Search form

Last updated: 22 min 42 sec ago

You are here

Columns

Battle of Haifa appropriated to suit modern political agendas

There is a twisted irony to the renaming, in the presence of the Israeli prime minister, of the iconic Teen Murti Chowk (literally, Three Statues Circle), an important road crossing in New Delhi, as “Teen Murti Haifa Chowk” in remembrance of the soldiers from the Indian subcontinent who died in the battle to take the city from the defending Ottoman army on Sept. 23, 1918. Benjamin Netanyahu belongs to a political party whose founding leader was one of the fiercest enemies of the British mandatory power in Palestine. And, while the Indian soldiers died fulfilling the aims of the British colonizers, the winners or beneficiaries were surely not the Indian people, who experienced a massive drain of men and material in a war effort far removed from the land that mattered to them.
While this battle must be studied as part of the military history of India and even commemorated as an example of bravery and the successful execution of a military mission, the idea of seeing the episode as a victory for liberty against the illiberal forces of the day, as is rendered in popular Indian discourse, is a poor reading of history. It should also not be lost on the Indian people that our heroic soldiers were not defending their country, but fighting a war that enabled the British colonizers to keep the land and sea route to the “Golden Bird” free from challengers. However, the Indians had little recourse to their agency, captive as they were under the coercion and cruelty of their colonial masters.

India and Israel’s celebration of the 1918 ‘liberation’ of the city from the Ottomans as a victory for liberty against the illiberal forces of the day is a poor reading of history.

Dr. Sujata Ashwarya


The fact that the Indian cavalry was able to break the back of the combined forces of the central powers translated into the eventual award of the Mandate of Palestine to the British, with the Balfour Declaration woven into its terms and conditions. Waving the controversial document, the Zionists marched into Palestine to build a Jewish national home. Jewish immigration to Palestine, repugnant to Mahatma Gandhi for its exclusionary aims, led to a complete disruption of the lives of the Palestinian Arab population and ultimately to their dispossession and displacement from their land and homes. As the Palestinian issue festers in the cauldron of Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights and liberty for the past 70 years, can we really say the Battle of Haifa was won? And for whom?
Today, India and Israel are at the crossroads of history. Both have governments representing the exclusionary vision of nationalism, which derives its legitimacy from a selective reading of history. Thus, the “capture of Haifa” becomes the “liberation of Haifa.” Why should the British colonialists be any loftier than the Ottoman imperialists, both fighting, as they were, to defend their supremacy and their interests? Both were insistent on creating a majoritarianist society through violence and intimidation. The idea of inclusion as a social value was abhorrent to both.
The Italian historian and philosopher Benedetto Croce said that all history is contemporary history, meaning that the past is understood from the point of view of the present. To validate its idea of a strong, muscular India, the incumbent BJP government is scouring history for instances of valor of the Indian people. Thus, they must appropriate the Battle of Haifa to serve their political agenda. Likewise, the Likud-led government in Israel must lay claim to any or all events of the pre-state period to establish the continuity of their claim to the land of Palestine, as opposed to a similar assertion by the Palestinians. The Battle of Haifa is mythicized and appropriated in the service of the exigencies of this day and age.

Dr. Sujata Ashwarya is assistant professor at the Center for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. She is an expert on the politics and society of the modern Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. Her most recent publication is “Contemporary West Asia: Perspectives on Change and Continuity.”
Twitter: @ash_sujata