Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Indian writer apologizes for not appearing anti-Israel

Distinguished Indian novelist Shashi Tharoor has a weekly column on various Indian issues. At the outset of the Gaza operation, he wrote:
AS Israeli planes and tanks exact a heavy toll on Gaza, India's leaders and strategic thinkers have been watching with an unusual degree of interest, and some empathy.

Unsurprisingly, India's Government has joined the rest of the world in calling for an end to the military action, but its criticism of Israel has been muted. As Israel demonstrates anew its determination to end attacks on its civilians by militants based in Hamas-controlled territory, many in India, still smarting from the horrors of the Mumbai attacks in November, have been asking: Why can't we do the same?

For many Indians, the temptation to identify with Israel was strengthened by the terrorists' seizure of Mumbai's Chabad House Jewish centre and the painful awareness that India and Israel share many of the same enemies. India, with its 150-million strong Muslim population, has long been a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and remains staunchly committed to an independent Palestinian state. But the Mumbai attacks confirmed what has become apparent in recent years: the forces of global Islamist terror have added Indians to their target list of reviled "Jews and crusaders".

...When Indians watch Israel take the fight to the enemy, killing those who launched rockets against it and dismantling many of the sites from which the rockets flew, some cannot resist wishing that they could do something similar in Pakistan. India understands, though, that the collateral damage would be too high, the price in civilian lives unacceptable, and the risks of the conflict spiralling out of control too acute to contemplate such an option. So Indians place their trust in international diplomacy and watch with ill-disguised wistfulness as Israel does what they could never permit themselves to do.

The article is clearly about that wistfulness, and while it showed both comparisons and contrasts between India's situation and Israel's, the main point was how ordinary Indians viscerally feel about striking back directly at terror.

But his point was lost on a vocal portion of his audience, who immediately castigated him for even considering that Israel had a reason to react to years of suffering under thousands of rockets aimed at her citizens. So Tharoor was forced to replace a later column with an abject apology:

Many of you have read my article as endorsing Israel's military campaign in Gaza and deplored the article's apparent indifference to the humanitarian tragedy that followed.

I regret the misunderstanding of the intent and thrust of the piece, which was not written as a commentary on the conflict in Gaza. When I wrote the article I was thinking only about india/pakistan - the assault on Gaza had just begun when I put my fingers to the keyboard. (Though the Australian carried it on the 19th, and that was the link forwarded to you, the first paper to use the syndicated column was Beirut's Daily Star on the 8th). Obviously I had no sense at the time of writing of the scale of the israeli action that was to follow and the toll that would be taken in civilian lives. But in any case the article says India cannot, should not and would not do what Israel has done.

It should be noted that by January 8th, the three-week war was well over the halfway mark, as were the number of casualties.
Using the Israel parallel - at a time when my email inbox was brimming with messages of the "why can't we do the same as Israel?" variety - was just a way of bringing greater attention onto India's dilemma and its anguish, while arguing that there is no "Gaza option" for India.

Of course I should have realized that using an unfolding event as a peg would make my argument hostage to the way that situation evolved. Inevitably, some readers would judge the article in the light of what has happened in the two weeks after I wrote it. Had Israel taken out a few rocket sites and withdrawn in 3 or 4 days, as I had expected, perhaps the analogy would have seemed less offensive. But the article was always meant to be more about India's options than about Israel's actions.

Anyway, I am chagrined and chastened...
Even as he admits that his article was accurate - he was getting emails from the wistful Indians he was writing about - the criticisms were clearly so strident that he was forced to apologize for doing nothing wrong.

His crime was that he didn't immediately condemn Israel as a Nazi/fascist/terrorist state, which is apparently de rigueur any time Israel is mentioned in any context.

(h/t Mashi via email)