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Prisoners in Palestinian homeland: Indian Muslims recall Gandhi, Nehru, and Vajpayee’s support for the plight of stateless Arabs

Country’s largest minority feels the days are long gone when New Delhi was the first non-Arab state to recognise Palestine

Over the years, Indian Muslims have silently watched their religion’s third-holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, be repeatedly defiled by Israeli forces and settlers, with innocent worshippers not being spared even during the holy month of Ramzan (Ramadan – RT).

In April, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed shock at Israeli security forces beating worshippers at the Muslim holy site, using stun grenades, tear gas, and sponge-tipped bullets, while elderly people and women were hit with batons and rifle butts. The casualties of such incursions are usually treated as footnotes.

During the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Indian Muslims watch on helplessly as Gaza is besieged. They hear Palestinians referred to as “animals,” as well as calls to “give ‘em hell” or to “finish them.”  They see 2 million people, including civilians, being collectively punished – cut off from food, water, and power, and being slaughtered in the dark. No refuge, no hospitals. The death toll, according to Al Jazeera, on Thursday crossed 1,200 on each side. The UN says over 237,000 Palestinians have been displaced.


They watch the Indian government’s decision to back Israeli forces, a dramatic shift from last November, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated New Delhi’s “unwavering support to the Palestinian cause” on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. That solidarity has now switched to Israel.

Kashmiri Muslims during a rally marking al-Quds Day (Jerusalem day) in Srinagar. Al-Quds day is is an annual pro-Palestinian event held on the last Friday of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan to express support for Palestinians and oppose Israel and Zionism.

©  Faisal Bashir/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Policy shift?

In 1974, India became the first Non-Arab State to recognize Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In 1988, India became one of the first countries to recognize the State of Palestine.


Even before India’s Independence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the “Father of the Nation,” was deeply sympathetic to Jews after their persecution by Germany’s Third Reich. He, however, opposed the imposition of the community on “Arabs in Palestine.”

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, felt the same despite a four-page letter from Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein pleading for a Jewish state. So, India opposed Israel’s creation at the United Nations and backed the rights of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

In 1977, future prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was then India’s foreign minister, disavowed any change in his government’s policy in the Middle East and clearly stated that Israel would have to vacate occupied Arab land.

Less than a decade ago, India called for talks between Israel and Palestine based on a two-state solution and backed a UN motion to probe Israel’s actions in Gaza.


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On the sixth day of the current violence, New Delhi reiterated its long-standing support for a “sovereign, independent, and viable state of Palestine.” 

“Our policy has been longstanding and consistent. India always advocated the resumption of direct negotiations towards establishing a sovereign, independent and viable state of Palestine, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel. I think that position remains the same,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told the media in New Delhi.

But his statement is hardly music to the ears of India’s large minority of Muslims, for whom Palestine has always been an emotive and politically sensitive issue.


Indian Muslims React

According to the 2011 census, India is home to around 200 million Muslims – roughly 14% of the country’s population. Globally, it has the third largest number of Muslims, behind Indonesia and Pakistan. Other communities include Christians, who make up about 6% of the population, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains.

Mahmood Asad Madani, the president of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, one of India’s leading Muslim organizations, has condemned the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine, especially the attacks on civilians in Israel and the bombardment of heavily populated residential areas in Gaza. In a statement, he appealed for an “immediate cessation of the war declared by Israel and urgent mediation.

“They are like prisoners in their own homeland,” Madani said, underlining the unwavering support for the Palestinian cause previously seen from Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Fellow Indian Muslim organization Jamaat-e-Islami Hind said in a statement that it was deeply concerned by the ongoing violence.


“It must not be forgotten that the current spate of violence is the result of Israeli aggression unleashed by the most right-wing (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu government against the Palestinians that has claimed the lives of hundreds of people including children,” the group’s president, Syed Sadatullah Husaini, said.

A Kashmiri Muslim holds a placard during a protest against Israel’s military operations in Gaza, on October 13, 2023, in Budgam, west of Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, India.

©  Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Shams Ur Rehman Alavi, who actively uses social media to highlight Muslims’ plight, claims the media and world leaders have turned “the issue of the suffering of the Palestinian people and the attack on Gaza as a tussle between Hamas and Israel, justifying the latter’s response while they conveniently ignore the humanitarian angle.”


Alavi has been targeted by the right-wing brigade for airing his views. “The government’s shift in policy hasn’t come as a surprise. We’ve been moving closer to Israel for decades now, a shift that accelerated after 2014. This sentiment was being reflected in TV debates, in newspapers and on the streets too.”

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Students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the state of Uttar Pradesh organized a march in support of Palestine and Hamas, but immediately saw a First Information Report lodged against four of the group.

Meanwhile, India’s main federal opposition Congress Party called for an immediate end to the violence, even as it condemned the “brutal attacks” against the people of Israel.


Palestine aggravates Indians’ lingering fears

In this intense communally charged atmosphere, some fear that Muslims may react, and this concern has been aggravated in light of what has happened in Palestine.

“So far, Muslims have taken a constitutional path and, I think, they would like to adopt the legal path in the future too,” says Neshat Quaiser, a former professor of sociology. “This is where Muslims belong. They have nowhere to go and they want to be here and they will be here. These things will pass, and change for the better.”

He says that nowadays, not only politics is communalized, but also everyday life. And yet, there are people who believe in pluralistic coexistence. “One has to remember that there are counter-intuitive forces at work. They are not visible or loud, but they exist. You cannot ignore these forces. You may call them democratic or secular forces. This syncretic tradition is alive despite the virulent politics. However, what is visible is the onset of communal politics in a big way.”

He recalls the case of a 56-year-old Muslim woman who had got off the bus to get water, and the bus left without her. When she was stranded in an unknown village, the local Hindus helped her. The bus was called back. “So there is hope,” he emphasizes.


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He also suggests that there should be concerted efforts to improve relations between communities.

“There should be some kind of mass contact between various communities. This is very important and Muslims have to play a crucial role, particularly the clergy and the elite, who control Muslim politics. Communalism is deep-seated and is rapidly spreading. The secular forces have to come together and check it,” he added.

Alavi too makes this point, stating: “The Muslim community is aware of the hatred that the right-wing harbors, but we must look at ways to deal with this.”


In his book ‘Being the Other: The Muslim in India’ (2022), journalist-author Saeed Naqvi insists that Indian Muslims must be freed from the clutches of clerics, just as Hindus need to turn away from communal politicians. But he is not sure if any of this will happen in his lifetime.

Indeed, the change in India’s policy towards Palestine does not bother Naqvi. It is an extension of what Indian Muslims are already going through. “Muslims cannot be treated any worse than how they are being treated already,” he says.

Jamia Millia Islamia students protest against the release, following a recommendation by a Gujarat’s state government panel, of men convicted of gang-raping Bilkis Bano during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, in New Delhi India on August 24, 2022.

©  Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


Decoding the Indian Muslim

Quaiser says for any fruitful analysis, one has to first understand what we mean by “Indian Muslims.” In most political discourse, Muslims are viewed as a homogenous category. Of the 200 million Muslims in India, 85% are poverty-stricken and politically disenfranchised. The remaining 10-15% are elite with a say in politics, and are to blame for their current plight.

Prof Zillur Rahman founded the Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences in Aligarh over two decades ago to uplift this downtrodden section of Muslims. Apart from an impressive collection of books and journals which run into several hundred thousand, he set up museums to showcase the glorious past of Muslims – especially the works of scholars such as Ibn Sina, who caught the attention of the West.

“Known as Avicenna in the West, he wrote extensively on medicine, astronomy, geography and geology, Islamic theology, mathematics and physics. His works have been translated into all major languages and a lot of countries have laid claim to his distinguished lineage. The Muslim community should worry about their deep descent into ignorance,” says Rahman.

He has also opened the doors of his house and library, which spills onto several levels of his residence-cum-academy, to the disadvantaged sections of society. “Often these students come up to me and tell me that they have cleared a competitive exam or found themselves a decent job. We need more interventions like this,” he adds.


Muslims on the backfoot

Apart from the blatant physical attacks, there has been an economic boycott of Muslims, history textbooks are being rewritten, and the names of buildings and streets are being changed to wipe out Muslim history.

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“The specter of the Muslim threat has become so widely disseminated that Muslims are constantly on the backfoot. Muslims from all socio-economic backgrounds and from nearly all schools of thought are constantly asked to condemn the action of every loony out there and to defend Islam because of the practices of a particular group of people who might actually not be anything like them and this is leading to a kind of trauma in people,” says Ali Khan Mahmudabad, historian, political scientist, and author of ‘Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950’.

“Imagine being held accountable for your immediate family members or your direct ancestors’ deeds, let alone the actions of millions of living and dead Muslims. Every Muslim today is held responsible for the misdeeds – real or imagined – of anyone who might have been Muslim for the past 1,400 years,” notes Khan.


Muslim identity is reduced to religious identity, and ignored is the fact they are also parents, neighbors, laborers, thinkers, athletes, chefs, and an almost infinite number of other things. Khan says it is a precarious balancing act for any Muslim who is politically liberal but religiously devout.

“I cannot remember the number of times I have been asked point blank with a straight face whether I am a devout or a practicing Muslim, which in my view is a deeply personal question that normally wouldn’t be asked of people from other communities,” Khan says.

It has come to a state of affairs where some hide their piety. Khan says that in India, the situation is becoming bleaker and people are changing the way they dress, what they carry in their lunchbox, what they name their child, and when they step out of their house.

October 14, 2023 at 12:01PM


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