After considerable vacillation that brought little credit to the world’s largest democracy, the Indian parliament is now set to discuss the violence and bloodshed in Gaza on Monday, July 21.
Earlier, even as the spiral of violence continued, the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said: “We have diplomatic ties with both nations. Any discourteous reference to any friendly country can impact our relations with them.”
Rejecting the demand by the opposition to have debate on the subject, Swaraj wrote to Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari urging him not to allow the debate on procedural grounds. However, Ansari correctly opined that the rules quoted by the Minister related to motions on matters of public importance and not to the short-duration discussion that was listed and added: “I am unable to accede to the request of the honourable minister.”
One must commend the Chairman for taking such a principled stand, for it does not behove a democracy like India to deny even a discussion on a development that is horrific and anguishing when even the Israeli media has allowed the matter to be debated.
Consequent to the abduction of three Israeli teenagers in mid-June and the subsequent discovery of their bodies, Israel has unleashed a concerted military attack to punish the perpetrators – the Hamas. The latter has denied any involvement in the death of the Israeli teenagers but given the latent and deep-seated hostility that prevails in the region and the emotive tinder-box that the death of the teenagers had become – the cycle of violence soon escalated.
Almost 400 Palestinians have been killed since the Israeli military offensive commenced and Shejaiya, east of Gaza, is the most recent site of the violence, where 40 people were killed in an Israeli attack on Sunday. Hamas has been retaliating – ineffectually – and continues to fire rockets into Israel, with the Israeli city of Ashkelon being the most recent target.
The UN has called for an end to the bloodshed – in vain – and the US which is the most active player in the Israel-Palestine impasse has sought to maintain a fine balance, even while empathizing with Israel. This stems from the antipathy it has for the Hamas as a terrorist organization that does not recognize the Jewish state and is committed to the destruction of Israel.
There is reason to be wary of any terrorist group that refuses to shun wanton violence and the Hamas will have to transform itself to be seen as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian cause. But in the current logjam, where lives are being lost on an hourly basis, the basic tenets of conflict resolution demand an immediate end to the violence by ALL the perpetrators.
This is the exhortation that one expected from the Indian parliament – and greater the pity that the loudest voices in the Indian political establishment over the last week have been characterized by venal politics and petty finger-pointing.
It is evident that there are no clear black and white choices in the tangled mess that Palestine has become but this should not cloud one from the deplorable reality that is now Gaza. Those who have visited the region describe it as a wretched 21st century concentration camp created by the Israeli security establishment.
Since the courageous decision taken by then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao after the end of the Cold War, Delhi has sought to maintain good relations with both Palestine and Israel and has refused an either/or choice for good reason. And this decision by India to straddle both sides of the religious divide is not of recent origin.
Writing in the Harijan newspaper, which he edited, in November 1938 on the vexed Palestine issue, Mahatma Gandhi declared that “my sympathies are all with the Jews… but my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice.” World War II was a year away and the world was yet to become aware of the scale of the persecution that befell the Jews and the enormity of the Holocaust and the Gandhi view merits recall.
In the same article, he continued: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.”
Much water and blood has flown since 1938 and the Jewish state is a reality, in much the same manner that Pakistan is – even though Gandhi was opposed to the idea. Political reality unfolds with its own inexorable dynamic and the end of the colonial era imposed many irrational politico-geographic inequities that cannot be wished away.
The debate in the Indian parliament will benefit from a recall of the spirit and letter of the Mahatma’s reflections. His reference to Germany is instructive. “Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism. It is also showing how hideous, terrible and terrifying it looks in its nakedness. Can the Jews resist this organised and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is.”
Substitute the identity of the oppressor and the oppressed to the present context and the plight of the inhabitants of Gaza is as heart-rending as the Jewish experience in the run up to 1939.
What is the Gandhian way ahead ? The Mahatma suggests: “Let the Jews who claim to be the chosen race prove their title by choosing the way of non-violence for vindicating their position on Earth. Every country is their home, including Palestine, not by aggression but by loving service. A Jewish friend has sent me a book called “The Jewish Contribution to Civilization” by Cecil Roth. It gives a record of what the Jews have done to enrich the world’s literature, art, music, drama, science, medicine, agriculture… He can command the attention and respect of the world by being the chosen creation of God, instead of sinking to the brute who is forsaken by God. They can add to their many contributions the surpassing contribution of non-violent action.”
July 2014 is not November 1938 and Gandhi need not be the last word on Palestine. Yet the Indian parliament could burnish its own profile and reflect the empathy and dilemma of those who are concerned at the clinical ruthlessness that has seized the Israel-Hamas contestation. An objective discussion that leavens principle and truth with pragmatism and humility may yet create a framework to quarantine the violence that threatens to engulf the blighted region.
Before the debate begins, Chairman Ansari ought to encourage his flock to read Harijan of November 1938.