P. R. Kumaraswamy, India’s Israel Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

History is cunning, rife with dead-end passageways. It is easy to strike out on the wrong path if one asks the wrong question. P. R. Kumaraswamy’s well-researched, but misleading India’s Israel Policy takes such a turn, asking, “Why did India and Israel not have a normal relationship until 1991?” The question is interesting, but deceptive in its simplicity. It assumes that India and Israel should have been friends and allies, and that something stood in the way. Kumaraswamy should have asked instead, “What have been the projects of the Indian and Israeli states and societies?” Had he asked this broader question, one rooted in these nation-states’ political and social history, he would have found a different story to tell. There is no natural affinity between the projects of these two nation-states, historically, and so the lack of normal diplomatic ties between them from 1948 to 1991 is not the result of some exogenous factor — or, as he tells it, an endogenous, but alien one.

Had Kumaraswamy gone in the other direction, he would have stressed the important reason why Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao did establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. By the 1980s, the Third World Project of which India was a leading part was exhausted, and its collapse led to major changes in the Indian social and political worlds. It was these changes, as well as the shifts in the international landscape, which turned New Delhi toward Tel Aviv. Kumaraswamy has the material to tell the story in this way, but he has other interests.

These interests detain the bulk of the book, which is really a history of what kept the two states apart until the 1980s. (The period of “normalization” is the final, 26-page chapter, one tenth of the book.) For Kumaraswamy, the obstacle to the “natural alliance” was Indian Muslims or, in some cases, Pakistanis. The Muslims’ emissaries were Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Indian Muslim nationalist leader who opposed the split with Pakistan, and his friend Jawaharlal Nehru. Neither of these men, in Kumaraswamy’s telling, seems to have been able to avoid being captured by appeasement of supposedly unruly Muslims. This assessment does a great disservice to the ideologies, worldviews and wide-ranging analyses of social and political affairs of both Azad and Nehru.

India has no history of anti-Semitism. People of the Torah first came to South Asia in the first century AD, settling along the western coastline as well as in the northeast. They formed communities, such as the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel, the Baghdadi Jews, the Bnei Menashe and the Bene Ephraim, that enriched the lives of those around them. But Kumaraswamy is not interested in these interconnections within the fabric of society. It is a telling omission. Here Kumaraswamy shows that he is limited by the type of social science that sees inter-state relations as determined solely by the logic of the state, and not at all by the needs or preferences of the people whom the states nominally represent. The Indian nationalist movement that grew out of the mass struggles in the nineteenth century was open to all the elements of Indian society. Out of this catholicity, Indian secularism developed. Secularism in India did not mean absence of religion or disregard of religion; it meant equal consideration for all religions. It also proposed — and this proposition was central — to check the majoritarian ambitions of Hindu nationalism.

India emerged in 1947, led by Nehru and his Congress Party, strongly influenced by this secular nationalism. India did not recognize Israel fully in 1948 because the Jewish state was not secular, by India’s lights, and had no proper anti-colonial credentials. Rather, as India saw it, the Zionist movement had made an alliance with British imperialism to attain its goals. Kumaraswamy makes use of this material, but it does not drive his analysis. Instead, he suggests that India did not recognize Israel because of the large Muslim population within India. He sees the reason in religion: “From opposition to a Jewish national home in Palestine to recognizing Israel or accepting Jewish claims to Jerusalem, religion remains a dominant force in determining the position of Muslims the world over.” In this interpretation, Kumaraswamy rather remarkably follows Michael Brecher, whose 1963 account holds that Nehru was beholden to Azad. Of Azad, Brecher biliously writes, “As a Muslim, Azad was naturally pro-Arab.”

This “Islamic prism” dominates Kumaraswamy’s analysis, though he cannot ignore the other factors, such as the emergence of the non-aligned movement and the Third World Project. To make his case, Kumaraswamy relies upon Brecher, the Israeli archives and the intelligentsia of the Hindu nationalist right, such figures as M. L. Sodhi and Jaswant Singh. The Indian archives remain closed, so the primary sources from the Indian side are very limited. As a matter of evidence, Israeli diplomats’ versions of bilateral meetings are not sufficient. Kumaraswamy’s interlocutors are therefore not compelling and neither is his explanation. Though he makes the link, there is no Muslim lobby in India comparable to the Jewish lobby for Israel in the United States.

In 1992, Prime Minister Rao forged full diplomatic relations with Israel on the eve of a trip to New York. The timing, as Kumaraswamy recognizes, was important. “It was obvious to Rao that the absence of relations with Israel was an impediment to a better connection to industrialized countries, especially the United States.” The Rao government led India out of the Third World Project into neo-liberalism, and today New Delhi’s connection with Washington reigns supreme. When the Hindu right entered office in 1998, they paved the gravel road to Tel Aviv with arms deals and intelligence cooperation. India in the 1990s was no longer India in the 1950s. The Indian state operates on a different footing than in earlier times, and its class allegiances are different as well. That issue, not the more active or passive role of Indian Muslims, is central to understanding the ties with Israel.

How to cite this article:

Vijay Prashad "Why India and Israel Were Not Friends, 1948-1991," Middle East Report 257 ( ).
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