[Savage Minds is honored to publish this essay by Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, and of the Centre for the Studies of Social Sciences in Calcutta. He is a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective.]
Having taught for a lifetime in Indian institutions and, alongside, about two decades in US universities, I have a position on this question that is somewhat unusual from the point of view of most American anthropologists. My political views were formed in the course of growing up in a country that was once the classic colonial possession of the British Empire, achieving its independence in the year of my birth. I grew up with the marks of colonial rule scattered all around me – equestrian statues of colonial governors and generals at street corners, all-white sporting clubs and swimming pools where native youngsters were shooed away by turbaned gatemen, rows of office buildings with names like McKinnon and McKenzie or Jardine and Henderson whose top officers, I was told, were still spotlessly white. I went to an elementary school run by an English couple whose son – I still remember his name, Stephen Hartley – was routinely awarded the top prize by our Indian teachers at every school competition. Ever since, no matter which country I have visited, I have rarely failed to recognize the signs of colonial superiority.
I first came to know about the fate of European Jews in a roundabout way. Sometime in my childhood, I came to hear the phrase notun ihudi – the new Jews. It was probably the title of a movie. It referred, I was told, to people like us, thrown out of our homes in the eastern half of Bengal which had now become part of another country called Pakistan. Both my parents came from there. Once every few months, I would wake up in the morning to find the house full of strangers – relatives from Pakistan who stayed with us for a few days and then moved to a more permanent dwelling. We were, I heard, the new Jews – refugees, forced to make a new life in a strange land.
Later, I read about the history of Nazism and the Second World War in school. I read stories of the persecution of Jews. Our English teacher told us that Shylock’s character only made sense if one shared the prejudices of European Christians about Jews. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the meaning of that remark. But as I grew older, I learnt about the long history of racism in Europe, a history that bound together in the same chain of hatred and condescension the Jews of Europe with Orientals and Africans.
I also discovered why our elders among the Bengali Hindu refugees from East Pakistan so loved the analogy with European Jews. The latter represented, they pointed out endlessly, the cream of European intellectual and cultural life. Some of the greatest scientists, writers, musicians and artists of our time had been driven into exile by European racists who hated Jews. They were, of course, quick to add that the same thing had happened to the Hindus who were the intellectual elite of East Bengal: they had been expropriated and expelled by an ignorant Muslim peasantry and its bigoted leaders. It didn’t take me long to recognize in this comparison the signs of class prejudice tinged with religious animosity. Even more perplexing was the discovery that the expelled European Jews had sought and had been granted a homeland by Britain in their colonial possession in Palestine. My journey from adolescence to adulthood was marked by the realization that in the world of politics, few things were painted in black or white.
Yet judgments had to be made. On Palestine, my judgment was clear. Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe had found hospitality in the United States and Western Europe. Nevertheless, they insisted on a state of their own, moved into the British territory of Palestine and, after the British left, began to seize the lands where Palestinians had lived for centuries, driving them into refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other Arab countries. I remember the war over Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal – a last desperate attempt by a pathetic British aristocracy to hold on to the vestiges of its colonial empire. From then on, the United States became the guardian angel of the Zionist state as the latter emerged as a major military power in the region, armed with a nuclear arsenal it refuses to acknowledge. More ominously, it became a security state singularly aimed at the protection of one section of its population – the Jews – and treating its Arab citizens as lowly barbarians threatening to swamp the Jewish nation with their fast-breeding families and actively assisting the hostile forces ranged across the border. Israel continues to build walls to fortify the Jewish population, imposes a ruthless regime of passes and security checks that every Arab-Israeli or Palestinian has to daily negotiate, and ignores every international norm to build Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands in order to permanently scuttle all chances of a sovereign Palestinian state coming into existence. I don’t need to mobilize any scholarly knowledge at all: my inherited common sense tells me what I need to know. This is colonial rule as well as apartheid, both based on the exercise of brute force.
In my personal capacity, I have always boycotted Israeli institutions. Despite having dozens of friends in Israeli universities, I have never agreed to visit Israel. There was a particularly poignant moment a few years ago when I was invited to be present on the occasion of the release of the Hebrew translation of one of my books. It was hard for me to refuse the heartfelt invitation of my Israeli friends who, I knew, deeply disliked and actively opposed most of the policies of their government. But the thought of applying for a visa at an Israeli embassy, passing through Israeli immigration and, who knows, answering questions at check points and barriers put me off. An unfortunate fallout of this reluctance on my part is that I have been also unable to accept invitations from Palestinian institutions. But how else does an individual like me show, in a private capacity, my refusal to submit to the blatantly colonial protocols of the Israeli authorities in order to accept the hospitality of my Palestinian friends?
In case I am accused of holding double standards, I must hasten to clarify that I have not failed to see the signs of colonial superiority in the country of which I am a citizen. I have visited every state of India except two – Kashmir and Tripura. Irrespective of my political views, I know that people on the street in Kashmir would regard me as just another “Indian” – perhaps a tourist out to have a good time while caring nothing about the hardship of the local people, or worse, a shady character sent out on a sinister security-related assignment. Those are not presumptions with which I would feel comfortable. And Tripura, a place that’s hardly known even in the rest of India, has remarkable similarities with Israel. A princely state of British India inhabited almost entirely by indigenous “tribal” people, Tripura was practically overrun after independence by Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan. Led by an educated middle class, enterprising Bengali farmers drove the indigenous population into the hills, cleared forests and settled down to an agrarian way of life in a new land. True, the Communist Party which has been in power for a long time in Tripura has tried to build bridges with the tribal population, but the demographic facts are too stark to ignore: the tribal peoples are now a mere thirty per cent of the population. The seventy per cent who dominate the state are ethnically my people. I have imposed a prohibition on myself from travelling to Tripura.
It is relevant to add that the party currently in power in India professes a right-wing ideology of Hindu nationalism and frequently points to Israel as the exemplary case of a country fiercely asserting its cultural identity based on religion and brooking no compromise against the threat posed by political Islam. Boosted by increasingly close ties based on huge defence purchases and security assistance from Israel, the Indian government has been carefully shifting its traditional support for the Palestinian cause in the United Nations and other international forums. This has deepened my aversion towards the current regime in New Delhi.
I often hear the question: what is a boycott going to achieve? I remember hearing the same question in the 1970s and 1980s when the campaign was on in British universities for boycotting South Africa. It would be stretching the point to claim that the boycott campaign ultimately led to the end of the apartheid regime. But looking back, I have no doubt that the furious debates the campaign unleashed in the public media, sporting arenas, living rooms, bars and numerous other places went a long way in shaking people off their complacent positions of ignorance and indifference. I earnestly hope that the present campaign will have a similar effect.