Celebrating India's Independence Day in Tel Aviv

An Indian journalist asks the hard questions and tries not to spoil the Israeli-Indian love affair.

August 16, 2017 09:17
3 minute read.
Indian Independence Day ceremony in Tel Aviv

Indian Independence Day ceremony in Tel Aviv . (photo credit: PALKI SHARMA UPADHYAY)

A typical independence day for a TV journalist in India goes like this - you report to work early in the morning because the Prime Minister makes a speech at the majestic Red Fort. You spend the day focusing on the highlights of it, and scrounge for news on agencies because it’s usually a slow day.

It’s a national holiday, people have more time to watch TV and you don’t have enough to serve them. The symbols of India's independence become ornaments that adorn a news cast prepared to feed the fervor of an audience. You don’t have the luxury to soak it in yourself. It’s almost a drill. I’ve spent August 15ths like this for the past 15 years. This one was different.

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For the first time since leaving school, I witnessed a flag hoisting ceremony and sang the national anthem with people who dressed up early to celebrate the 70th year of India’s independence. It was a bit surreal. Here I was in a city, thousands of kilometers away from home, singing with sari clad women I'd never met before. We were strangers, yet sisters. We exchanged greetings and posed for pictures next to the tricolor.

The pride they took in their Indianness was infectious. And I say this with no subtext or qualifiers for who is more “Indian." The sense of belonging was always there, as I discovered in my conversations with Jews of Indian origin during my last visit in June. But there is a certain assertiveness now. They wear it on their sleeve. They want to tell their fellow Israelis that India is where they came from.

The Modi hangover, and everything it entails, is evident and pronounced. A local journalist told me that this public friendship with India was like a national ambition for Israel. Now that it has happened, they cannot stop talking about it. They don’t care about the details, so smitten are they with the big picture.

It doesn’t matter if Indians still don’t get work visas, if the free trade agreement is nowhere close to being signed, if the gap between actually doing business and the intent of doing it still remains significantly wide. They’ve waited for seven decades for India to declare to the world that Israel is their friend and they won’t let these issues mar the celebration.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: it’s a marriage made in heaven. Incidentally he’s been married thrice, and his Indian Counterpart Nerendra Modi would do well to remember that.

Like every marriage, this one too has its challenges. Doklam could be one, coming very early in the honeymoon. The standoff with China along India’s northeastern border has been going on for more than two months now. The rhetoric and saber-rattling hasn’t subsided despite high level meetings. It’s a confrontation that has the region on edge, with no side willing to unilaterally back down.

Israel is India's strategic partner. It’s also China’s business partner. It doesn’t want to choose one over the other. So no diplomat or leader wants to go beyond the anodyne statement - 'we hope both sides resolve it peacefully.'

Since India isn’t asking for Israel to take a stand, the question is moot, yet still relevant and tricky. China is nobody’s friend, but its own, one television editor told me. “Yes, the Chinese get more work permits than Indians for infrastructure projects. But we’re India's friends. We don’t give China insurance projects or defense deals.”

You prod him about America's role in the last decision and he waves his hand. Suddenly, his phone has all his attention. Once again I’ve assumed the role of a pesky party pooper. I drift towards shade to escape the scorching sun, but cannot shrug off my questions. It’s a default setting. I ask the next person I meet whether Netanyahu will survive in office to visit India in December. He gives me a benign smile and a samosa. There’s jalebi on the next table, he says, wash it down with “chai tea.” The 'charcha' or discussion can wait. Today, just smile for photographs.

Good advice, I say. Happy Independence Day!

Palki Sharma Upadhyay is an editor and anchor at WION. She hosts India's only international news and views prime time show called "Gravitas."

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