The recent bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi (allegedly by members of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah) may underline one of the most fascinating political relationships in the world -- the friendly links between India and Israel.
Despite having a Muslim population of some 160-million people (the third largest Islamic population in the world), India has enjoys generally benevolent relations with the Jewish state.
Indeed, India may be the only major nation in the planet that has absolutely no history of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Small communities of Jews have lived in India for thousands of years and there has rarely been any persecutions directed at them.
An article in the Jewish genealogical magazine Avotaynu said of India’s Jewish community The Bene Israel flourished for 2,400 years in a tolerant land that has never known anti-Semitism, and were successful in all aspects of the socio-economic and cultural life of the people of the region.
In fact, several prominent Hindu figures, including Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, among others, have explicitly condemned anti-Semitism and endorsed the formation of Israel.
What few incidents of anti-Semitism occurred in India originated in foreign colonizers, especially the Catholic Portuguese who established communities in Goa on the west coast of India and deported Jews to the south in the spirit of the Inquisition.
India recognized Israel as long ago as 1950 – the relationship has complicated India's links with the Arab and Muslim world. As a result, India has taken a delicate stance with Israel, rarely ever making any provocative statements regarding the endless intrigues in the Middle East. Indeed, India is dependent on oil from Iran and Saudi Arabia and has sent millions of migrants to work in the Middle East since the 1970s oil boom.
Thus, India must be circumspect in how she deals with Israel -- in fact, New Delhi typically votes against Israel in the United Nations.
But that hasn’t stopped the countries from entering into numerous big-money agreements in the areas of defense, security, energy, aerospace engineering and agriculture. Defense trade between Israel and India amounts to some $9-billion alone, according to reports (making Israel the number one arms supplier to India, supplanting Russia).
Israel’s principal customer for defense exports was China until the U.S. expressed its disapproval about sending potentially sensitive military items to Beijing – a move which moved Israel towards India (an eager new buyer of military hardware).
There are several sectors in which India and Israel will be working together, are working together and which are critical for both the economies, India’s ambassador to Israel Navtej Sarna recently said.
But there have been many bumps along the way.
In the 1920s, when Indian nationalists agitated for independence from Great Britain, they allied themselves with the Palestinians and strongly opposed Zionist plans to form a Jewish state.
Interestingly, the two most famous Indians of the 20th century differed on their views of Israel.
Mahatma Gandhi was opposed to the creation of Israel since he did not think a country should be based on religion (paralleling his opposition to the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). However, India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru strongly endorsed the creation of Israel and was close to several prominent Israelis, including David Ben Gurion, the country’s first Prime Minister.
In 1947, as India had been cut into two countries (India and Pakistan), it nonetheless voted against the partition of Palestine at the UN General Assembly.
India finally recognized Israel in 1950, but remained politically in the camp of Muslim Arab countries who demanded a state for Palestinians. It really wasn’t until 1991 that Israel and India started developing deep diplomatic and trade ties.
India had many good reasons to side against Israel: it had to appease its huge Muslim minority; the country feared that the Arab nations would favor Muslim Pakistan over India in various geo-political affairs (particularly the territorial rights to Kashmir); and, perhaps most importantly, its heavy dependence on Arab oil and gas.
Behind the scenes, however, other arrangements, many of them secret, were established between New Delhi and Jerusalem over the decades.
Reportedly, as long ago as the early 1960s, Israel offered India military and intelligence assistance with respect to India’s various conflicts against Pakistan and China. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan apparently even made a secret visit to India in the mid or late 1970s to formalize military cooperation projects.
India’s right-wing nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is especially warm to Israel – principally due to the BJP’s intransigent hostility towards Pakistan and Islam in general. BJP has praised Israel repeatedly as a bulwark against Islamic terrorism.
In 2003, BJP officials embraced Ariel Sharon, the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India.
At that time, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement stated: “The entire world acknowledges that Israel has effectively and ruthlessly countered terror in the Middle East. Since India and Israel are both fighting a war against terrorism, therefore, we should learn a lesson or two from them.”
India’s and Israel’s shared role as victim of Islamic terrorism seems to be a uniting and pervasive theme in the country’s relations.
In 2003, India’s national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra told the American Jewish Committee: “Our principal theme here today is a collective remembrance of the horrors of terrorism and a celebration of the alliance of free societies involved in combating this scourge. The U.S., India and Israel have all been prime targets of terrorism. They have to jointly face the same ugly face of modern day terrorism.”
Just last month, Israel requested that India become a permanent member of the expanded United Nations Security Council.
President Shimon Peres, who greeted External Affairs Minister SM Krishna in Israel, stated: “For us India is first of all a culture. Then it is for us the greatest democracy on earth and then the unbelievable achievement of overcoming poverty without becoming poor in freedom,” he said last night. I wish that India would become a permanent member of the Security Council,”
Yet politics and diplomacy can make for extremely strange bedfellows.
As India has moved closer to Israel in recent years, it has concurrently moved nearer to Israel’s deadly enemy, Iran, which now supplies about 9 percent of India’s oil.
In the event Israel attacks Iran to thwart its nuclear arms program, India may find itself in another impossible predicament – two allies in a war would likely force New Delhi to finally make some very hard choices.