India and Israel: similarities and co-operation

Tremors on mountains of  tyranny

                Pankaj Mishra

June 13, 2011

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

 Non-violent mass movements against India  and Israel pose a challenge to the pronouncements of Barack Obama.                       

AT A dark moment in postcolonial history, when many US-backed despots seemed  indestructible, the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz  wrote: ”We shall witness  [the day] when the enormous mountains of tyranny blow away like cotton.” That  miraculous day finally came in Egypt and Tunisia this northern spring. We have  since witnessed many of the world’s  legislators scrambling to get on the right  side of history.

Addressing  the ”Muslim world” last month, President Barack Obama hailed  ”the moral force of non-violence”, through which ”the people of the region  have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in  decades”. But Obama failed to acknowledge the fact that the US enabled, and  often required, the ”relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens  dignity”. And he gave no sign that he would respect the moral authority of  non-violent mass movements ranged against America’s closest allies, India and  Israel.

Let’s not forget: before the Arab spring of 2011, there was the Kashmiri  summer of 2010.

Provoked by the killing of a teenage boy in June last year,  thousands of  Kashmiris took to the streets to protest against India’s brutal military  occupation of the Muslim-majority valley. Summer is the usual ”season for a  face-off in Kashmir”, as  Indian filmmaker Sanjay Kak writes in Until My  Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir, a lively anthology of young  Kashmiri writers, activists, rappers and graphic artists. There is little doubt  that Kashmiris, emboldened by the Arab spring, will again stage massive  demonstrations.

The chances of a third intifada in the Palestinian territories occupied by  Israel are just as high, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu devises  ever greater hurdles to self-determination for his Arab subjects. In the next  few months we will see more clearly than before how India and Israel – billed  respectively as the world’s largest, and the Middle East’s only, democracy –  respond to unarmed mass movements.

Certainly, they have shown no sign of fresh thinking. India’s security  establishment fell back last summer on reflexes conditioned by two decades of  fighting a militant insurgency during which more than 70,000 people  have died;  8000 have ”disappeared”, often into mass graves; and innumerable others have  been  subjected to ”systematic torture”, according to a rare public outburst from the Red Cross.

Last summer, soldiers fired at demonstrators, killing 112 civilians, mostly  teenagers. (Kashmir has many of its own Hamza al-Khatibs, a 13-year-old tortured  and mutilated by the Syrian government). The Indian government imposed  round-the-clock curfews (one village was locked in for six weeks) and banned  text messaging on mobile phones, while police spies  infiltrated Facebook groups  in an attempt to hunt down   organisers of demonstrations.

Faced with non-violent Palestinian protesters, who correctly deduce that  their methods have a better chance of influencing world opinion than Hamas’s  suicide bombers, Israel has not varied its repertoire of repression much. For  years now the West Bank village of Bilin has campaigned against the Israeli  government’s appropriation of its lands. Israel responded by jailing its leader,  Abdallah Abu Rahmah, often called the Palestinian Gandhi, for 15 months –  ”solely”, according to Amnesty International, ”for the peaceful exercise of  his right to freedom of expression and assembly”.

Encouraged by Egyptians and Tunisians, masses of unarmed Palestinians marched  last month to the borders of Israel to mark the dispossession of 750,000  Palestinians in Mandate Palestine. Israeli soldiers met them with live gunfire,  killing more than a dozen.

Of course, occupations damage the occupier no less than the occupied.  Revanchist nationalism has corroded democratic and secular institutions in both  India and Israel, which, not surprisingly, have developed a strong military  relationship in recent years.

Israeli counter-insurgency experts now regularly visit Kashmir.

India and Israel, both products of botched imperial partitions, were the Bush  government’s two most avid international boosters of the catastrophic ”war on  terror”, deploying the ideological templates of the wars in Afghanistan and  Iraq – democracy versus terrorism, liberalism versus fundamentalism – to justify  their own occupations.

Jingoistic media helped hardliners in both countries to demonise their  political adversaries as terrorists or terrorist sympathisers. Liberal opinion  grew almost inaudible. Writing  in The New York Review of Books,   Israeli scholar and activist David Shulman  lamented: ”Israeli academic  intellectuals as a group have failed to mount a sustained and politically  effective protest against the occupation.” This is also true of the Indian  intelligentsia.

So the burden of non-violent protest in India and Israel has fallen almost  entirely on the victims of the occupation. Many liberal commentators try to  condone their passivity by deploring the absence of non-violent protests in  Kashmir and Palestine (never mind the fact that the first intifadas in both  places in the late 1980s turned violent only after being savagely  suppressed).

The moment of truth is fast approaching for those powerful men who preach the  high morality of non-violence to the powerless. Only a US veto seems likely to  prevent UN member states from declaring a new Palestinian state in September.  But Palestinians may rise up against their colonial overlords well before this  expected rejection.  As political philosopher Michael Walzer points out, Israel  would then confront ”something radically new. How can it resist masses of men  and women, children too, just walking across the ceasefire lines?”

The tactics of young, tech-savvy Kashmiris have already confused and  bewildered the Indian government, whose recent actions – censoring  The  Economist, forcing spying rights out of BlackBerry and Google – evoke the  last-minute desperation of the Arab world’s mukhabarat (secret police) states.  The mass movement in Kashmir, which has emerged after two decades of a futile  militant insurgency,  poses, as  Kashmiri journalist Parvaiz Bukhari writes in Until My Freedom Has Come, an unprecedented ”moral challenge to New  Delhi’s military domination”.

The stage is set, then, for a northern summer of protests. They may well meet  with live bullets rather than offers of negotiation and compromise. It will be  fascinating to see if Obama makes good his claim last month that the US  ”opposes violence and repression” and ”welcomes change that advances  self-determination”. Certainly, as the corpses of the Palestinian and Kashmiri  Hamza al-Khatibs pile up, there will be the usual flurry of intellectual  rationalisations – the bogy of Islamic terror will again be invoked. And we will  witness how the ”enormous mountains of tyranny” in the world’s greatest  democracies do not blow away like cotton.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of Temptations of the West: How to Be  Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and  Beyond.

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