Despite being a land where Jewish communities thrived, historically, Kerala’s public mind remained a natural sympathizer for the cause of Palestine.
Deeply embedded in Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s scathing attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much hyped alliance with Isreal is an affirmation from the Left of their strong ideological support for Palestine in changing times.
Narendra Modi concluded the historic three-day visit to Isreal last week, the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in seventy years since Isreal came into being and 25 years after full diplomatic ties were stablished between the two nations.
At a time when the camaraderie between Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was celebrated by the media, at a time when the trade groups celebrated the business deals clinched by the two nations worth over $4.3 billion, the lone voice from the southern Indian state’s communist chief minister is challenging the dominant narrative surrounding Modi visit.
At a time when many fear India’s historic support for Palestine is waning, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) leader’s comments becomes significant.
In a Facebook post published on last week, Vijayan lashed out at Modi for tying up with Israel, citing the issue of Israeli occupation of Palestine land and subjugation of its people. He also termed the Modi’s Israeli embrace as a possible result of a similarities between Zionism and Sangh Parivar mentalities.
“To make a treaty to combat terror, with a country that itself kills innocent people, is beyond logic. By doing so, what India has done is to usher in the danger of becoming a strategic partner of Israel and create an America-India-Israel syndicate,” Pinarayi Vijayan wrote in a Facebook post.
He said that India has always joined hands with other countries in
condemning Israel’s stand of neglecting UN conventions and global agreements that blamed it for rights violations.
“The unity visible in the joint-statement by Modi and Netanyahu reflects an alliance of the ideologies of Zionism and Sangh Parivar,” he wrote.
He said, Modi’s visit is a clear shift in India’s Israel policy. Even in the past, Left parties have always opposed to growing ties between India and Israel, especially against arms purchases.
Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine have been embroiled in a bitter conflict over land rights for years. The large-scale Jewish migration to the Arab land in 20th century following World Wars and Holocaust-led to the 1947 UN decision to split the land into Israel and Palestine.
Over the next half century, bitter wars were fought by Arab allies and Isreal which ushered in a period of Israeli expansionism. While Palestine side suffered majority of the casualties, Israel accuses Palestine of operating terror outfits in its territories that is a threat to Israeli security.
India maintained a pro-Palestine stand, beginning with Mahatma Gandhi who rejected Zionist ideas of creating a Jew state and believed it is not right on the part of Isreal, to impose its might on Palestinian land. (http://www.twf.org/News/Y2001/0815-GandhiZionism.html)
After independence, Nehruvian foreign policy-influenced by the ideals of anti-imperialism and support to liberation struggles across the globe-meant that India stood with Palestine.
Later, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat shared a personal relation often dubbed as “like brother and sister”.
Traditionally the Congress party, Left groups, liberal organizations and leftist intellectuals in India lent their support to Palestine and did not approve Isreal expansionism.
It was the right-wing groups which made significant efforts in outreach. Former premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the first prime minister to receive an Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon, in 2003. In 2006, while he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had visited Tel Aviv. Many believe that Israel as a strong state is a natural ally for the RSS.
Over the years, India grew closer in weapon trade between Isreal whose military prowess is well established. Now India is Isreal’s second biggest arms buyer.
In 2015, India abstained from voting against Israel at the U.N. Human Rights Council Geneva which found evidence of “alleged war crimes” committed by Israel during the conflict in Gaza in 2014. Later in 2016, India abstained from a Palestine-sponsored resolution which supports a probe by the International Criminal Court against Israel for war crimes during its last Gaza offensive.
Since coming to power in 2014, Narendra Modi made it clear his outreach plans for Isreal. During the present visit, Modi chose not to visit Palestinian authority headquarters Ramallah which was visited by former Indian dignitaries.
However, when Modi met Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in New Delhi in May 2017 he said : “We hope to see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel. I have reaffirmed our position on this to President Abbas”, he said.
Political commentator from Kerala, M.N. Karassery observes that there are economic and political factors behind Kerala Left’s continued support to Palestine.
“The economic factor is that many from Kerala are living in Arab countries for employment and it is natural for the public to align with Arab’s in the Isreal-Palestine conflict,” he said.
He said politically, Left parties in India have always attempted to project themselves as protectors of minorities-hence the support for the suffering Palestinians becomes natural.
Left parties and its student wings in Kerala used to regularly hold Palestine Solidarity Days every year and organize protests every time serious Israeli aggression crops up. Such was the involvement that in the past, CPIM’s Kerala wing alone contributed over 70 lakhs in a nation-wide fundraiser for suffering Palestinians.
A former SFI leader from Kochi said that Palestine discourse was very much part of campuses with Left presence.
“I remember the time we organized Palestine Solidarity Day in midst of our exams,” he said adding that posters and stickers depicting ‘Intifada’- the Palestine uprising-was dominant in campuses in Kerala.
He however expressed doubts whether such a strong solidarity can be seen at the moment and said Palestine discourse has definite diminished in the public domain.
CPI(M) has also invoked the Palestine issue in the past to have political gains locally, criticizing the UPA government when the local politician-A.K Antony was the Defense Minister-for the controversial missile deal with Israel.
Apart from the Left, a slew of radical muslim organisations in Kerala are also vocal supporters of Palestinian cause while seeing the issue through a religious prism.
Writer P K Parakkadavu, who published ‘Idiminnalukalude Pranayam’, a love story set in the backdrop of Palestine struggle said in an interview to Times of India;“Perhaps, outside Middle East, it is in Kerala where the Palestine issue is discussed the most but our upper caste mindset is still reluctant to accept the Palestinians’ right to resistance”.
While believing that the issue raised by Chief Minister is significant, observers such as Karassery does see the rhetoric as an attempt to appease minorities keeping an eye on vote-bank politics as a factor that must have prompted the CPM leader to take this stand. .
Many including Karassery feels that times have changed and one should accept Israel as a reality and keep discussions open.
“While keeping ties with Israel, India must utilize the platform to make a healthy dialogue possible in which the plight of Palestinians can also be discussed,” Karassery said.
In retort, BJP lashed out at the Chief Minister and accused the Left party for having “anti-national sentiments” and criticized the party’s outdated thinking.
“India is very optimistic regarding the mutual gains that both the countries will have but it is sad that Kerala CM is trying to criticize and take contrary stands. This shows that he has anti-national sentiments and the left party has always been known for it”, BJP leader Gaurav Bhatia told ANI.
As the popular ‘Intifada’ poster-of a kid pelting stone against the Israeli tank with the Palestine flag in the backdrop-starts to dim in walls of Kerala , will the recent discourse over Palestine give it fresh vigor ?
Shawn Sebastian is an independent journalist, documentary maker, and photographer. A regular contributor to national and international media outlets on a variety of subjects including human rights violations, cultural confrontations, women empowerment, food security and ordinary people who make a difference. Winner of two United Nations awards for development-themed documentaries.