Lack of moral clarity in India’s stance

India’s position on Israel’s war has confused the world.We have tied ourselves in knots trying to balance the two sides’ concerns. Ireland has struck a better balance
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The October 7 terror attacks by Hamas militants, which killed 1,400 Israelis and abducted 200 more, broke open a long stalemate in the 75-year-old Palestine crisis.  The subsequent military reaction of the Israeli state has involved relentless and bloody bombardment of Gaza, with much of the territory reduced to rubble, Palestinian homes, schools, hospitals and refugee camps damaged or destroyed, near-total power and communications blackouts, over 1.4 million people displaced and over 10,000 killed, including a mind-numbing 4,000 children.

At a time when many nations, including some of Israel’s closest allies, have urged Tel Aviv to cease the lethal assault and allow for a humanitarian ceasefire that would allow precious relief to reach those affected, India’s position has been, to put it mildly, confused. It has departed starkly from its historical position as a voice of restraint and displayed a dismaying absence of moral clarity.

Let’s take stock of the government’s response so far. Soon after the first attacks by Hamas, Prime Minister Modi issued a statement of unqualified support to Israel, tweeting that India stood in “solidarity with Israel in this difficult hour”. A second tweet soon followed in similar vein. At one level, this was understandable: as a victim of cross-border terrorism itself, India could not possibly condone terror. But it was incomplete, since it made no mention of the rights of the Palestinian people suffering a dehumanising and suffocating Israeli occupation, nor did it reiterate India’s traditional emphasis on the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in dignity and security behind secure borders, in their own lands.

When Israel’s war of retribution started, the silence of the PM and his government’s reluctance to issue a similar statement of support for the beleaguered people of Palestine marked a departure from our historical commitment to the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. It was only later that the foreign ministry, in a press briefing, took corrective action and voiced support for the “resumption of direct negotiations towards establishing a sovereign, independent and viable state of Palestine, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel”. But this dissonance within the Indian stand would only get worse.

When the UN General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to call for an “immediate, durable and sustainable humanitarian truce”, India chose to abstain on the grounds that the resolution failed to condemn the October 7 attacks.  But several other countries including France—historically an ally of Israel—had voted for the resolution while deploring its failure to condemn terrorism in a speech explaining their vote. India could easily have done the same. But the land of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace, failed to vote for a ceasefire, implicitly condoning the continued blood-letting.

Only a few days earlier, PM Modi had spoken with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to convey his condolences for the loss of innocent lives at the bombing of the Al-Ahli hospital. Though Abbas is in Ramallah and has no control over Gaza, since he heads the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to which Hamas is unalterably opposed, Modi no doubt believed this would redress the balance that had been disturbed by his uncritical support for Israel. India then announced Modi had “reiterated India’s longstanding principled position on the Israel-Palestine issue”. To make India’s muddled position even more puzzling, the PM, who has made no secret of his close friendship with Israeli PM Netanyahu, began this week with a telephone call to the president of Iran, Hamas’s principal backer. Since Hamas is Israel’s sworn enemy and Abbas’s rival, this completed the circle of confusion on India’s stance.

While the Indian government, which was one of the first to recognise the Palestinian state in 1988, and the first non-Arab state to recognise the PLO in 1974, appears to have tied itself into knots on Gaza, an instructive comparison comes from Ireland. Though a European state, Ireland sees itself as a former colony of Britain, well-versed in both the pillage of imperial rule as well as the destructive forces of sectarian conflict, just as India is. For these reasons, Ireland’s position could easily have been India’s. The Irish half-Indian Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, while accepting Israel’s right to defend itself, balanced his solidarity with an essential qualification: “...but Israel doesn’t have the right to do wrong”.

In keeping with Ireland’s longstanding support for the Palestinian cause—including as the first EU member to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state—Ireland has distinguished itself from the rest of the EU by going farther than the EU’s call for a “humanitarian pause” and demanding a permanent and sustainable ceasefire.  And it voted in favour of the UN resolution. As commentators have pointed out, its solidarity with the Palestinian people can be partly explained through the prism of the nation’s own lived experience, its familiarity with the dehumanisation imposed by occupation being the foremost. But in balancing those historical realities with recognition of the justifiable anguish within Israel, Ireland has managed to both stay consistent with the moral values on the larger question of the Israel-Palestine relationship, while also condemning the destructive force of violence emanating from both sides of the conflict. Ireland’s stand could so easily have been India’s, had Modi possessed the moral clarity of Varadkar.

The contrast between Ireland’s stand and the India’s uncertain dithering is stark. The supporters of the ruling dispensation have interpreted our statements as licence to further vilify Muslims at home and abroad, in line with the majoritarian triumphalism that has hijacked the Indian polity. This is all the more a pity given that we are among a handful of countries with ambassadors in both Ramallah and Tel Aviv, and might have been in a uniquely favourable position to work for peace as a result of the credibility we enjoyed on both sides. Right now, though, we have done just enough to leave everyone in doubt about what we really believe in. As one westerner, looking at our behaviour on both Ukraine and Gaza, asked me bluntly: “Why does your government even want a seat on the Security Council if it abstains on the hard choices on every issue?”

Shashi Tharoor, Third-term MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Sahitya Akademi winning author of 24 books, most recently Ambedkar: A Life

(office@tharoor.in)

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