The National: With nationalist demagogues rising to power in both India and Israel, Pankaj Mishra examines the parallel histories of violent partition, ethnic cleansing and militant patriotism that have led both countries into a moral wilderness.
Growing up in the 1970s in small town India, where nothing much happened, I was an avid reader of the foreign pages in the Indian newspapers. This is how I discovered one of my earliest heroes, the Israeli general Moshe Dayan. I remember being introduced to his legend by my grandfather, an upper-caste Hindu nationalist who was an admirer of militant patriots, especially those he supposed to be ranged against Muslims. He recounted keenly how Dayan had outmaneuvered numerically superior Arab armies in 1967, and how he had snatched the Golan Heights from Syria at the last minute.
When news of Dayan’s secret visit to India in 1978 as Israel’s foreign minister leaked and pictures of him appeared in the Indian newspapers, I was transfixed by his black eye-patch and mischievous grin. This image of vitality, courage and resourcefulness was confirmed by one of the first books that I read in English: Ninety Minutes at Entebbe, the account of a daring Israeli raid in Uganda to free hostages captured by Palestinian terrorists.
The Israelphilia that I shared with my grandfather was sharply at variance with India’s official foreign policy. Though the Hindu nationalists (then known as the Jana Sangh) clamored for close friendship between India and Israel – which they said were natural allies, apparently due to their implacable Muslim enemies – the government did not have diplomatic relations with Israel and supported the PLO, a fellow member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
A Hindu-nationalist activist on the streets of Ahmedabad on Feburary 28, 2002, as Muslims were attacked in their homes and shops: “The names of the politicians, businessmen, officials and policemen who colluded in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat are widely known in India.” Sebastian D’Souza / AFP
But by then my grandfather had moved far from the ideals of postcolonial India (non-alignment, socialism, secularism) as defined by the ruling Congress Party. He had started on his rightward journey even before India’s partition and independence in 1947, when he, a feudal lord, lost most of his property and prestige to land reforms.
Hindu nationalism in general relied upon such simmering reservoirs of upper-caste dissatisfaction with India’s socialistic economy and non-aligned foreign policy, especially during the long decades, from 1947 to 1989, when the party of Nehru and Gandhi, the Congress, pushed the Jana Sangh, and later the BJP, to the political margins.
My grandfather had no interest in Judaism, or in any of India’s many faiths. Like many Hindu nationalists and Zionists, he was a secularist, impatient with religion’s unworldliness. He admired Israel for its proud and clear national identity – for the sharply defined religious and cultural ideology of Zionism and the patriotism it inculcated in Israel’s citizens. Israel, which was building a new nation in splendid isolation, surrounded by Arab enemies, knew what India did not: how to deal with Muslims in the only language they understood, that of force and more force.
India, by comparison, was a pitiably incoherent and timid nation-state, its claims to democracy, socialism and secularism compromised by a corrupt government’s appeasement of minorities (mainly Muslim) and neglect of Hindu heritage.
Hindu nationalism was much less about venerating Hinduism – most nationalists were not religious – than about constructing a strong, culturally homogenous nation state of the kind that had begun to emerge in post-Enlightenment Europe in the 19th century. Like many Hindu nationalists, past and present, my grandfather was led by his obsession with national cohesion into an admiration for Nazi Germany.
Reverence for Adolf Hitler – who is hailed as a hero in textbooks in the Hindu nationalist-ruled state of Gujarat, while Mein Kampf remains popular at bookstores – is one of the many sinister aspects of “rising” India today. This cult of Hitler as a great “patriot” and “strategist” grew early among middle-class Hindus. MS Golwalkar, the much-revered Hindu leader and ideologue, wrote in 1938 that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging itself of the “Semitic races” – and yet Golwalkar was also an admirer of Zionism.
This simultaneous veneration of Hitler and Israel may appear a monstrous moral contradiction to Europeans or Americans who see Israel as the homeland of Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. However, such distinctions are lost on the Hindu nationalists, who esteem Nazi Germany and Israel for their patriotic effort to cleanse their states of alien and potentially disloyal elements, and for their militaristic ethos. Many Indians and other colonised peoples hoped for Nazi Germany and Japan to at least undermine, if not defeat, the British Empire. My grandfather was among the Indians with a misplaced faith in Germany’s military capacity. He would have been horrified by the facts of the Holocaust if he had encountered them. But like so many Hindu nationalists, his main political anxiety during those years after the Second World War was whether Mother India would be partitioned into two countries; the subsequent creation of Pakistan as a separate state for Indian Muslims pushed all other historical traumas, especially those of distant Europe, out of view.
The emergence of an independent India with an overwhelmingly non-Muslim population did not appease Hindu nationalists like my grandfather. Pakistan occupied part of Muslim-majority Kashmir, and tens of millions of Muslims remained in India, an apparently formidable fifth column for Pakistan (their present population is more than 150 million). Hindu nationalists also believed that Indian Muslims were breeding fast, subsidised by plutocratic Arabs and treacherous Pakistanis. Apart from cunningly outpacing a docile Hindu population, their rising and unproductive population was a drag on India, which was destined to be the greatest superpower of the 21st century.
Today, more than a decade after Hindu nationalists finally assumed political power in India and accelerated India’s shift to a free-market economy, Muslims are visibly the most depressed and vulnerable community in India. Terrorist attacks mounted by a small radicalised minority among them increasingly contradict India’s claims as a superpower; but they are far from posing, except in the paranoid Hindu nationalist imagination, an existential threat to India. They tend to be worse off than even low-caste Hindus in the realms of education, health and employment. After dying disproportionately in many Hindu-Muslim riots, more than two thousand Muslims were the victims of a pogrom in 2002 in the Western Indian state of Gujarat. Their main tormentor, Narendra Modi, the business-friendly chief minister of Gujarat (who is also an outspoken admirer of Israel), is now heralded as India’s likely prime minister while tens of thousands of his Muslim victims languish in refugee camps, too afraid to return to their homes.
My grandfather, who died in 1982, did not suspect that his Hindu nationalist worldview would one day flourish in the mainstream of Indian politics and society, or that an admiration for Hitler would come to coexist with an envious emulation of Israel, now India’s largest supplier of arms, among upper-caste middle-class Hindus (who clamour for Israeli-style retaliation after every terrorist attack). He would never have imagined that Israel would be forced to move from denying the existence of the Palestinian people to a partial acknowledgement of their claims, and that Israel rather than India would face an unanswerable demographic challenge, responding to which its leading politicians would propose a fresh round of “population transfer”.
Armed with nuclear weapons and overwhelmingly superior militaries, both countries have fought wars with their neighbours; but, almost uniquely in the world, their borders remain indeterminate. As the likes of Avigdor Lieberman and Modi become kingmakers, if mercifully not kings, in Israel and India, it is hard not to raise the melancholy question: how many more trials and degradations await the two democracies that once aroused near-universal admiration?
Their cosmopolitan founding fathers – Nehru and Gandhi, Ben-Gurion and Weizmann – and egalitarian ideals helped give the new nation-states, created within months of each other, their glow of heroic virtue. It mattered little during their early years that both countries were borne of imperialist skulduggery and nationalist opportunism, of clumsy partition, war and ethnic cleansing.
Now, as active and potential ethnic cleansers rise to power in both countries, clear-eyed reckonings with the past seem more essential than ever – especially those that move from the treacherous polemical arena of Israeli and Indian foreign policy to an examination of socioeconomic and political realignments within the two countries.
A new book by Simone Panter-Brick, Gandhi and the Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests, provides further cause to reflect on the eerie echoes between the formative and postcolonial experiences of India and Israel. Despite the bloody transfer of populations, both countries were left with a sizeable minority (20 per cent Arabs in Israel, 13 per cent Muslims in India). Deprived of their elites, who fled to neighbouring lands, these second-class citizens’ sense of powerlessness was further deepened by military occupations of Muslim-majority lands (the West Bank, Gaza and Kashmir).
India and Israel started out as formally democratic and economically left-wing. A mere decade separates their political transformations, when hardline right-wing groups long deemed marginal – the Likud in 1977 and the BJP in 1989– began to dramatically change the political culture of the two countries. Unrest in occupied territories (the intifadas that began in 1987 and 2000, and Pakistan-aided insurgency in Kashmir from 1989), helped give the postcolonial nationalisms of India and Israel a hard millenarian edge. In the 1990s both countries embarked on an economic and ideological makeover – the rejection of ideals of inclusive growth and egalitarianism in favour of neoliberal notions about private wealth-creation.
Indian Muslims demonstrate in Mumbai this January against the Israeli war in Gaza: “Their isolation is compounded by what they see as the democratic majority’s moral indifference to their fate.” Arko Datta / Reuters
Gandhi, who died in 1948, did not witness any of these metamorphoses. He never travelled to Palestine, and didn’t reflect at length upon Israeli-Arab relations. Still, he reckoned with the issue of Palestine in ways that clarify his forebodings about the character and fate of the postcolonial nation-state erected on ruins of European empires.
Gandhi was a highly unusual anti-colonial campaigner. A profoundly religious man, he devised a method of mass non-violent protest to morally persuade rather than coerce the British; he actively spurned secular statecraft, realpolitik and other zero-sum political games. His preferred political unit was the self-sufficient rural community; he was wary of the heavily centralised nation-state, often disagreeing in this regard with his protégé Pandit Nehru, a more conventional postcolonial leader.
Liberation from colonial rule, national self-determination and political unity meant little to Gandhi if the new nation did not embody a higher morality of justice and compassion. Appropriately, Gandhi’s last major act was a fast in protest against the Indian government’s attempt to deny Pakistan its due share of the spoils of partition.
His ethical and spiritual commitments began to alienate Gandhi from many of his colleagues early in the freedom struggle; they also complicated his own political work. Striving for political unity during the fight against the British Empire, he defined a postcolonial dispensation that both the Hindu majority and the large minority of Muslims could peaceably belong to, yet this possibility grew more remote as colonial rule tottered to its close.
Minorities had enjoyed relative freedoms and open-ended identities in the mosaic of multi-ethnic empires; they feared for their rights in states dominated by ethnic majorities. Even before the Nazi atrocities, blood-and-soil nationalists in Europe had singled out ethnic and religious minorities for persecution: anti-Semitism in particular received a fresh boost in post-Napoleonic European nation-states that defined themselves by excluding others. Joseph Roth, the nostalgic fictional chronicler of the Habsburg Empire’s last days, was one of those who lamented the state of affairs in which “every individual must now be a member of a particular race or nation”.
This post-imperial imperative of the nation-state was anathema to Gandhi, who saw India as host to many communities whose overlapping cultural identities could not be regimented into a single religion or ethnicity. But sectarian differences between religious-political elites – deepened in many cases by imperial policies of divide-and-rule – were already too well entrenched; and the radical idea of national self-determination in multicultural regions like South Asia and the Middle East had incited many old passions. Pointing to centuries of Muslim rule over India, many Indian Muslim leaders rejected the claim of politicians like Gandhi, whom they described as “Hindu”, to speak for all the inhabitants of South Asia.
Gandhi’s own response to their demand for a separate state was to ask Muslim separatists to trust the goodwill of the majority. It was also the message he sent to the Zionist movement. Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle in London in 1931, he said: “I can understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine, and he can do so if he can without the help of bayonets, whether his own or those of Britain… in perfect friendliness with the Arabs.”
Jewish friends of Gandhi often asked that he lend his resonant voice in support of the Jews fleeing Europe for Palestine (then a British-ruled territory marked as a “national home” for Jews by the Balfour Declaration). But Gandhi, though sympathetic to Jewish refugees from fascism, could not be convinced of the necessity for a separate Jewish state in Palestine under western auspices. In 1937, a year after Arabs launched their revolt against the rapid growth of Jewish immigration, he again asked Jews in Palestine to rely “wholly on the goodwill of the Arabs”:
“No exception can possibly be taken to the natural desire of the Jews to found a home in Palestine. But they must wait for its fulfilment, till Arab opinion is ripe for it. And the best way to enlist that opinion, is to rely wholly upon the moral justice of the desire and therefore the moral sense of the Arabs and the Islamic world.”
Gandhi’s opinions on Palestine were shaped by events at home. By the late Thirties, Muslim separatism, expediently supported by the British, was a full-fledged political movement, challenging the right of the “Hindu” Congress to rule India. In a 1938 article titled The Jews, Gandhi insisted that while the Arabs must honour Jewish settlers already living in Palestine as rightful citizens, the Jews who remain in Europe must regard it as their true “home”. “My sympathies are all with the Jews,” he wrote, and regretted that Arabs had not chosen non-violence.
Still, he wrote of the Zionists: “The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun.”
In his article Gandhi also offered some gratuitous advice about non-violent resistance to Jews exposed to Nazi persecution. This provoked a sharp reply from, among others, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who had just fled to Palestine from Germany. Buber was quick to expose the limitations of Gandhianism before a state ideology as brutal as Nazism: “Do you think perhaps,” he asked, “that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?”
Buber went on to describe his vision of Jews living in amity with Arabs in Palestine. “We have no desire to dispossess them: we want to live with them. We do not want to dominate them: we want to serve with them.”
Gandhi, who had much on his plate in 1938, did not reply to Buber, thereby missing a potentially fruitful conversation about a maddeningly complex moral and political dilemma. In May 1947, he addressed his last words on the subject to Jewish militants who had resorted to terrorism against their former British patrons as well as Arabs:
“It has become a problem which is almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: ‘Don’t be so silly as to resort to terrorism, because you simply damage your own case which otherwise would be a proper case.”
This may have seemed insensitive to Jewish freedom fighters embattled against the British on one side and the Arabs on another. But Gandhi was only making his usual insistence that grubby means, no matter how noble their proclaimed ends, always resulted in grubby outcomes (he is unlikely to have had much time for the IDF’s later claim to “purity of arms”).
He was of course ignored. He – along with Buber – underestimated Jewish determination to create the state of Israel, with or without British help, as well as Arab determination to thwart it. His generous expectation of human goodwill similarly prevented him from understanding the resolve of Hindu and Muslim leaders to grab what they could of the British Empire in India and go their separate ways; and he was pushed into irrelevance by his own colleagues as the two new nations of India and Pakistan fought a bitter war, the first of four, over Kashmir.
Gandhi would have derived great anguish from the fact that the vicious assumption of partition – that peoples who have inhabited the same land for centuries are separate and irreconcilable – have continued to define India and Pakistan, committing their mostly poor and illiterate populations to a nuclear arms race. Ruling elites in both states have used the bloody events of 1947 to nurture their own nationalist origin myths. Periodically scratched by extremists, the wounds of sectarian violence have not healed, even after six decades.
Pakistan’s incapacity to create a just and stable state has become glaringly obvious, largely because its disarray now affects even distant countries in the West. Islam was never likely to bind Pakistan’s disparate ethnic and linguistic communities with a national identity and mission; in 1971, Bengali-speaking Muslims seceded to form Bangladesh. And, despite a series of secular-minded rulers, Islam inescapably haunted the nation’s unresolved identity, so that the state has remained perpetually hostage to Islamic radicals who claim it is not “pure” enough.
By comparison, India seems a successful secular democracy – the largest in the world – and now an economic powerhouse. But this image, given a fierce PR gloss in recent years, hides the fact that India is one of the most violent and unequal countries in the world. Insurgencies have raged in Kashmir for two decades, and for much longer in North-East India, claiming tens of thousands of lives; led by Maoists, they have now erupted in central India. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Maoist insurgency the biggest internal security threat to India since independence. In the last decade alone, more than 100,000 farmers vulnerable to debt, drought and international competition have killed themselves.
The frequent recourse to violence – by the state as well as the ethnic and religious minorities ranged against it – puts India in second place behind Iraq in a list of countries afflicted by “terrorism”. The obsession of its heavily centralised state with territorial integrity and political unity accounts for much of this bloodshed; the absence of a federal structure or flexible practice of sovereignty has also led to the permanent minoritisation of India’s large Muslim population, which sees India’s claims to secularism and democracy as a flimsy cover for upper-caste Hindu hegemony.
This process of marginalisation was never as deliberate or planned as it was in Israel, where the few Arabs who remained were considered undesirable and unassimilable. No Indian politician or official would have uttered a confession like that of Yehoshua Palmon, an adviser on Arab affairs to David Ben-Gurion, who recalled:
“I behaved toward them (Arabs) as a wolf in sheep’s clothing – harsh, but outwardly decent. I opposed the integration of Arabs into Israeli society. I preferred separate development. True, this prevented the Arabs from integrating into the Israeli democracy. Yet they had never had democracy before. Since they never had it, they never missed it. The separation made it possible to maintain a democratic regime within the Jewish population alone.”
India did not officially embrace this recipe for a permanently alienated minority, unlikely to ever accept the state’s legitimacy. Yet a degree of Muslim separation from the Indian mainstream was made inevitable by the creation of Pakistan, and its claims, aggressively pursued, upon Kashmir. Hindu nationalists boosted a popular image of Muslims as fifth columnists breeding demographic and other vast antinational conspiracies in their urban ghettos; their assaults on Muslims in recent years, and equally spectacular acts of terrorist retaliation, have deepened the impression of a volatile minority. Muslims today confront trigger-happy policemen as well as a criminally slow judiciary; their isolation is compounded by what they see as the democratic majority’s moral indifference to their fate.
The names of the politicians, businessmen, officials and policemen who colluded in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 are widely known in India. Some of them were caught on video, in a sting carried out in 2007 by the weekly magazine Tehelka, proudly recalling how they murdered and raped Muslims. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi won a crushing victory in elections held soon afterwards; Tehelka’s revelations and the ensuing outrage among many liberals only seem to have helped Modi persuade middle class Gujaratis that the whole world had unjustly ganged up against their plucky, entrepreneurial selves.
Modi is now the most successful young face of a Hindu nationalism that showcases a democratic, economically vibrant, and pro-West India to the United States as a reliable bulwark against “Islamo-fascism” and other forms of Asian authoritarianism.
Refused a US visa by the State Department (due to Gujarat), Modi hired Apco Worldwide, an American PR firm specialising in dictators – its client list includes the late Nigerian despot Sani Abacha and Kazakhstan’s president-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev – to refurbish his image. Far from being a medieval religious ranter, Modi embodies the slick New India of business deals and information technology tycoons. As his website reveals, the overtly religious symbols and crude anti-Muslim rhetoric he employs in his rabble-rousing speeches are carefully omitted from his presentation to middle class Indians and foreigners.
India’s corporate groups are increasingly attracted by Modi’s subsidies to businessmen and assaults on unionised labour. Mukesh Ambani, head of India’s leading industrial group, recently hailed Modi as a “leader with a grand vision… strong ethos with a modern outlook, dynamism and passion”. More recently, Ratan Tata, whose company owns Jaguar and Corus, became the most prestigious member of Modi’s fan club when he relocated the factory building the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, to Gujarat. Elections and surveys consistently reveal Modi to be the preferred leader of the most prosperous and well-educated Indians in Gujarat.
According to the French political scientist Christophe Jafferlot, Gujarat under Modi is “reinventing politics along lines of what the new middle class wants”.
It may seem odd that powerful Hindus prospering under the new economic regime should exalt the proud persecutor of a near-destitute minority. But then much of the middle class ruthlessness towards Muslims has been part of a larger fear and resentment bordering on hatred that India’s privileged minority feels towards the poor and apparently unproductive majority. In many Indian states, the Hindu right has also mobilised the populist backlash against socially liberal and affluent elites and shrewdly redirected it against Muslim and Christian minorities.
A hardening of political tone toward minorities and neighbours and a general rightward shift is equally pronounced in Israel, where a small economic boom followed hectic privatisation, liberalisation, and the decimation of the welfare state. As in India, politicians ranting about enemies within and without have emerged to defuse apparently insoluble anxieties over rising economic inequality, tensions between secular and religious Jews, and intra-immigrant conflicts. As the return of Netanyahu and the rise of Lieberman show, economic globalisation, far from undermining tribal nationalism and boosting democracy, has helped create new constituencies, among haves as well as have-nots, for xenophobia and populism.
The social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai claims that “where the lines between us and them may have always, in human history, been blurred, globalisation exacerbates these uncertainties and produces new incentives for cultural purification as more nations lose the illusion of national economic sovereignty or well-being.”
Appadurai is convinced that “minorities are the major site for displacing the anxieties of many states about their own minority or marginality (real or imagined) in a world of a few megastates, of unruly economic flows and compromised sovereignties.”
As early as the 1940s, Karl Polanyi predicted that the unregulated market economy, which commodifies all human beings, would ensure the demise of people who contribute nothing to society as consumers and producers. The hectic demonising of economically stagnant religious and ethnic minorities in India and Israel raises the disturbing question whether we are, as Appadurai has put it: “In the midst of a vast worldwide Malthusian correction, which works through the idioms of minoritisation and ethnicisation but is functionally geared to preparing the world for the winners of globalisation, minus the inconvenient noise of its losers.”
This sounds too apocalyptic. But if Appadurai is right, then economic setbacks of the kind India and Israel are likely to suffer in the near future can only exacerbate those anxieties, and pave the way for explicitly authoritarian movements. Already, economic globalisation, while bringing great prosperity to some, and empty promises of it to most, has created a new ideological and emotional climate. Backed by popular consent, violence and cruelty today enjoy a new legitimacy in even democracies.
Hindu nationalism and ultra-Zionism may seem aberrant pathologies in usually healthy body-politics. But they are only the increasingly visible underside of the post-imperial ideology of the nation-state that regards contiguous ethnic and religious communities as essentially antagonistic. Narendra Modi and Avigdor Lieberman represent, in distinct ways, the clearest and fullest consummation of majoritarian nationalism.
Their prominence reveals how the goals Gandhi and Martin Buber set for their peoples – pluralism, religious tolerance, social and economic justice – have become even more remote. Murdered by a Hindu fanatic, who accused him of being soft on Muslims, Gandhi was an early victim to the deadly logic of postcolonial nationalism. His critic Martin Buber died an isolated figure in Israel in 1965, his pleas for peaceful coexistence with Arabs mocked or ignored.
Contemplating the ideas of Gandhi and Buber alike is a reminder of the paths not taken, and the opportunities missed, to avert the conflicts that not only poison the general geopolitical atmosphere but also keep India and Israel in an unending state of moral paralysis. David Grossman surely has Buber’s ideals in mind when he speculates in his new book, Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics, about an Israel that could have been a “unique national creation” rather than a “clumsy and awkward imitation of western countries”. If only, Grossman writes, Israel had made, “a national and social choice far more daring and far-reaching than the one in which it is currently stagnating: A choice that combined what is often called ‘the Jewish genius’ with the loftiest universal and Jewish ideals, together with a humane economic and social system that centres on people and not on capital and competitiveness; a choice that has some unique, even genius spark – as did, for example, the kibbutz idea at its inception, before it eroded and crumbled, and as did the contributions of Judaism to many varied areas of human existence, in science and economics, in art and moral philosophy.”
Grossman admits that this choice sounds utopian, “even naive”. So does Gandhi’s vision of postcolonial India as embodying a higher ethic; and his and Buber’s ideals cannot escape strong scepticism. But who except zealots can deny that the paths Gandhi and Buber explicitly warned against – the homogenous nation-state, military force, social and economic individualism – have led both their countries into a moral wilderness. Now, as the chasm between the founding ideals and actuality of India and Israel widens, it may soon be imperative to examine the dreams and forebodings of prophets scorned in their own times. Certainly, as Grossman writes, only then would it be ‘possible to escape from the shackling, desperate day-to-day, from the great mistake that looms over our every step and gradually stifles our souls.’
Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond