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You know what, it will go to the dustbin’ my articulate friend was blunt, brutal but honest. Her answer hurt me deeply but transformed my journey. It was November 1982, As usual, I bought a copy of the latest issue of Sunday weekly of the Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) Group with Mr. M J Akbar, the present Minister of State for External Affairs, as the editor. The cover story was a long essay by Dr. Subramanian Swamy, then a Member of Parliament representing the Janata Party Dr. Swamy had just visited Israel and met senior Israeli figures including Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Jewish State was on the receiving end of international criticisms and this time over its invasion of Lebanon.It was nearly a decade before normalization of relations between India and Israel and hence the Indian media has been overwhelmingly anti-Israel than pro-Arab. 

An eye opener 

That was my first formal introduction to the State of Israel. Until then I knew nothing about Israel, Zionism or Jews. Dr. Swamy’s article was an eyeopener for a villager who had been commuting daily by the morning Jolarpettai Express for the Master’s programme in the University of Madras. The arguments were moving and logical. Diplomatic relations between states do not signal political concurrence or even agreement. Despite differences and serious conflicts, India had no qualms about having normal relations with China and Pakistan. By the same logic, relations with Israel do not imply to agreeing with all its policies. That was a powerful message for a fertile mind. If one were to have relations only with those with whom we agree, there would be little interactions, relations and even fun. 

Appeal to reform Israel policy

The world of likeminded people would be boring, tiresome and uneventful. Moved by the power of Dr. Swamy’s argument, I decided to act and drafted a brief appeal addressing the Government of India. It ran something like this:  We the students of M A (Defence Studies) of the University of Madras strongly urge the Government of India to reconsider its Israel policy and normalize relations with it. Diplomatic relations do not imply India’s agreement with Israel’s policies but they are an indication of India’s willingness to interact with it as a normal state. 

I showed the letter to my classmates. To my surprise a few indeed agreed with the idea but they came up with the same excuse, not uncommon in those circumstances: ‘Let someone else sign first, and I will also join.’ 

’The dustbin ‘Kick’ 

It was then I went to a good friend. Later on, she became a family friend and visited my place primarily for my grandmother’s delicious food and hospitality. ‘Hostel food has killed my tongue’, she often lamented. But on that day, I saw her non-diplomatic fury: “Dr. Swamy is an important person. He wrote a cover story in a leading magazine. 


If the Government of India did not bother to change its policy even after this, will they modify because of a letter from a handful of university students.’ Then came the bouncer: ‘You know what? This letter will go to the dustbin …’ As they say truth is always dangerous, and I found out that day. Her remark was hard and hurtful to digest. As I figured out later on, it was also my Herzl moment that transformed my life irreversibly. That moment, I told myself, ‘Let me do something that will not go to the dustbin of the Government of India.’

I decided to make India’s non-relations with Israel as the subject of my dissertation. As MA students, we were to write a dissertation in our fourth semester, and until then my focus was terrorism. In those days academic focus on terrorism was limited as terrorism had not yet become a global menace. Somehow I was drawn towards it since my BA days in Vellore and started collecting materials. Once went all the way to Chennai (resources were frugal and life was hard those days) to attend a seminar on terrorism organized by the United States Information Centre as it was called then.

All of them changed with that brutal ‘dustbin’ remark and life was never the same. Studying Israel became my life. Things should have ended on the ides of March 1984 when I submitted my dissertation. A few days later I received a post card from Dr. Swamy stating that that he would be in Vellore later that month and that I could meet him. Accompanied by Appa I went and met him in the official guest house near Collector’s office. Having a glanced at the dissertation, Dr. Swamy was straight and brief: “If you could do this sitting in Vellore, why not go to JNU and do your Ph. D on the topic. Until then Ph.D was not on my radar screen. Like Mount of Olives, Old City, Jerusalem. All of them changed with  that brutal‘dustbin’ remark and life was never the same. Studying Israel became my life. millions of others, I was hoping to find a job and financially ease the family burden. Indeed, I heard about JNU for the first time only a few months earlier when the front pages of newspapers carried the pictures the ‘1983 incident’ when a group of student leaders took over the office of the Vice-Chancellor. This led to the declaration of sine die and temporary closure of the university for a few months.

O’ Jerusalem

Both geographically and financially, New Delhi was not even a distant dream. However, providence thought otherwise. When the University was reopened in 1984, the JNU decided to expand and entrance exams were held in different centres in the country, including Madras. I was fortunate to have joined the institution in August 1984 and submitted my thesis on India’s Israel policy in 1990. However, it is a different story that I had to wait for more than 18 months for the viva voce because one external examiner was too busy to send his report.

The Hand of God

That short meeting in Vellore in March 1984 transformed my life irreversibly. Until then I never heard of Leon Uris and his Exodus and did not know about O’Jerusalem by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. Indeed, I never even meta  Jewish person until 1987 when I started the process of applying for a visa for my field work in Israel. More than me, Appa was moved by Dr. Swamy’s ‘Go to JNU and study Israel’ remark, and my life was transformed. Israel Studies has become my life and more than three and half decades after that cover story, one is still  to understand Israel and its complexities. The choice was excruciatingly difficult and financially daunting but the journey of studying that tiny country and daily challenges has been a blessing and intellectually rewarding.

The hand of God is not just powerful but it shows up at unexpected times. Mine came through a cover story in the long-forgotten and now-defunct magazine. It has been a long and fruitful journey since then.

It was originally published in the inaugural issue of Nameste Shalom, January 2018 and is reproduced with the permission of the author.