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India, Israel and the Jewish People

India’s old common history and cultural heritage with the Muslim Middle East


Today, half the world’s Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region. The four countries with the largest Muslim populations – Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh – are all Asian nations. Their Muslim populations constitute almost double the total number of Muslims in the entire Middle East.40 Pakistan and Bangladesh, given their history, language, and way of life, are part of a broadly defined Indian civilization that reaches well beyond the Republic of India’s borders. The Indian civilization and its religions have had a deep effect on Indonesia as well. India occupies a central place in the world history of Islam.

All the drivers of India’s move into the Middle East discussed thus far are relatively new and the result of India’s rapid economic growth and increasing dependence on energy imports. The Muslim factor is another matter. India’s links with the Middle East and Islam are deeply embedded in the past. Islam first came to the Indian subcontinent centuries ago, through trade and invasions, and has since become an integral part of Indian history, culture, and society. Islam remains a key to understanding India’s fast- growing links with the Middle East in the 21st century.

Throughout centuries, long before, but even more since Islamic times, Indian cotton cloth, silk, rice, sandalwood, and spices were exchanged for Middle Eastern dates, pearls, gems, and precious metals. The Middle East was at the crossroads of several of the silk and spice overland trade routes connecting Europe to India, and more broadly, Asia. Maritime trade between the Persian Gulf and the western coast of India also flourished, the result of geographical proximity and the seasonal monsoon winds of the Arabian Sea. Ports in the Persian Gulf were major importers of Indian dyes, particularly of Indian indigo, the indispensable blue dye. Jewish merchants, as a later Chapter will show, were also significant participants in this trade.

Trade ties between India and the Middle East have been accompanied by intensive people-to-people contacts and cultural interactions. Many Arab Muslim as well as Jewish traders from the Middle East, who sometimes married local women, set up their base on the Malabar Coast – the long south-western coast line of the Indian subcontinent facing the Indian Ocean, particularly in the states of Kerala and Karnataka. Likewise, wealthy Indian merchants settled in the Gulf and other Mideast countries. During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258), many Indian scholars resided in Baghdad and their work in such disciplines as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine was translated from Sanskrit to Arabic.

Beyond trade links, multiple incursions and conquests by Muslim invaders from the Middle East led to the emergence of an Indo-Islamic culture with marked Arab, Turkish, Persian, Afghan, and Moghul influences. The first invasions of Arab Muslims reached northwest India in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, with the conquest of the province of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim. The destruction of Hindu and Buddhist temples followed, and history holds accounts of victorious Muslims executing Indian fighters and enslaving their wives and children, a practice certainly not exclusive to to Muslims in those and other times. In general, historians are divided on how and why Indians converted to Islam.41 Whereas some argue that it was mostly of their own volition in a desire to escape the Hindu caste system or to have a more affluent life and higher social status, others claim that many were converted by force. Most probably both are right, depending on time and place.

The areas of Punjab and Gujarat in northwestern India suffered multiple incursions of the Ghaznavid Afghan Muslim rulers in the 11th and 12th centuries. The period of significant Muslim expansion in the Indian subcontinent stretched from the 13th to the 18th centuries, under the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughal Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty from Central Asia, conquered and unified most of India, except for some southern parts. The Mughal Empire flourished for almost 300 years. Akbar the Great (reigned 1556-1605) ruled India, including its non-Muslim subjects, with great tolerance. In contrast, his great-grandson Emperor Aurangzeb (reigned 1658-1707) was a fanatical Muslim. His policy of destroying Hindu and Sikh temples caused the other religious communities lasting bitterness, even if Aurangzeb’s policy was not only motivated by religion but also by politics, as some authors have argued. Aurangzeb’s policy certainly contributed to the decline and end of the Mughal Empire as aggrieved Hindu leaders called for British help and intervention.

Irrespective of the more violent chapter of their common history, the long-standing connections between the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East are reflected in Indian art, architecture, literature, music, and languages. Urdu, the common language of a large number of South Asian, particularly Pakistani, Muslims, and the mother tongue of over 50 million people in India, is largely derived from Persian and Arabic vocabulary and script.

The rising power of the English East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries and the advent of British colonialism in the 19th century caused a dramatic setback in trade and other links between India and the Muslim Middle East. In the 20th century, the freedom struggles of India and the Muslim Middle East reversed this trend and led to rediscovery and rapprochement. After independence, the Indian leadership, headed by Prime Minister Nehru, revived the political, economic, and cultural ties with the Middle East that had been disrupted during the colonial interlude. The personal friendship between Nehru and Egyptian President Nasser, as well India’s leadership role in the Non-Aligned Movement, played a significant role in strengthening India’s ties to the Arab and Muslim world.

This long-lasting, common historical and cultural heritage provides a solid basis for mutual relations in many fields. Civilizational links with the Arabs and Iranians figure prominently in India’s official political rhetoric. For example, during an official visit to Saudi Arabia in 2010, the Indian prime minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, recalled the historical links between the two sides “that have left an indelible mark upon [India’s] culture and civilization … reflected in the natural empathy and sense of comfort we have when we meet each other.” He highlighted that not only is “Islam an integral part of India’s nationhood and ethos and of the rich tapestry of its culture,” but also that India “has made significant contributions to all aspects of Islamic civilization.”42 More discreetly, India also expressed its concern about the treatment of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia, Saudi financing of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and the spread of Muslim extremism originating in Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Modi’s first state visits to the Middle East (United Arab Emirates in August 2015 and Saudi Arabia in April 2016) showed that India’s bonds with the main Sunni Arab Gulf countries were stonger and more important than ever.

Pre-independence years: the Khilafat movement and British imperial policy


Even before India’s independence, Muslim concerns and issues were central to the Indian subcontinent’s domestic politics. The Indian National Congress Party (Congress Party) and the All-India Muslim League (AIML), the two political movements that were to play a decisive role in India’s freedom struggle, had close and friendly relations at the start of the 20th century. However, after the outbreak of World War I, their relations gradually deteriorated as competition for Muslim support and votes escalated. While the Congress Party aspired to represent all Indians, regardless of their religious or social belonging, the AIML claimed that it was the sole legitimate voice of Indian Muslims. The Congress Party had succeeded in attracting the backing and involvement of a number of Muslim leaders, but its grassroots support in the Muslim community remained limited. In the eyes of many Indian Muslims, it appeared as little more than a party at the service of Hindu interests and objectives. This widespread perception among Indian Muslims had a profound impact on the stance adopted at the time by the Congress Party toward the Middle East.

The struggle between the Congress Party and the AIML for Muslim votes and support crystallized around the Khilafat issue, which arose in the aftermath of World War I when the Allied Powers undertook to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. This was viewed as an attack against Islam because the Ottoman sultan also traditionally held the title of caliph – the supreme leader of the Muslim Ummah in Sunni Islam. Interestingly, it is in India that the most vehement protests against the abolition of the Caliphate took place. While the AIML initially led the offensive, the Congress Party joined the movement with the hope of forging closer ties with Indian Muslims and uniting Hindus and Muslims in the struggle for independence. The Congress Party advocated for the resolution of the Khilafat issue “in accordance with the just and legitimate sentiments of Indian Mussalmans” and proclaimed, “it is the duty of every non-Muslim (…) to assist his Mussalman brother.”43 The Khilafat issue was the major factor that triggered the involvement of Indian nationalists. Whereas the Indian Khilafat movement rapidly weakened after the Islamic caliphate was abolished in 1924 by the first Turkish President Ataturk, another Middle Eastern issue, Palestine had already arisen to dominate the Indian political agenda. The Palestine question soon became a bone of contention between the Congress Party and the AIML, with Gandhi opposing Jewish nationalist aspirations in Palestine.44

The Indian nationalists were not alone in their concerns that certain decisions taken with respect to the Middle East and Palestine could foment the hostility of Indian Muslims. Britain expressed its own reservations on several occasions. Shortly before the adoption of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, British Secretary of India Sir Edwin Montagu, who was, incidentally, the only Jewish member of the cabinet, vehemently opposed the adoption of a statement supporting Zionist aspirations in Palestine, arguing among other things that such a statement would “at once alarm the Moslems of India.”45 In fact, he succeeded in watering down the originally more pro-Zionist wording of the Balfour Declaration, to the consternation of Chaim Weizmann. In 1939, the adoption by the British government of the – for the Jews – infamous White Paper closing the doors to Jewish emigration to Palestine for the five-year period 1940-1944 was to a great extent an attempt to mitigate the concerns of the Muslim world, and of Indian Muslims in particular.

Even after World War II, British Prime Minister Attlee rejected U.S. President Truman’s request to allow 100,000 homeless Jewish refugees into Palestine. These Jews, among the few who had survived the Nazi Holocaust, had nowhere to go and were waiting in camps in Allied-occupied Germany. Attlee emphasized that such a move risked not only antagonizing the entire Middle East region, but also India’s “ninety million Moslems who are easily inflamed.”46 Thus, from the 1930s to 1946, Britain’s imperial design to keep India at all costs called for the appeasement of India’s Muslims, among other reasons, because they were seen as safer supporters of British rule than the Hindus. In turn, appeasement in India informed and influenced Britain’s policy in Palestine and the Middle East, and Britain sided increasingly with the Arabs and against the Jews. Hence, Britain decided to close the doors of Palestine, as well as India, to Jewish immigration. In India, no more than 1000-2000 Jewish refugees – precise figures are not available – were allowed in. This left countless numbers of Jews trying to flee Nazi-dominated Europe without refuge. Most of them perished in the Nazi death camps. It was history’s most tragic, albeit indirect, connection between India and the Jewish people. It is true that Britain closed the doors to Palestine primarily to appease Palestinian and Middle Eastern Arabs, but by Britain’s own admission, concern about Indian Muslim reactions also played a significant part in this decision. As far as is known, there was no specific intervention by Indian Muslim leaders asking Britain to close the doors of Palestine to fleeing Jews. It was British imperial dreams, absurdly maintained even in 1946, barely a year before the exhausted British Empire was forced to quit India.

The post-independence years: Indian Muslims as a domestic constraint


One could have expected that the partition of British India in 1947 and the secession of most Indian Muslims who wanted and got their own state, Pakistan, would put the Indian preoccupation with Palestine to rest, at least in the Republic of India with its huge non-Muslim majority. This is, in fact, what the prominent Indian historian, policy expert, and diplomat, K.M. Panikkar, believed. After all, it was to a large extent the resolute, but ultimately defeated plan of Gandhi, Nehru, and the Indian National Congress party to prevent partition that motivated their solicitude for Muslim sensitivities. On the eve of partition, Panikkar expressed confidence that the Indian nationalists’ support for the Arab and Muslim world would quickly disappear after independence and the formation of a Muslim state in the sub-continent. It is wrong to think that “Hindu opinion is solidly in favor of Islamic claims in Palestine,” he wrote in a note to the Jewish delegation from Palestine at the 1947 Asia Relations Conference in New Delhi.47 He analyzed the support for Islamic claims essentially as a “tactical move” designed to forge and strengthen Hindu-Muslim unity against foreign rule.48

He was, however, proved wrong. Following partition, a sizeable part of the Muslim population opted to stay in India and emerged as an influential minority. Their impact was notably felt on India’s foreign policy toward the Middle East, and particularly in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indian leaders continued to fear that pursuing policies regarded as inimical to the Arab and Muslim world might spark off riots and domestic unrest among Indian Muslims. Unfortunately, India’s history from 1947 until at least 2002, if not later, showed that these fears were not baseless. Relations between Indian Muslims and non-Muslims have often been tense, and sometimes violent. The bloody riots that occurred immediately before and after partition claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indians, both Hindus and Muslims. Among the numerous incidents later on, the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh became the theater of violent riots in 1992, following the destruction of a mosque. The riots quickly spread to Mumbai and other cities throughout India. Then, in 2002, riots broke out in Gujarat during which more than a thousand Indians, the large majority apparently Muslims, were killed. Since 2002, there has been no violence of a similar magnitude in India, but Hindu-Muslim tensions remain endemic, particularly in the country’s northern and western states. Hardly a month passes without some Hindu-Muslim incident reported in the press.

Nevertheless, the impact of the Muslim factor on India’s domestic politics and its relations with the Middle East has weakened since the turn of the 21st century. This has partly been the result of the rise to power in 1998 of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a nationalist and Hindu political party in less need than the Congress Party of Muslim support at the polls. Even before 1998,the BJP became India’s premier opposition political party following the 1991 national legislative elections, thus gaining a significant capacity to pressure the ruling coalition. At the same time, the Congress Party’s concerns over losing Muslim support also weakened, as several prominent Muslim leaders had already left the party during the 1991 elections.

The election victory of Narendra Modi in 2014 finally led to an even more significant reduction of internal Muslim constraining power on Indian foreign policy, as indicated before. Until 2014 the Indian political establishment remained wary of Muslim reactions to the country’s Mideast policy. This emerged clearly from a series of WikiLeaks cables, published and analyzed by The Hindu in early 2011. The Hindu argues that the Indian government’s policy toward the region has remained “hostage to ‘Muslim vote’.”49 A 2006 U.S. embassy cable, relating to the cool reaction of the Indian government with respect to Ehud Olmert becoming Israel’s prime minister, explained that India had “chosen to remain silent” in order to “avoid ruffling Muslim sentiments … India will wait until other nations voice their opinions…, a feature typical of the GOI [Government of India] when it comes to reacting particularly about Middle Eastern issues, given the importance of the Muslim vote to the ruling Congress party.”50 According to another diplomatic cable of 2006, the close attention paid to Muslim sensitivities is motivated by the Congress party’s determination to distance itself from the Hindu nationalist BJP, and to “win back the Muslim voter from regional parties to which most Muslims currently claim allegiance.”51 In a 2009 cable, the comment of the U.S. political counselor regarding India’s policy toward Iran is even more straightforward: “Much of India’s Iran policy is designed for public consumption by the domestic Muslim.”52

Indian Muslims today


India is home today to approximately 180 million Muslims. Exact figures are difficult to come by. This is probably the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, and the largest Muslim-minority population worldwide. Due, in large measure, to faster natural growth, the proportion of Muslims in India has increased from about 7 percent of India’s total population at the time of independence, to perhaps 15 percent today. Further, India is surrounded by countries with sizeable Muslim populations – Bangladesh and Pakistan – which also have high rates of population growth. As a result, some assert that the ratio between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent is becoming slightly more favorable to the Muslims. Hindu leaders are concerned by these demographic trends. Also, India, followed by Pakistan, is said to have the world’s largest Shia population after Iran, about 20 million, or more than 10 percent of India’s total Muslim population. This would partly explain the 2009 WikiLeaks comment on India’s Iran policy. India’s Shias are connected to Iran by family and other ties, and successive Indian governments have assumed that they value close ties with Iran. The Shia are a small proportion of India’s population. They are not a unified community. They are divided by political and other differences according to the Indian state where they live. Therefore, they do not form a voting bloc at the national level, but they do in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with more than 200 million inhabitants. In general, the Shias are important because they are better educated and socially and economically better integrated than Sunni Muslims. They have played an active role in Indian political life, and almost all the important political parties have Shia Muslims in their ranks. Iran seems to have refrained from supporting Indian Shia militant or insurrectionist movements (unlike in other countries), but it sometimes pressures the Shia community to intervene on Iran’s behalf.

Indian Shias organized some of the largest rallies protesting India’s partial agreement to sanctions against Iran, which were implemented as a result of its nuclear program. In addition, in 2012 Iran used at least one Indian Shia supporter to help prepare a nearly deadly terror attack against an Israeli diplomat in Delhi. No other sovereign country would have met a similar state-sponsored terror act without a sharp reaction. The absence of any public protest by the Indian government was telling. It showed the strength of the Shia factor in India’s domestic and foreign policy.53

There is little doubt that the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims want to remain Indian citizens – apart, perhaps, from the specific case of Indian Kashmiri Muslims, who represent barely one percent of India’s population. Still, many Indian Muslims have personal links with the Middle East due to tourism, academic exchanges, the growing numbers of Hajj pilgrims to Mecca and, not least, the millions who work in the region. Moreover, significantly, a Muslim religious resurgence has been underway in India since the 1970s. In recent years, this resurgence has fueled a radicalization of a – probably still small – segment of India’s Muslim population drawn to Muslim fundamentalism. This trend has been inspired, and sometimes directed and funded, by sources in the Middle East, and has become an issue of growing concern to Indian authorities. India is cooperating with Arab and Muslim countries, and, discreetly, also Israel, to address this danger.

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