Echoes of colonialism: The similarities between the Palestinian and Punjabi liberation struggles

Similarly, India experienced a significant shift in 1919 after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, which turbocharged the free India movement. The partition resulted in the creation of the new countries of Pakistan and India. And, just as the Palestinians in the newly established Israeli state faced challenges, Punjabis in India were greatly affected.

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The Jallianwala Bagh massacre

By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

The Palestinian and Punjab liberation struggles have striking similarities. Presently, both Palestine and Punjab find themselves under occupation, with Palestine being occupied by Israel and Punjab by India. Neither peoples have formally recognised the existence or legitimacy of what were new countries that were established against the backdrop of colonialism. Further still, seeing the erosion of their respective territories over the years, coupled with government policies that are resulting in deepening levels of deprivation and poor, both physical and mental health, and rapid declines in populations both, sets of people rightly fear an existential threat.

Historically, both Israel and India were under the rule of the British and both came into existence in 1947 and both Palestine and Punjab were subject to the partitioning of their lands.

In the case of Israel, Britain took charge of Palestine in 1920 under a League of Nations Mandate. Over the next two decades, tensions arose due to the mass Jewish immigration facilitated by Britain. The UN-approved 1947 partition plan led to a civil war, culminating in Israel declaring independence on May 14, 1948. The roots of the Palestinian struggle can be traced back to this period of historical upheaval.

Similarly, India experienced a significant shift in 1919 after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, which turbocharged the free India movement. The partition resulted in the creation of the new countries of Pakistan and India. And, just as the Palestinians in the newly established Israeli state faced challenges, Punjabis in India were greatly affected. The partition split the former British province of Punjab between India and Pakistan, leading to massive displacement and inter-communal violence, with an estimated 12 million people migrating across Punjab.

If we look at the liberation struggles of the Palestinian and Panjabi people, we see some uncanny parallels. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964 with the explicit aim of establishing an independent Palestinian nation. Until 1993, the PLO engaged in armed struggle, but following the Oslo Accords in 1993, they abandoned this approach. The Oslo Accords, consisting of the Oslo I Accord in 1993 and the Oslo II Accord in 1995, marked the beginning of a peace process between Israel and the PLO. This process led to the recognition of Israel by the PLO and vice versa, with notable outcomes including the creation of the Palestinian National Authority and international acknowledgment of the PLO as Israel’s partner in negotiations regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Similarly, resigned to the fact that the pore colonial independent nation of Punjab was now a relic of history, the people of East or Indian occupied Punjab have been fighting for greater autonomy and the protection of the natural resources of the state. After India gained independence in 1947, Sikhs faced challenges related to the partition, with many Sikhs migrating from Pakistan to India. Tensions arose due to issues like the demand for a Sikh-majority state, which led to the formation of the Panjabi speaking state in 1966. However, subsequent political and economic grievances fuelled discontent and called for greater autonomy following the adoption of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973. The resolution outlined the demands and aspirations of the Sikh community in India and the state of Punjab. It called for greater autonomy for states, including Punjab, and sought economic and political concessions to address the perceived discrimination against Punjab and Sikhs.

The demands included a reorganization of states on linguistic lines, fair distribution of river waters, and more autonomy for states in economic matters. While the Anandpur Sahib Resolution aimed at addressing the concerns of the Sikh community, it became a source of contention and contributed to political tensions in the region. The situation escalated in the 1980s with the demand for an independent Sikh state, leading to Operation Blue Star in 1984 and the subsequent assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The period witnessed significant political and social consequences, culminating in the tragic anti-Sikh riots in November 1984 and a decade long armed insurgency in Punjab and the deaths of many thousands of Punjabi youths in fake encounters which are documented in detail by Pav Singh in his book, 1984: India’s Guilty Secret published in 2017.

History rarely unfolds in neat narratives of good versus evil. The complexities of the human experience often blur the lines, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths, one being the potential for the oppressed to become the oppressors. While acknowledging the horrors of the Holocaust experiences by European Jews and the violence’s of British imperialism in India is crucial, we must also look beyond to understand how these experiences can shape present realities in what might be characterised as the post-imperial, post-colonial period.

Both Israel and India were born from the ashes of colonialism. The Jewish yearning for a homeland after centuries of persecution culminated in the creation of Israel, while India’s independence movement led to the dismantling of British rule. However, this shared history of oppression does not guarantee empathy or justice. In fact, it can sometimes sow the seeds of future oppression.

Victims of historical injustices can carry deep scars – fear, anger, and a desire for retribution. These traumas can morph into a need for power and dominance, leading former victims to adopt the oppressive tactics they once endured. This cycle of pain and power becomes evident when examining certain policies.

Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has been heavily criticised, drawing comparisons to the historical persecution of Jews. The construction of settlements on occupied land, restrictions on movement, and military operations raise questions about mirroring past injustices rather than learning from them. Similarly, India’s growing Hindu nationalism and instances of anti-Muslim sentiment have sparked concerns about echoes of its colonial past. The way that the Indian government, driven by a determination to shift from small-scale family-based to corporate farming, has behaved towards Punjabi farmers, especially those from Punjab, Haryana and UP, leading to huge farmers’ protests, has been described as a genocide in the making.

It’s important to remember that not all members of a group that experienced oppression become oppressors. Generalising entire populations is dangerous and inaccurate. However, acknowledging this historical cycle allows us to critically examine present circumstances and work towards breaking the chain of suffering.

The brave Indian Feminist writer Amrit Wilson, who, after publishing a revealing pamphlet entitled Hindutva and Its Relationship with Zionism in 2022 in which she highlighted the growing alliance between Israel and India, had her Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card cancelled. Her crime was to point out that the India of her childhood, or freedom and liberation was a far cry from the India of Narendra Modi and his band of India Nationalism. Influenced by their shared ideologies of Zionism and Hindutva, she argued that both countries were facing escalating violence and internal turmoil, with Israel’s assaults on Gazan Palestinians and India’s rising anti-Muslim sentiment highlighted. But, despite facing economic turmoil, she exposes how Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, who has recently been accused of wide-scale illegal tax evasion, continues to receive support from Israel’s Netanyahu, further solidifying the controversial partnership. She argues that “In this era of rising fascism, these two remarkably similar ideologies are crucially important in cementing the economic and military alliance between two of the world’s most repressive right-wing states.”

In a similar vein, in a short blog entitled Think about the Nation, published in the London Review of Books on 16th Feb 2024, Skye Arundhati Thomas reveals a worrying trend of rising Hindu nationalism in India, manifesting in cultural and political spheres and leading to increased persecution and violence against minorities, but Muslims in particular. It is centred on the infamous Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut’s visit to the Israeli embassy and promotion of her film Tejas. In doing so, it highlights the growing economic, security and ideological alliance between India and Israel, including the procurement of military-grade drones, which are becoming the new weapon of war, not only against external threats but increasingly, as we are seeing at this very moment in Gazza and the borders of Punjab, on civilian internal populations. As Thomas notes:

“…a company called Atharva Advanced Systems and Technologies was incorporated in Gujarat as a wholly owned subsidiary of Adani Defence Systems and Technologies. In November, Adani sold a 44 per cent stake to Israel’s Elbit Systems. Adani and Elbit have been building Hermes 900 drones together in Hyderabad since 2018; the primary user is the Israeli Air Force. Last year Adani bought a majority stake in the Port of Haifa (where Elbit happens to be based). The Indian tricolour flies next to the Israeli flag.’

The historical experiences of oppression can have a complex and lasting impact on the present. While it is important to remember the horrors of the past, such as the Holocaust and British imperialism in India, it is also crucial to look beyond them and understand how these experiences can shape current realities. Both Israel and India were born from the ashes of colonialism, and both countries have grappled with the legacy of oppression. In Israel, the treatment of Palestinians has been heavily criticized, with some drawing comparisons to the historical persecution of Jews. In India, the rise of Hindu nationalism and oppression faced by ethnic and religious minorities, Adivasis, Dalits, and women, have sparked concerns about echoes of the country’s colonial past.

It is important to remember that not all members of a group that will have experienced historical oppression, up to and including genocide, become oppressors, and no doubt that the vast majority of ordinary Israelis and Indians, home and amongst the diaspora, would support justice, freedom, the rule of law and human rights. So, generalising entire populations is dangerous and inaccurate. However, acknowledging this historical cycle allows us to critically examine present circumstances and work towards breaking the chain of suffering. We must learn from the past to create a more just and equitable future. This means confronting uncomfortable truths, understanding the complexities of human experience, and working to build a world where all people can live free from oppression.

The struggle against oppression is the responsibility of all, though intellectuals and influencers have a special role. In the face of the rise of violent dictators across the world, the role of progressive intellectuals delineated by the late, great Palestinian activist and scholar, Edward Said, could not be more precinct: “For the intellectual, the task…is explicitly to universalise the crisis, to give greater human scope to what a particular race or nation suffered, to associate that experience with the sufferings of others.” Here, by calling for the “universalising the crisis”, Said is imploring intellectuals to connect particular instances of suffering, such as what is happening in Gaza at the moment, to broader common historical patterns of human oppression. It is by recognizing similar struggles and suffering across different groups, that one can promote empathy and solidarity. Ultimately, Said is calling on thinkers to deploy their intellectual labour to inform and inspire action for a more just world.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.

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