India's 75th anniversary: How is it similar, different to Israel? - analysis

According to Daniel Carmon, a former Israeli ambassador to India despite all the regional, religious and linguistic differences, the Indians “succeeded in creating a united state of India.”

 Students hold a giant Indian national flag during a "Tiranga Yatra" rally as part of the ongoing celebrations commemorating 75 years of India's Independence, in Ahmedabad, India, August 8, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)
Students hold a giant Indian national flag during a "Tiranga Yatra" rally as part of the ongoing celebrations commemorating 75 years of India's Independence, in Ahmedabad, India, August 8, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)

At a gala event in Tel Aviv on Monday hosted by the Indian embassy and celebrating 75 years of India’s independence, President Isaac Herzog did what so many other statesmen and political leaders do in similar situations: he stressed commonalities.

Herzog noted the “clear parallels” between India’s independence from Britain in August 1947 and Israel’s independence from it just nine months later.

“Today, just a few decades later, we find our two modern republics proudly bound together by creativity and democracy, by ingenuity coupled with deep respect for timeless faiths and belief systems that transcend time,” he said. “Israel and India both aim for equality and prosperity; we both face challenges, internal and external; and we are both open to expanding partnerships.”

“Today, just a few decades later, we find our two modern republics proudly bound together by creativity and democracy, by ingenuity coupled with deep respect for timeless faiths and belief systems, which transcend time.”

President Isaac Herzog

In other words, Herzog emphasized how much the two countries had in common – how much they are alike.

 Israeli and Indian national flags fly at Haifa Port, which is to be sold to India's Adani Ports and local partner Gadot, in Haifa, Israel July 24, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) Israeli and Indian national flags fly at Haifa Port, which is to be sold to India's Adani Ports and local partner Gadot, in Haifa, Israel July 24, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

But they are not.

How is India different from Israel?

India is huge, both geographically and population-wise, while Israel is miniature in both terms. The cultures, though both ancient, are starkly different. The rhythm of life is also very dissimilar.

 In fact, it is this very dissimilarity that is so attractive to Israelis – especially young Israelis, who visit India in droves precisely because they want something that is not like Israel; something foreign, exotic and, of course, relatively inexpensive. And they find it in India.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been known to quip with Indian guests and hosts that India is the world’s largest democracy, while Israel is the largest democracy in the Middle East. The differences regarding this apparent similarity are vast, as are the challenges they face.

Netanyahu, through the extraordinary relationship he forged with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, played a critical role in moving relations with India to a different plane. But those relations are not dependent on Netanyahu, and have been continuing to move on the same upward trajectory even though Netanyahu has been out of office for more than a year.

The Israeli-Indian relationship was held back for many years because of India’s fear of how such a relationship would affect its ties to the Muslim world and what reaction it would trigger from its own large Muslim population. Now, however, the relationship has entered a different sphere when the Indians realized that they could have a strong and beneficial relationship with Israel while maintaining their firm ties with the Palestinians.

 This has been called the de-hyphenation of India’s relationship; it is no longer India’s relationship with Israel-Palestine, but rather India’s relationship with Israel, and its relationship with the Palestinians – one not dependent on the other.

The relationship also took off when the Indians understood that a strong, robust relationship with Israel would not cost them anything at all in the Arab world.

What do the experts think?

According to Daniel Carmon, a former Israeli ambassador to India, the relationship – which he termed “strategic” – also benefited a great deal from Israel’s lack of a paternalistic attitude toward the large South Asian country. He said that Israel always dealt with the Indians at eye level, and never came with an attitude of what it can teach India, but rather how each country could benefit from the advantages of the other.

This was wise, as India and Modi are sensitive to what the prime minister often refers to as a “colonial mentality” – a feeling of inferiority born from so many years of being colonized by the British.

In a speech Monday on India’s Independence Day, in which Modi outlined what India needed to do to become a “developed nation” by its 100th anniversary, one of the five points he made had to do with jettisoning that “colonial mindset.”

This mindset, he said, “put shackles on our minds,” and it was critical that “we are free from it.” A “colonial mindset” presupposes that India has to learn from others. But what Modi is trying to instill in the Indians is a sense that others have things to learn from them.

According to Carmon, there are two distinct areas where Israel can learn much from India.

The first, he said, is in its ability to weather pressure and not get “hysterical” when it comes under criticism or is censured by the international community. Carmon acknowledged that it is easier for a country of 1.4 billion people to do this than a country of nine million, but that Israel can still learn from India as far as doing what it thinks is in its interests, and not giving overmuch weight to outside criticism.

The most recent example of this is the position New Delhi has taken in the Russian-Ukrainian war. On this issue, it has not fallen in line behind the West; instead, it has taken, despite Washington’s displeasure, a decidedly neutral stance, weighing – especially in light of its relations with regional rival China – what India’s interests are vis-a-vis its own relationship with Russia.

“We can learn from this,” he said. “India looks at its interests before giving in to pressure from outside forces, and it is not that whenever it comes under criticism, this becomes a game changer.”

Carmon gave the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) issue as an example. He said that Israel tends to be a “bit hysterical” when it comes to BDS, whereas the Indians – who have faced sanctions over the years – never lost their equilibrium and dealt with those threats in a calmer manner.

“It was not always easy for them with the world,” he said.

The second area that Carmon said Israel could learn from India was in nation building.

Those who think that Israel is a nation of separate tribes – religious, secular, haredi, Arabs, Mizrachi – should take a look at India, a country formed out of a myriad of different princely states, religions and people speaking numerous different languages.

Despite all of the tensions and the many regional, religious and linguistic differences, the Indians “succeeded in creating a united state of India,” Carmon said, forging a common identity that most of the population can rally around.

While acknowledging that it is far from the perfect union, Carmon said there is a “tribal tolerance” there that has, for the most part, enabled the disparate groups inside the country to feel a part of a common Indian identity.

“The Indian identity is very strong, and this includes the Muslims,” he said. “This tribal tolerance is something we can learn from.”

“The Indian identity is very strong, and this includes the Muslims. This tribal tolerance is something we can learn from.”

Daniel Carmon, former Israeli ambassador to India