Aakar Patel | Desis in America show solidarity for secular India, Palestinian rights

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

Solidarity Meeting in the U.S.: Uniting Struggles for Secularism in India and Against Imperialism in Palestine

Indians in the U.S. Forge Solidarity Across Struggles for Secularism and Against Imperialism. (File Image: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

I am writing this from the United States, where I recently 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 and 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 a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. And that idea and that notion therefore 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. Ms 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 sentences. 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 people might not know now and many others who knew will have forgotten that the Supreme Court had moved the trials out of Gujarat, something that to the best of my knowledge has not happened since or before.

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

That early settlers into Israel survived because of the aid of Palestinians, he said, just as the early settlers in America had. What was happening in Palestine was not a religious conflict but one of the occupied against the occupier. He exposed how hollow it was to describe settler colonialism as the coming together of a “land without people for a people without a land”.

He explained how the narrative that the entire Israel-Palestine issue was “complicated” was merely something that was being used to make a far simpler reality more complicated. That of occupation and colonialism and the rewriting of history with a particular agenda. The talk is on the Boston South Asian Coalition YouTube page, and I would encourage all of you to see it.

Why I said I found this gathering interesting was that it is not uncommon for Indian groups in the United States 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”). 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 had joined on that day. 

At the gathering I spoke briefly on what it was that Indians abroad could do. This was that they should 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 not implemented yet was the protest against it. But another reason was the condemnatory position taken against it by the European Parliament. 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”, but 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 human beings we should understand the suffering of others but because such participation is our duty.

The Preamble of the Constitution of India 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.