By Rahnuma Ahmed
Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli prime minister to visit India. It was 2003, and the Financial Times, while reporting on the impending visit, had this to say: it is “one of the world’s most secretive relationships.” As for the reason of the visit: it was to be a “coming-out party” (`India and Israel Ready to Consummate Secret Affair,’ 4 September). The party, unfortunately, was cut short by two Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem which killed 16 people.
Many more parties have been held since, but neither side has cared to shed any light on the nature of their relationship. It has remained a secret.
A status that has been vetted and certified by Mark Sofer, Israel’s ambassador to India. I quote his memorable words: “We do have a defence relationship with India, which is no secret. On the other hand, what is a secret is what is the defence relationship. And with all due respect the secret part of it will remain secret” (Outlook India, 18 February 2008).
What is one to make of that? That defence and intelligence co-operation, which includes sales of high tech weapons systems and mutual access to military facilities and training?is mere surface? What lies underneath then? Something which is so hidden, so momentous that His Excellency needed to utter the word `secret’ four times?
Whatever be the true nature of this `limitless’ relationship, it took time to develop, to mature. Full diplomatic relations were established in 1992, a good forty-two years after India had recognised the state of Israel. And, why?
Earlier, India had been supportive of anti-colonial struggles. It was one of the first non-Arab states to recognise Palestinian independence, to allow the setting-up of an embassy. There had been tactical reasons, too. To counter Pakistan’s influence in the Arab world. To safeguard its oil supplies. To ensure jobs for Indian migrants in Middle Eastern countries . Also, out of respect for its alliance and friendship with the Soviet Union. After all, those were the good old Cold War days and as a founder-member of the Non-Aligned Movement, India had maintained a self-respecting distance from US imperialism. But not everyone will agree, pointing instead to prime minister Indira Gandhi’s instructions to Rameshwar Nath Kao, founder of RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), way back in September 1968. Cultivate relations with Mossad, she had said. It’ll help monitor developments likely to threaten both nations.
Everyone agrees however that the Kargil war (May-July 1999) “cemented” the relationship between the two nations. Israel had leapt to India’s assistance. As Air Marshal PS Ahluwalia puts it, it had not been very easy to locate Pakistani intruders. They had merged into the stony terrain. Tel Aviv assisted with unmanned reconnaissance aircrafts. These UAVs, or drones, could not only fly longer i.e., 24 hours, but were able to “sense even simple movements on the ground.” The Israeli Heron and Searcher UAVs are now flown by the Indian Armed forces. It had also, reportedly, provided an emergency shipment of artillery shells to India, on credit.
These cementing steps were preceded by events which had caused alarm in New Delhi, had led to strategic re-assessments. Guerrilla warfare had begun in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1980s, this had coincided with the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the face of? the ISI-trained and CIA-sponsored mujahidin insurgency, the subsequent collapse of the USSR. New Delhi’s re-assessment of its relationship with America and Israel led to the discovery of convergences; these mirrored assessments arrived at in both Washington and Tel Aviv. Realignments followed soon, ones that were vigorously pursued by Indian and Jewish lobbies in the US.
To modernise its Soviet-era arsenal, India plans to spend $100 billion on defense over the next decade. Having overtaken Russia, Israel is now India’s No 1 supplier of arms and ammunitions; 50% of Israel’s defence exports are to India, which relies on Israel for 30% of its imports. Israel supplies a range of defence products, which include Barak missiles, assault rifles, night fighting devices, radar network, hi-tech warfare systems and information technology related equipment. The growing defence ties were expressed by India’s launching of Tecsar, an Israeli spy satellite (also known as Polaris), from Sriharikota launch site, in 2008. According to Israeli press reports, the satellite will improve Israel’s ability to monitor Iran’s military activities. In early November last year, the signing of a $1.1 billion contract was announced while India’s army chief General Deepak Kapoor was in Israel for high-level talks. The sale of Barak-8 systems, an upgraded tactical air defence system, is expected to be delivered to India by 2017. Since Kargil, India has bought $8 billion worth military hardware and software from Israel. Some of the defense contracts however, have been dogged by controversy surrounding alleged kickbacks (the name of a London based businessman cropped up in the Barak deal; the director of India’s Ordnance Factory Board was arrested with others, on corruption charges).
India’s army chief General Deepak Kapoor visited Israel November 2009 to complete $1.1 billion deal to purchase upgraded tactical air defense system, Barak – 8. ? Alexz/militaryphotos.net
Militarisation, armament, as feminists argue, is deeply gendered. The Israeli armament company Rafael, unveiled an ad at the Aero-India show in Bangalore (2009) a dance and music video, Bollywood style, to woo the Indian defence establishment. The 3 mt 21 sec video shows a man, presumably Rafael (Israel) wooing a woman (India) singing a song, accompanied by dancing shokhis:
“We will never be apart, dinga-dinga, dinga-dee….” Israeli armament company Rafael displayed this Bollywood dance number-based marketing video at Aero India 2009 in Bangalore.
[Man] “We have been together for long…
Trusting friends and partners…
What more can I pledge to make our future strong?”
[Woman] “I need to feel safe and sheltered…
security and protection, commitment and perfection,
defence and dedication.”
[Chorus] Dinga-dinga, dinga-dinga, dinga-dee.
Some of the shots show missiles, part of the set design, around which the dancers gyrate their bodies. The phallic symbolism was surely not lost on India’s elite defence establishment.? A senior defence officer?probably distraught at India’s depiction as a helpless woman, in need of a manly man, one that goes against its image as an emerging superpower, one which India would like its less fortunate South Asian kin to revere?told the Times of India, the ad was “quite tacky.” Like a “C-grade Hindi movie song.” The Times was more sophisticated. Its headline said, the ad had “raised” Indian eyebrows.
Arms sales can be tracked, says Vijay Prasad. “But this counterterrorism relationship is very, very covert” Prasad’s suspicions reverberate when Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state?described as Obama administration’s point man for South Asia?says, India will be “a key stakeholder” in Obama’s so-called Af-Pak strategy. After all, “They’ve made an important contribution in Afghanistan?I think their total (contribution to the rehabilitation and reconstruction in Afghanistan) is up to about $1.2 billion. They’ve been very instrumental in key areas like training, civil service, and helping build Afghan institutions,” but “they will not do anything militarily or put boots on the ground” because of regional issues involved with Pakistan.
The left’s opposition to India’s `limitless’ relationship with Israel seems to have died down after the Mumbai attack in November 2008, India’s 9/11. A fact compounded by the electoral results last year, one of the biggest wins for the Indian National Congress, “no longer under the pressure of the left front”. The Mumbai attack has made it easier for sentiments about Israel-India’s similarities to be voiced: both are targeted by Islamist fundamentalists. In one case, Palestinians/Hamas, in the other, Pakistanis/jihadists.
But, Jeff Gates writes, as Afghanistan and Pakistan join other nations in being destabilised one cannot help but raise questions about how the crises which have wracked the sub-continent in recent years, were so “well-timed”: Benazir Bhutto’s murder, Musharraf’s departure, the terror attack in Mumbai which served to draw Pakistani forces away from the western tribal region. Incidents which served the tactical goals of both Muslim extremists and Jewish nationalists. Did Mossad have any role to play? asks Gates.
Israeli writer and peace activist Gideon Levy recently wrote, the time has come to send Israel for observation. Only psychiatrists can explain Israel’s behaviour. Its acts have no rational explanation. It suffers from a loss of touch with reality. Temporary or permanent insanity. Paranoia. Schizophrenia. Memory loss. Loss of judgment.
Maybe, not having `any limitation’ is not a good idea, after all. Maybe, there is still time for India to part company with Rafael. To retrieve its sense of judgment.