In a recent essay in the Times Literary Supplement, the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif marvelled at the unending flood of books and essays on the Palestinians, these the work of Palestinians themselves, but also of Israelis, Americans, South Africans, Britons, Danes, and, as it happens, Indians. Here Souief remarked:
‘It took five decades, but now it’s here, and it will only grow. Books are tumbling off the spaces, so Palestine’s story expands into the world. This is the Palestinians’ great achievement. Harried from their homeland and in the face of a state with the most sophisticated political, legal and PR machinery and the most powerful friends in the world, they [the Palestinians] have been determined not to be extinguished as a people and a culture’.
Stirring words, and at least partly justified. The expropriation and continuing suppression of the Palestinians by a people who themselves suffered so much must rank as one of the saddest episodes in modern history. To sublimate their own guilt for so savagely persecuting the Jews down the centuries, the Western powers created a homeland for them, disregarding the history, culture, and tangible material interests of the people who already lived in Palestine. Once Israel was established, it was given ever stronger (and ever more uncritical) support by the richest and most powerful country of the world, the United States of America. Israel’s repeated violations of United Nations resolutions, its reneging on promises to create a Palestinian state, its massive settlement drive in the Occupied Territories, have been encouraged and endorsed by successive Presidents of the United States, both Democrat and Republican.
The case of the Palestinians has become a cause celebre among the international Left, the Left in our own country not excluded. Marches and seminars have been held, and articles, books, and poems written, by Indian Marxists, particularly those close to the CPI (M). The Marxist support for the Palestinian cause is intensified by their intense dislike (not to say hatred) for America, Israel’s most steadfast ally, and a country demonized by the global Left ever since the early days of the Cold War.
There is little question that the Palestinians have been treated horrifically. But so have the Tibetans, who live far closer to us in India. Despite their sufferings at the hands of the Chinese, the Tibetans have also, to quote Souief’s words, ‘been determined not to be extinguished as a people and a culture’. Regrettably, their tragedy has been neglected or ignored by left-wing intellectuals all over the world, who are so eager to rise to the defence of the Palestinians.
As for the Indian Marxists, they have not just stayed silent. Rather, they have been complicit in the silencing of the Tibetans, by enthusiastically endorsing the viewpoint of the Chinese Communist Party that by invading Tibet and destroying its culture, the Communists were promoting ‘progress’ at the expense of ‘reaction’. The Indian Marxist’s blind loyalty to ‘communist’ China is as complete as his unreasoning hatred of ‘capitalist’ America; hence the intense interest in and empathy for the sufferings of the Palestinians on the one hand, but a disregard of and even contempt for the sufferings of the Tibetans on the other.
In truth, while the Israelis have been less than civilized in their conduct towards the Palestinians, the conduct of the Chinese in Tibet has been far worse. Israelis have been criticized for building settlements in the West Bank; yet this pales into insignificance when compared to the demographic invasion of Tibet by the Han Chinese. The Tibetan dissenters in Chinese jails are treated far more savagely than Palestinian dissenters in Israeli jails. The ecological imperialism of the Chinese in Tibet—the diversion of water sources, the exploitation of minerals, etc.—has been more devastating in its long-term impacts than that of the Israelis in Palestine. And while the Israelis have at least left Palestinian places of worship untouched, the Chinese have razed dozens of Tibetan monasteries and looted many others.
A second difference has to do with the forms of protest adopted. After the abortive uprising of 1959, the Tibetans have almost exclusively adopted non-violent methods. Any violence used has been directed against themselves, as in the immolation of monks protesting Chinese atrocities. On the other hand, Palestinian rebels fetishize violence, often sending suicide bombers to kill innocent Israeli civilians. This difference in approach may have something, or perhaps a lot, to do with the main leaders of the two movements. For Yaser Arafat was (to put it politely) no Dalai Lama.
The third difference may be the most telling. This is that there is, in Israel itself, a prominent ‘peace camp’, composed of brave and honourable Israelis who have consistently opposed and exposed the expansionist policies of their Government. Among these ‘peaceniks’ is the leading Israeli scholar of India, David Shulman, whose many books include scholarly studies of Tamil and Telugu poetry as well as an account of his attempts, with like-minded colleagues, to non-violently resist the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
Within its own borders Israel is a democracy, with a free press and an independent judiciary. Israeli intellectuals and activists have spoken up as fearlessly for Palestinian rights as Egyptian or Indian intellectuals have done. The independence of the Israeli press is particularly striking when one compares its reporting of events within the Occupied Territories with that of the American press, which, in any conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, tends to take the side of, or at least give the benefit of doubt to, the former.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no voice or camp within China that can speak up for the Tibetans. This is in part because China is a totalitarian regime, with no freedom of expression, where a writer such as (the Nobel Laureate) Liu Xiabiao can be sent to ten years in prison for an article critical of the state’s policies. But there is another and darker reason—the pervading presence of a Greater Han Chauvinism, to which many (if not most) Chinese intellectuals subscribe, which holds that China is essentially a Han country, and that it is the duty of the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, and other ethnic or religious minorities to conform in ways large and small to what the Han deem true and proper.
Socialists claim that they are both internationalists and anti-imperialists, but in fact Indian Marxists tend to apply these principles extremely selectively. By any objective standard, if the Israelis are colonizers vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the Chinese are even more so vis-à-vis the Tibetans. In both cases, military might and state power have been used to suppress and exploit another, and weaker, nationality.
Indian Communists are often excoriated for their opposition to the Quit India movement of 1942. To this writer, their disgraceful apologias for Chinese brutality in Tibet are an even more shameful blot on their history. In 1942 a World War was on, and it was perfectly reasonable for decent and civilized folks to argue that defeating Hitler and the Nazis should take (temporary) precedence over the freedom of India from British rule. In the case of China and Tibet, there is no such ambiguity or nuance. China is an imperialist and occupying power, with the Tibetans their largely defenceless victims. And yet, Indian Marxists have poured abuse on the Dalai Lama, while staying conspicuously silent on the attacks on his people and their culture.