A 1981 Meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi

, October 31, 2007

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)

 

A meeting with Indira Gandhi in 1981 touched on such delicate issues as India‘s relations with Israel and Jews in the face of Muslim pressures, Gandhi’s image in the U.S. media, her views of U.S. policies, and the situation of Soviet Jewry. At the meeting’s conclusion Gandhi gave mixed indications as to continuing the dialogue in the future.

In my role as head of the Australian Jewish community and representing the Asia Pacific Branch of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), I had numerous meetings with heads of state and foreign ministers in Asia and Southeast Asia. The Australian government was always helpful in arranging these.

One of the most interesting meetings was with Indira Gandhi, the charismatic Indian prime minister.[1] It took place at her home in New Delhi on 21 December 1981. Initially there was supposed to be a meeting with the then foreign minister P. V. Narashima Rao, whom I would encounter just under ten years later in a  confrontation that preceded diplomatic relations between Israel and India.[2]

At the time of the meeting with Prime Minister Gandhi, India was allowing Israel to operate a consulate in Bombay. The consul could not travel in India without special approval, and the government took pains to demonstrate to the Arabs that the consulate did not reflect a serious diplomatic relationship. The Indian Foreign Office was primarily concerned to ensure that the earnings of Indians working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which were a critical factor for the Indian economy, were maintained.

 

Mrs. Gandhi at Home

Although the meeting with Foreign Minister Rao was canceled, I was informed that Indira Gandhi would meet me at her home that evening together with the late Ezra Kolet, then head of the Council of Indian Jewry. When we arrived she greeted us warmly. I gave a short presentation explaining the WJC’s role as the umbrella body for world Jewry. Our objective was to strengthen relations and develop a dialogue with the Third World, of which India was the most important component.

As I spoke, Mrs. Gandhi started reading her telexes and I began to feel as if talking to myself. When I said that although we were a small people we did play a disproportionate role in various social and political areas in the West,  Mrs. Gandhi brushed aside her papers and interrupted to say that she was “acutely aware” of that.

I mentioned the Indian Jewish community and its two thousand years of uninterrupted settlement in India (as Indo-Jewish tradition maintains). I expressed admiration that India had enabled the Jews, like other minorities, to perpetuate their religious and cultural identity without discouraging them from full involvement in India’s national aspirations. I noted the total absence of anti-Semitic attitudes, discrimination, and persecution in India, which contrasted starkly with the Jewish experience in the Christian and Muslim worlds. At that stage she interrupted and somewhat cynically asked Kolet how many Jews were still left in India, obviously alluding to the fact that over 80 percent had emigrated to Israel.

Detecting resentment, I reverted to our desire for friendly relations. I recollected that her father was closely associated with Anglo-Jews who supported India’s struggle for independence. I mentioned the late Harold Laski-a leading Anglo-Jewish professor of political science at the London School of Economics, former chairman of the Labour Party, and central figure among the Fabian socialists-and the London School of Economics itself. Mrs. Gandhi smiled patronizingly.

I outlined the WJC’s principal concerns. First, we wanted to perpetuate Jewish tradition and culture-something we could not always take for granted in societies that discouraged or proscribed pluralism. Second, I mentioned the negative impacts of the intensification of the Cold War. Third, we were determined to combat the revival of anti-Semitism and racism, which emanated from the extreme Left as well as neo-Nazis. I said this was one area in which we shared common objectives with Diaspora Indians. I also elaborated on the plight of Soviet Jewry.

Finally, I dealt with Israel. Whether Jews agreed or differed with specific policies of the present Israeli government, we were all united in our support for Israel and deplored those elements in the Middle East whose objective was Israel’s destruction rather than peace. I expressed the hope that the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David accords would ultimately lead to a genuine settlement in which all parties in the Middle East could live in peace, security, and justice.

I told Mrs. Gandhi that many Jews in the West admired her as the leader of the world’s largest democracy. Although I was able to understand the sensitive elements inhibiting her freedom of action, many Jews hoped that one day she might act as a genuine bridge between the Jews and other people. I concluded by reiterating our desire to develop a relationship and dialogue with India.

 

A Constrained Relationship

Mrs. Gandhi responded openly and frankly. “You are politically on dangerous ground in India. I am under enormous pressure. It is not only Pakistan, I have a potential catastrophe with Muslims. The local Muslim minority is becoming a major problem. I don’t propose to discuss details of the Middle East situation with you…. Anything could happen.

But now that you are here, tell me why the American Jewish-dominated press hates me. Why do they continue publishing such vile lies about me? Am I your worst enemy? Your people dominate the media. It has nothing to do with Republican or Democratic administrations. It has been continuous. Why do they persist in maligning me? Are my policies so different from European policies? Why do the Jews concentrate their spite on me as if I were their worst enemy?

“Let me tell you something confidentially. There have been very strong pressures from Muslims to close down the Bombay Israeli consulate. The matter has been raised on a number of occasions in parliament. I must tell you that over the past twelve months every single Arab diplomat or ruler visiting India, including those from the Emirates-and you know how deeply economically dependent this country is on petrodollars-has pressured me to break all relations with Israel. Not a meeting goes by without such demands. I have resisted. Yet the Western press continues to malign me and demand actions of me that no leader of a nation could contemplate.”

I responded that Western Jews did not control the media. She disagreed. I conceded that many Jews were disappointed that a person of her immense moral standing had not adopted a different stance toward the Middle East. I appreciated her problems and inability to act as freely as she might have wished were she not facing such immense Arab economic and political pressures. I would convey her difficult position to Jewish leaders. Perhaps at a later stage she might have greater freedom of action, and could be more helpful in building bridges between Arabs and Jews.

She then launched into an attack on American policies, political and economic, which were driving her to align India even more closely with the Soviets and become more dependent on Arab petrodollars. I should try to persuade Jews in the United States to have a better understanding of what was happening.

We discussed Soviet Jewry. She said any intervention on her part would be a waste of time. In the past she had raised human rights issues with the Soviets and they had firmly told her not to meddle in their internal affairs. She said that she considered anti-Semitism endemic to Russia, having originated well before the Revolution. She asked me a few questions that indicated she was acquainted with the subject.

We then reverted to Israel. She felt Israel “hated” her. She liked some Jews, and her father had many close Jewish friends. She recalled the crisis that took place in her father’s home when the Saudi monarch Ibn Saud and the Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin were both house guests at the same time; Ibn Saud “went berserk.” Today, Muslim fundamentalism was developing into an ugly and dangerous phenomenon.

I reverted to the future. Could we develop this dialogue? She said that for the time being it would have to be treated very cautiously.

By this stage she was charming and relaxed. She had spent half an hour with us, though we had been warned that it would be a very short meeting. Kolet asked whether she would object to a photograph and she immediately assented. The photograph, I was told, was a litmus test of acceptability as she declined when she preferred to avoid exposure with people.

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Notes

[1]. This article is based on notes taken at the time.

[2]. That encounter is described in another “Perspectives” article by the same author in this edition of the JPSR, “A 1991 Meeting with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao.”

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ISI LEIBLER, a vereran international Jewish leader, headed the Australian Jewish community for many years. He also served in various senior capacities with the World Jewish Congress, including chairman of the Governing Board. Leibler’s main international involvement was first Asian-Jewish Colloquium including a historic encounter in Beijing between international Jewish and Chinese scholars preceding diplomatic relations with Israel. He now lives in Israel and heads the JCPA’s Israel-Diaspora Commission.