*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary


Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”


Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”


The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

*Ours But To Do and Die: The Culture and Politics of Death in India

Ours but to do and dieThe news that flashed across television screens a few days ago had a numbing familiarity about it:  ten people had been killed in a bomb blast outside the Delhi High Court, scores more were injured.  It was only some weeks ago that multiple bomb blasts, engineered by another terrorist outfit, caused havoc and panic in Mumbai, a city that, in the clichéd view, has learnt to rise above such atrocities and display a resilience that ought to put a dent in the armor of terror itself.  Since in this matter as in nearly all others the middle class Indians whose voices are heard in the media have embraced American idioms of expression and thought with a frightening fidelity, we have designated these dates as 26/11, 11/7, 7/9, and so on.  But, try as we might, our 26/11 or 11/7 or 7/9 can never have the resonance that 9/11 has come to acquire around the world, and that is not merely on account of the immense scale or gravity of what transpired when the Twin Towers were brought down and the Pentagon, the very seat of orchestrated terror masquerading as the guardian of world order, itself became susceptible to a sudden suicide attack.  The French have always displayed an admixture of admiration and disdain for things American; and, yet, when 9/11 occurred, Le Monde, the custodian of French intellectual republicanism, unequivocally declared that ‘Now we are all Americans’.  Are there people around the world who, after the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the 2007 terror strikes on Mumbai’s trains, or the Delhi High Court bomb blast, have been moved to say, ‘Now we are all Indians’?

Political commentators in India and its educated élites more generally have long complained that no one pays much attention to India’s claims that it is spectacularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  Indians like all others deplored the events of September 11, 2001, but some might have thought that the attacks would have the desirable effect of awakening the world to the threat of Muslim terrorists.  It cannot be doubted that the Hindu chauvinists who launched the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, barely six months after the attacks of September 11th, did so with the conviction that the world would barely take notice of atrocities that targeted Muslims –– among other things, September 11 succeeded remarkably well in rendering terrorism synonymous with Islamic terrorism.  The multi-pronged attacks on a number of Mumbai’s landmarks and buildings in 2008 were perhaps the first occasion when the world took notice of the problem of terrorism in India, but it is doubtful that the terrorist strikes this year, in Mumbai and Delhi, have created more than a fleeting impression.  No one outside India much cares, notwithstanding the customary messages of concern; in India itself, people have been inured to violence, and the threshold for what are considered acceptable levels of violence has been raised.

The most familiar part of the story, then, is very simply captured in the feeling that was often voiced in colonial times and is increasingly encountered in people’s anguished voices:  human life has little value in India.  There are variations on this argument, of greater or lesser subtlety.  For the middle class, one piece of evidence predominates over all others:  if America has thwarted all attempts at terrorist attacks since 9/11, why cannot India do the same?  How can we overlook the ignominy of repeatedly being made to look like fools? One school of thought takes refuge in the view that the Indian state is alarmingly inept when it is not corrupt, and that standards of security and safety have been seriously compromised ­­–– not only in the matter of counter-terrorism, but with respect to safety on our roads, railway tracks, and in our skies.  Another school of thought highlights the contrast with the US to different effect:  if in India human life appears to be cheap, the US has a singular obsession with accounting for every American life, particularly the lives of those who serve the country.  Consider, for example, that more than six decades after the conclusion of World War II, there is still an active mission along the borders of India and Burma to search for Americans ‘missing in action’.  The Indian state barely has time for its living subjects, many of whom have never remotely been accorded the dignity of being viewed as citizens:  indeed, a great many people, in the extant ideology of development, are so much waste that has to be shunned aside.  In the colonial anthropology of India, the individual as an atom did not exist; only collectivities –– masses of people shaped by their caste, religion, ethnicity, linguistic background –– were to be found in India.

The social Darwinism that began to mould India 150 years ago remains a vibrant part of our middle class sensibility.  The generation of colonial officials writing shortly before independence remained convinced that the ‘rising flood of human beings’ was the principal cause of Indian poverty and the reason why the British had been unable to raise standards of living. The grim Malthusian reading of India that, whether expressly or tacitly, still informs most middle class perceptions of the great unwashed has not departed very much at all from this view.  With 1.2 billion people, some might think of India as a country that has always registered significant population growth, but that is far from the truth.  For close to two hundred years, British rule in India was book-ended by famines –– ten million perished as hunger, anomie, loot, and confusion accompanied the British takeover of Bengal, and another three million were sacrificed to save the world from the peril of Nazism and Japanese militarism –– and in between epidemics, disease, war, and other famines took a massive toll of human life.  While life expectancy in Britain, most of Europe, and the United States increased significantly from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, in India it declined from 24.6 in 1871-81 to 20.1 in 1911-21, and on the eve of independence life expectancy was still less than 30.

Death seems, then, to stalk this ancient land.  If famines, as these are ordinarily understood, no longer strike India, and life expectancy has increased to the mid-60s, malnutrition remains endemic, afflicting close to half of the population.  The advocates of ‘Shining India’ crow over India’s economic growth, but India also leads the world in infant mortality, fatalities from road and train accidents, HIV/Aids infections, and much else that the country would rather not advertise to the rest of the world.  The colossal loss of lives at construction sites, mines, hazardous waste sites, shipbuilding docks:  all this remains largely undocumented, on the rare occasion dignified by mention in a newspaper or a footnote in a human rights report.  Tens of millions of females are, in the euphemism made popular by Amartya Sen, ‘missing’.  Some degree of ‘concern’ for the poor has now become part of the sanctified middle class sensibility, but the conviction persists that the poor will always remain poor.  The middle class has even come to hold to the view that the poor do not experience death as it does, and that the loss of loved ones means comparatively little to those who are both accustomed to sudden death and have, by giving birth to a large number of children, taken out insurance to guard against Yamaraj’s unexpected moves.  We give little thought to the fact that the poor cannot afford the luxury of long mourning; tears are not theirs to shed, work lies ahead:  ‘Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.’

Whatever the merit of those views which dwell on India’s demographic excess, Social Darwinism, the great gulf between the rich and the poor, the callousness of the state and the grinding ineptness of government machinery, or the supposed absence of the individual in Indian culture, they do not take stock of how death is experienced and the changing contours of the culture of death.  The course of the long history of attitudes to death in the West was to culminate, Philippe Aries argued in a seminal book on the subject in 1976, in a concerted attempt to obscure the social reality of death.   Throughout the nineteenth century, improvements in sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition, besides the more celebrated innovations in medical care, led to enhanced life expectancy and it seemed as if the moment of death could be forestalled.  Yet this grand narrative of progress was to be rudely disrupted:  the trench warfare of the ‘Great War’ which saw millions of young men being sent to death like so many sheep being taken for slaughter, and the nearly countless dead of the World War II, deepened the resolve in the West to restore the pact which would render death, as Aries terms it, ‘forbidden’.  The entire care of death in the West has, over the course of the last few decades, been turned over to professionals and managers.   The loud mourning that characterized the 19th century has been replaced by quiet funerals; to the extent possible, death has become sanitized.  Responsibility for the patient is handed over to nursing homes and, of course, hospitals.  Ivan Illich, in a devastating critique of the modern culture of death in the West, called it ‘the medicalization of death’.

India presents the greatest possible contrast with the ‘death of death’, and not only because, however much we may attempt to banish the dead from our lives, there are people dying in our midst –– from malaria and dengue fever, untreated and undiagnosed illnesses, accidents at factories and industrial sites, and so on.   In every middle class family where there are cooks, drivers, maids, and washerwomen, there are such stories to be told.  Death is everywhere in more ways than we imagine.  The dead are taken through the streets to the cries of ‘Ram nam satya hai’.  The dead continue to exert a visceral presence through the living, through elaborate funerary rites as much as the fact that males and females of Hindu families might become walking signifiers of death.  If males shave their heads and facial hair, the upper caste Hindu woman who enters into a state of widowhood is recognized by her simple clothing and renunciation of the right to adorn herself.   Banaras is the City of Light, but it must also be unique among the world’s great cities in being devoted to death; one goes to Banaras to die.  Banaras is the great cremation ground; and in its midst, along the riverfront, is Manikarnika, the epicentre of the dead.  Where most other cultures bury their dead, Hindus burn their dead.  This must be one reason among many, as I have elsewhere written, for the supreme indifference of Hindus towards their own history.  The body –– the physical body, the body of history ­­­­–– is placed on the funeral pyre for all to see; and when it has been burnt to ashes, those who make their living off the cremation ground sift through them in search of valuables.

The dead and the living, as the Mahabharata instructs us, are knotted together:  in the words of the Shanti Parva (175.24), ‘Death is connected with life from the moment one is born’.  The Mahabharata is also clear that one may suffer a psychological death long before the biological fact of death stares one in the face:  death takes many forms, among them hatred and greed, anger, and the drunkenness of the mind (Udyoga Parva 42.7).  Beyond all this, as the Mahabharata recognizes only too well, there remains the one insuperable fact of life.  When it comes to death, the human instinct is always to think of the death of another, not the death of oneself.  In the justly famous passage of the Mahabharata that has come to be known as the ‘Yaksha Prasna’, Yudhisthira is asked what is the most wondrous thing in the world.  All around oneself, says Yudhisthira, one sees death and the fire of destruction, countless number of living beings taken to the beyond; and yet one persists in the belief that one alone is immortal.