all help to change the relationship of regional and geopolitical forces in favor of progressive struggles in the region generally, and the Palestinian cause specifically. Success in achieving genuine national liberation and Palestinian self-determination, or the unmaking altogether of Israel as a Zionist entity, would carry a profound democratic charge which autocratic Arab regimes are deeply frightened of. Thus, it is not just the struggle against Israel’s iniquities that is important. In fact, the factors that can most diminish Israeli power can well come from outside the direct terrain of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In particular, any serious political weakening (it can be politically not military defeated) of the US and of its alliance structure with countries other than Israel (think of the implications of an overthrow of the Saudi regime!) would significantly increase the international isolation of Israel as well.
A weakened United States would also force India to rethink its geopolitical maneuverings which is not to say it would begin to seriously oppose the United States but that it would see value in somewhat loosening strategic strings with the United States while exploring other tie-ups. In this respect to call India a sub-imperialist power is in my view to see it as structurally ‘too subordinate’ to US imperialism. A more accurate characterization I would suggest of India is to see it as a ‘regional imperialist’ or given that Pakistan prevents it from establishing itself as the regional hegemon, as a regional imperialism in-the-making, By contrast the more powerful China is an aspiring global imperialist power yet far from replacing the global pre-eminence of a United States undoubtedly in relative but not necessarily absolute decline.
TB&BM: Thus far it appears that Left academics, cultural workers and students seem most inclined to organize within INCACBI. What steps need to be taken to widen the INCACBI movement to include trade unions and activists in other social movements, for example, people involved in anti-rape and women`s rights work? Specifically, how can workers be made to recognize the importance of economic boycott of Israeli-made goods, or to undertake direct actions (like the recent "Block the Boat" campaign in the Unite States to refuse to offload Israeli cargo).
AV: INCACBI’s specific focus means it will itself not serve as the primary vehicle for a more general BDS campaign but of course it will seek to stimulate and support the development of such a broader ranging campaign even if led by other networks. Also, there are obvious overlaps between the memberships of other broader Palestine solidarity groups and that of INCACBI. If the TUs controlled by the left parties are to be involved in a BDS campaign the responsibility to make such a call will for the most part have to come from the party leaders themselves. Any attempt to bypass this leadership to appeal directly to rank-and-file would on the Palestine issue, where the left parties have a good position and considerable capacities, be sectarian, counter-productive and unjustified. The National Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) is one of the few trade union federations that have something of an all-India presence and are not controlled by any political party. It can certainly be appealed to become part of such a campaign. But its impact will be limited insofar as its organizing presence is in, for example, tea plantations in West Bengal or in some small and medium-scale industries in Gujarat and elsewhere that have no economic connection with Israel either as supplier or buyer. In Europe certain Israeli companies whose production takes place in the illegally occupied territories have been identified and made the focus with some success of a BDS campaign. This is what we will need to emulate here even though the civilian products trade between Israel and India is nowhere near the level of what it is in Europe or the United States. Any Israeli product for general consumption which is made in the occupied territories and sold here can then be made the focus of a campaign that will be embarrassing for the Indian government given its official position on the illegally occupied territories.
I have already talked about how a more general campaign against the multiple evils, material and ideological, of rising Indian militarism can bring together a range of other progressive activist organizations on the peace, women and development fronts thereby also providing an entry point into a more specific BDS campaign against Israeli military supplies. There have been appeals from CNDP against Israeli support (the Green Pine Radar System) for Indian efforts to build a theatre missile defense system. INCACBI has made appeals to the Indian software giant, Infosys, to stop its collaboration with Israel.
TB&BM: What can international Palestine solidarity activists do to support efforts to build BDS in India? What resources can you recommend to help them understand India`s own historic efforts to build solidarity with the Palestinians?
AV: Insofar as we have yet to start a serious BDS campaign in India, the experiences of international activists, especially women, trade unionists, students giving us their experiences of how they went about initiating, developing and promoting such campaigns in their countries and among their own targeted sectors of the population would be of real practical help to activists here and for raising greater awareness among specifically targeted audiences among workers, students and teachers and for the general public.
The book From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity is a good primer for anyone wishing to get a sense of efforts at solidarity here. Otherwise as pointed out, the history of Indian solidarity has for the most part been an officially sanctioned one. Appeals can be made to what Gandhi and Nehru have said and done in the past, as also to other leaders and governments that followed, but that will only go so far.
In short, to fight successfully for Palestine we have to fight for much more than just Palestine, even as the heroic and continuous resistance of a remarkable people (not its leaders) is an invaluable asset for progressives everywhere in their struggles for greater global justice.