Top News

India and Israel: Similar paths

India and Israel have had remarkably similar political trajectories since their formation in the mid-twentieth century.

Both were born of partition and the transfer of populations, and both were immediately plunged into war. Both were founded by left-wing secular intellectuals, who became the respective face of their country, and both were governed by secular social democratic parties for the following three decades.

In both nations, the intensification of religiously-based nationalism, a consequence of ongoing feuds with hostile neighbours, has led to rule by parties of the right, supported by devout members of their respective majority faiths.

The British Indian Empire achieved independence in 1947 through the partition of the subcontinent, one based on religious identity, leading to the creation of a Muslim Pakistan and an India overwhelmingly Hindu in population.

One year later, Britain’s mandate over Palestine came to an end, and a UN-supported plan to create an Arab and Jewish state was supposed to come into effect. Though the Jewish state became Israel, for a variety of reasons no Palestinian Arab state emerged, its territories instead attached to Egypt and Jordan.

There was in both cases massive displacement of populations. The partition of India led to more than one million deaths due to communal violence. Millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees moved from the new Pakistan to India, while millions of Muslims left India for Pakistan. Upwards of 18 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were uprooted.

In Palestine, ensuing warfare resulted in the majority of Arabs leaving the new Jewish state. Around 700,000 fled or were expelled. An equivalent number of Jews from the Arab Middle East and North Africa relocated to Israel over the next few decades.

India and Pakistan almost immediately fought a war over Kashmir, a disputed territory in the northwest. Pakistan claimed it due to its Muslim majority, while for India it was to be symbolic of the country’s secular, non-communitarian nature.

Israel was invaded by its Arab neighbours Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, who sought to strangle the new nation at birth, but it not only survived but gained territory.

India has fought major wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Israel has defeated Arab states in 1956, 1967 and 1973. Apart from these conflicts there have been numerous border clashes and other hostilities.

Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress, would govern the country until his death in 1964, while in Israel, David Ben-Gurion, head of the labour party known as Mapai, was in office until 1963. He died 10 years later.

The dynasties they built outlasted them until the spring of 1977. Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, lost power to the Janata Party, while Israel’s Labour Party under Yitzhak Rabin was defeated by Menachem Begin’s Likud.

Although each leftist party has since at times regained power, neither exercises the ideological hegemony it once enjoyed. Their defeats marked a watershed in the manner in which each country is depicted.

Today, India’s governing party is the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm, while in Israel Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu heads a coalition of right wing and Orthodox Jewish religious movements.

For the BJP and the Likud, only Hindus and Jews are, respectively, true Indians and Israelis. Members of each country’s large minority population – 14.2 per cent Muslim in India and 20.7 per cent Arab in Israel – in consequence feel less secure about their futures.

Each of these groups was once part of the respective Muslim Mughal and Ottoman empires that ruled India and Palestine but are now reduced to minority status amongst Hindus and Jews, their former subjects.

So Indian Muslims and Israeli Arabs, though not deprived of civil and political rights, are viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. Hindu and Jewish nationalists see each group as a potential internal enemy, especially as they have ethno-religious compatriots in neighbouring states.

The minorities are seen as being inimical to each country’s security, and in both, violence between them and the majority population worsens.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.


Recent Stories