'Crimes against Humanity: From India to Palestine'

Attitudes in the diaspora about secularism in democratic India and imperialism in occupied Palestine—and about historical revisionism

Teesta Setalvad (left) and Saleem Hallal (right) were keynote speakers at the Boston South Asian Coalition's 18 February hybrid event on similar struggles in India and Palestine (image courtesy @TheBostonCoali1/X)
Teesta Setalvad (left) and Saleem Hallal (right) were keynote speakers at the Boston South Asian Coalition's 18 February hybrid event on similar struggles in India and Palestine (image courtesy @TheBostonCoali1/X)

Aakar Patel

I am writing this from the United States, where I attended an interesting solidarity meeting that I thought I should write about. It was interesting because it combined two struggles — that for secularism in democratic India and against imperialism in occupied Palestine.

Hosted by the Boston South Asian Coalition, it featured two speakers: One was our Teesta Setalvad, heroine of the struggle for justice in Gujarat. The other was a young man from South Lebanon named Saleem Hallal.

In the audience were a few dozen people, including several desis, and to my mind, this was what made this gathering especially interesting (and I will write about why that is later).

The talks by the two speakers were focused on the facts: about communal crimes in one place condoned by the state (some would say encouraged by it) and in the other a national struggle for liberation.

There was also a common thread, and that was historical revisionism—the rewriting of things: the idea in both Palestine and ‘New India’ that something else used to be 'here' on the ground and in this land 1,000 years ago or 2,000 years ago, and that that idea notion justifies violence against people and against structures and monuments in the present.

A lot of people in the audience, including myself, found themselves nodding at the parallels. Setalvad, who has been a friend for a few decades, was precise and deliberate in what she communicated to the gathering, most of whom may not have known of what had transpired in and after 2002 in Gujarat.

She spoke of the 174 individuals who had been convicted because of the courage and persistence of the survivors and activists. Of these, 124 were given life.

These were convictions that came often in the face of resistance from the state to the idea of justice. To understand what sort of effort that took, consider only how rapist-murderer convicts are today mollycoddled by the government in India, which wants to release them for no reason other than bigotry.

Many might not know now and many who knew will have forgotten that the Supreme Court had moved trials out of Gujarat, something that to the best of my knowledge has not happened since or before.

Hallal spoke directly and with passion about Palestine—about how unjust was both the reality on the ground and the falsity of the narrative constructed to sustain it.

He spoke of how early settlers in newly created Israel survived because of the aid of Palestinians—just as the early settlers into America had with the help and guidance of Native Americans.

What has been happening in Palestine, he reminded us, was not a religious conflict but one of the occupied against the occupier. He exposed how hollow it was to describe Israel's settler colonialism as the coming together of a ‘land without people' and 'a people without a land’.

He explained how the narrative that the Israel–Palestine issue was ‘complicated’ was merely something used to complicate a more simple reality—that of occupation and colonialism and the rewriting of history with a particular agenda.

The talk (below) is on the Boston South Asian Coalition YouTube page.

Why I said I found this gathering interesting was that it is not uncommon for Indian groups in the US to be shown as backing the government in India—particularly on such issues as what the government does to minority Indians and in events that are organised by the state (‘Howdy Modi’).

This is especially and unfortunately true of my own Gujarati community, who are often shown as being at the forefront of this defence of state communalism.

But there is another side to this and there are other Indians, many of them, who are opposed to the path we have taken in recent years. It is those who I joined on that day. 

At the gathering, I spoke briefly on what it was that Indians abroad could do.

What they should do is use the democratic process in their country to engage with what was happening in India.

The main reason that a discriminatory citizenship law was passed in India in 2019 but has not been implemented yet is the protest against it.

One wonders why it was that MPs in far-off lands would be interested in what we might think of as being as our ‘internal affairs’. Yet, it is clear that this was likely because Indians abroad were concerned enough to raise the law with their local legislator.

India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is no reason why our friends cannot remind us of this fact.

And this in turn is more likely to happen if desis abroad engage more robustly with what is going on in India.

Solidarity is important not only because as humans we should understand the suffering of others, but because such participation is our duty.

The Constitution’s Preamble says that we Indians have resolved to secure for Indians ‘fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual’.

Fraternity can come only when we stand up for each other. The desis of the Boston South Asian Coalition actually attempt to do that.

Views are personal

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