Shalom, Namaste

Our story begins with two Americans, one with an Indian background, the other Israeli, living in a pocket of suburban Long Island. With little in common other than a few mutual friends and an extracurricular activity connecting our two high schools, we became fast friends. However, when we realized we’d be attending the same university, we expected to stay friendly but to go our separate ways. Little did we know that this friendship would become a microcosm of the alliance between our two countries.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Israel. To commemorate the occasion, Indian Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna visited Jerusalem to lay out future plans for continued collaboration between the two nations. You may be wondering, so what? Why is the 20-year milestone of this relationship so important, and to whom?

When most people think about India and Israel together, they probably wouldn’t picture the ever-strengthening partnership that exists today. Most people probably wouldn’t even think about India and Israel in the same sentence or thought, let alone think of them as partners in a blossoming alliance. On the surface, the two nations could not be more different. Their cultures, religion and traditions are vastly distinct from one another. When the two countries were first established (within months of each other), they lacked any relationship. India did not recognize Israel as a state until 1950 and even then, the ties between the two countries were loose or non-existent. However, following the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992, the Indo-Israeli relationship has flourished into a strong alliance driven by continued cooperation in the fields of agriculture, trade, science and technology, homeland security, culture and tourism.

The Indo-Israeli relationship is unique in its unlikelihood and unprecedented in its scope. When one takes a closer look, the two countries actually have a good deal in common. Both were born from the British Empire and quickly established themselves as democracies. Both continuously face the external security challenges presented by international terrorism, which are compounded by internal ones regarding natural resource scarcity. But most importantly, both societies work to maintain the delicate balance between seizing the progress they have made in the modern world and preserving the ancient tradition and culture that make up their respective foundations. For the past 20 years, based on these inherent commonalities, a strong relationship has continued to thrive between the two countries and it deserves to be commemorated, its accomplishments highlighted.

Since 1992, trade between India and Israel has grown immensely from $180 million annually to more than $5 billion; both countries hope to establish a free trade agreement this year. In 2010, India and Israel set up a joint research and development (R&D) fund to strengthen cooperation on renewable energy, water management and computer science research. Additionally, because Israel and India both face the challenge of water scarcity, their collaboration in agriculture is vital and largely unprecedented. The exchange of knowledge, including the transfer of Israeli drip irrigation system technology to Indian farmers and the joint Indo-Israeli R&D farm established in the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, allows these two countries to address the challenges of food security together through constant innovation — a true example of the tangible rewards of cooperation.

One of the strongest links that binds India and Israel together is the threat of terrorism. Both countries are surrounded by continuous hostility and are under constant security threats, particularly from state-sponsored terror groups. Even before diplomatic relations were established, Indian and Israeli security personnel maintained secret channels of communication. During the past 20 years, India and Israel have come together to combat terrorism through the exchange of important intelligence on terrorist group activity and weapons technology. As of 2008, Israel has become the largest weapons supplier to India and signed agreements to develop an anti-aircraft system and missiles for the two countries. Israel has also provided training in logistics, intelligence gathering, surveillance and military strategy to Indian security forces. For Israel, the unparalleled control of South Asian waters that India holds would prove indispensable for safe trade in a truculent climate. Recently, India has launched a spy satellite to help give Israeli intelligence eyes in space. This satellite is meant to monitor activity in Pakistan and nuclear developments in Iran, a major concern to Israel, the United States and India.

Israel and India are tied together by many threads, but perhaps the most vital and least recognized is the thread tying together these two peoples and their cultures. Here at Tufts we’ve both found communities that celebrate our own cultures and identities. What we didn’t realize is that those communities on a grander scale have found ways to support one another. There is a small but thriving Jewish population of 70,000 in India that has existed consistently throughout India’s history and that enjoys a peaceful life free from anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, there is also a small population of Indian Jews in Israel that continues to grow, most notably the Bnei Menashe community.

Beyond that, India has become a hot spot for Israeli tourists. About 35,000 Israelis select India as a travel destination each year with many returning several times throughout their lives. India and Israel further demonstrate their desire for understanding of one another through Hindi courses offered at Tel Aviv and Hebrew University, along with other courses related to India and through scholarships granted to Israelis by the Ministry of Indian Overseas Affairs every year. The most significant display of the cultural ties between India and Israel began last May when the Indian Embassy organized and held a month-long festival in Israel titled “Celebrating India in Israel,” which showcased traditional Indian culture and was a major success.

The Indo-Israeli relationship is often overshadowed in the media by the obvious regional and domestic issues of both countries. We believe that this relationship deserves to be recognized and highlighted for all of its contributions. By working together to face their own challenges, India and Israel have shown themselves to be a prime example of the benefits of cooperation among nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently described the relationship with the sentiment that “India and Israel are two ancient peoples seizing the future.”

For the two of us, the most amazing part of the relationship between India and Israel is the way it has unknowingly impacted our own lives. Coming to college, we’ve both embraced our separate identities, one by becoming heavily involved in the Indian community on campus through Salaam and Pulse, and the other through active involvement in Tufts Friends of Israel and Hillel. However, despite our expectations that these different interests would distance our friendship, they have only brought us closer together through mutual understanding and shared dedication to the development of our countries. For this reason we feel it is important to recognize 20 years of Indo-Israeli friendship and support. By working together to find commonalities while embracing our differences on campus and beyond, sometimes the most unlikely of friendships can form.

Shira Shamir is a sophomore majoring in international relations. Neha Madhusoodanan is a sophomore majoring in international relations and economics.

Originally written for the  Tufts Daily - April 24, 2012.

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South Asia Week: Celebrating a multitude of perspectives

The newly elected president of the Tufts Association of South Asians (TASA), Arvind Krishnamurthy, recently pointed out something interesting about the South Asian community at Tufts in his election speech: that it’s not homogenous. Most of us would be able to relate to his experience at Tufts, of having been “exposed to South Asians from a multitude of backgrounds,” each bringing their own perspective, but more importantly their own interests. Here at Tufts there are students who are interested in different aspects of South Asia, ranging from culture to politics to specific countries in the region. Whether it’s SAPAC, the Association of Pakistani Allies (APA) or the Hindu Students Council (HSC) students have brought their own interests to promote an understanding of South Asia in different ways. It is this myriad of diverse perspectives and backgrounds that makes up our ‘South Asian community’ here at Tufts. But in order to have a holistic understanding of the region, it is important to learn about “different cultures amongst ourselves,” which Arvind also pointed out in his speech.

Here at SAPAC we have decided to embrace this philosophy, and bring our South Asian communities together so we can celebrate this multitude of perspectives. For the first time at Tufts, SAPAC in association with TASA, HSC, APA and BUILD India is hosting South Asia Week, featuring events on South Asian culture, politics, economics and arts. From the fun-filled festivals of Holi and Basant, to a journalist’s experience in the conflict ridden zone of Kashmir, the prospect of a new paradigm of economic growth in India and China and a showcasing of BUILD students’ experience in Thotiapatti, we have a week full of events planned for you, straight from the heart of the subcontinent.

Come and celebrate South Asia Week with us. We hope to see you at our events! Here are more details of the events:

1. Holi & Basant by the Hindu Students Council & Association of Pakistani Allies on 21st April – 12.30PM, ResQuad

Basant is the festival of kite flying in Pakistan and is celebrated at the beginning of spring every year. Every year, thousands of Hindus participate in the festival Holi. The festival has many purposes. First and foremost, it celebrates the beginning of the new season, spring. Originally, it was a festival that commemorated good harvests and the fertile land. Hindus believe it is a time of enjoying spring’s abundant colors and saying farewell to winter. It also has a religious purpose, commemorating the salvage of a Vishnu devotee from a fire that killed the demoness Holika.

2. Embracing the Next “ism”: Exploring the New Possibilities of Human Advancement: A talk by Partha Ghosh organized by SAPAC on 24th April – 8PM, ASEAN Auditorium

The challenge facing most developing countries today is whether it is possible to pursue the same model of growth as the developed nations did. Is resource extraction even feasible, given the current global environment? Come and hear Professor Partha Ghosh talk about the next “ism,” a new model for economic development and human advancement. How can this paradigm can challenge the current status quo and provide us with a more sustainable and viable approach towards development?

3. The Psychology of Conflict: A Talk on Kashmir by Justine Hardy organized by SAPAC & The Oslo Scholars Program on April 25th – 6PM, Location TBD

4. Thottiyapatti in Tufts: Experience Development in Rural India with FREE Indian Food
Photo Exhibition by BUILD India on April 26th – 8PM-10PM, SoGo Multipurpose Room

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Embracing the Next “ism”: Exploring the New Possibilities of Human Advancement, beyond the constraints of our current economic model

Last month the South Asian political Action Committee at Tufts hosted an event with professor Partha Ghosh on “Solving the complex puzzle of growth: embracing modernity & preserving tradition in India & China.” The event not only had a great turnout, but also received great feedback, which is why we are bringing back Professor Ghosh at the request of many students, hopefully to try and reach out to a larger student body this time. The talk not only touched on some topics that are relevant to economic development, including the countries of India & China that are often characterized as the next big powers, but provided us with the possibility of a new paradigm for development.

The challenge facing most developing countries today is whether it is possible to pursue the same model of growth as the developed nations did. More importantly, is this model even feasible given the current global environment? The simple answer is no. Consumerist ideals, which we’re familiar with in this country, “can allow us neatly ignore the fact that we are using exponentially more material than our predecessors could have imagined.” According to current predictions the US itself is expected to create teratons of waste in 20 years. But imagine if Chinese families attain the same standard of living as Americans and create the same amount of household waste. With China’s population, we could be looking at entire country-sized landfills, as professor Ghosh pointed out in his last discussion.

The real question is then how can we advance beyond the constraints of our current economic models, and challenge this status quo? And this is where Professor Ghosh’s research comes alive. Having compiled data from several countries in order to study the viability of different growth models, Professor Ghosh identifies how we can rectify mistakes of the past and at the same time embrace some of the philosophies from the world’s ancient civilizations in order to conceive of a holistic and new solution to the complex puzzle of growth.

We tend to categorise world history into different “isms.” Professor Ghosh suggests that maybe it is time to embrace the next “ism.” For those of you who heard him at TEX recently, you have seen a preview of what is to follow. Join us at 8 PM April 24th in the ASEAN auditorium in the Fletcher Building for this intriguing discussion.


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What makes a Hindu?

When one thinks of Hinduism, one is automatically transported to a world nestled in the Himalayas where people with peaceful faces practice yoga and are non-violent, peace-loving, and of a fundamentally different religion. Naturally, some images of smoke and an illegal substance may also come to mind, but for the most part, Hindus are viewed in a positive, tranquil light. Any Hindu could tell you what they believe the core values of “Hinduism” are—karma, dharma (duty), rebirth, sanatana dharma (the ultimate truth), and many others.

As a person born and brought up in a Hindu family in India, I was drawn into an intense discussion on what it really means to be Hindu with a friend who was taking “Intro to Hinduism” at Tufts. It really made me start to wonder about what characterizes all Hindus, what it means to be Hindu, and who can actually be Hindu. Does ancestry matter or is it simply about one’s beliefs? Given that there is no set procedure to convert to Hinduism, why is Julia Roberts’ conversion to Hinduism right after Eat, Pray, Love such a big deal? For all practical purposes, if someone is born into a Hindu family, does this make them Hindu?

If one were to go back into the history and origins of Hinduism, one would not find any lasting evidence to support all the myths and illusions surrounding the contemporary beliefs that people have about it. Hinduism does not in fact fit into the most basic requirements that draw the Western Abrahamic religions and many Eastern faiths together. In Islam, for example, a common belief in Allah (peace be upon Him) and the prophet Mohammad defines the religion and its followers. Hinduism, in contrast, has no common founder or fundamental belief that binds all Hindus together.

Contemporary Hinduism is a smorgasbord of ideas and faiths. The term “Hindu” actually emerged during the 19th century as a result of colonialism. When the British arrived in India and saw a completely different category of people with beliefs they could not understand, they called them all Hindu—“people who live beyond the river Indus.” But despite their shared name, all Hindus do not have the same methods of praying, living, or eating.

So what does draw all the Hindus together into this common classification? The fact that Hinduism accommodates variations in belief. Today, you can be vegetarian or non-vegetarian and still be a Hindu. You don’t have to believe in karma or dharma to be a Hindu. You can deny the existence of the holy trinity of Gods (Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer) and still be a part of the Hindu community. For the most part, Hinduism has multiple layers that one can keep peeling off and can be embraced as much as one wants. In the end, Hinduism is a way of life—a collection of multiple ideas and an evolution of faith since time immemorial.

Hinduism defines itself by a wide range of indigenous practices and beliefs that originated in India but have since changed and adapted to different peoples and cultures as they spread around the globe. At its heart, Hinduism is polytheistic and pluralistic. There could be more than 500 different gurus advocating for their type of Hinduism and none of them would be wrong or right. At this point in time, an Israeli could be sitting in Dharamsala trying to get rid of war scars by following an inventive, intoxicating Hinduism; an American could be scrubbing the floors of an ashram in Pune; an Indian could be sitting in a temple making offerings to the priest, and another could be sitting at the dinner table, just being thankful for another meal. What do all these people have in common? Not much, except that they are all following what they believe is Hinduism. And honestly, each of them is as close (or as far away) to the truth as anyone else.

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India’s Ambiguous Political Game : The Tibetan-Chinese Issue

It’s often ironic how the measures undertaken by a government to sideline and almost obscure an issue can turn on it itself and instead, accentuate it. Unfortunately for India, this is exactly the case. As this years host of the annual BRICS summit, India is definitely the center of attention but neither for its economic progress nor for its extoled hospitability. Instead, following Tibetan activist Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation amid protests against Chinese President Hu Jintao’s arrival in New Delhi, all eyes have turned towards India’s increasingly abstruse stance on the Tibetan-Chinese issue.

Dharamshala, a city in northern India, is currently home to the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile and approximately 200,000 exiled Tibetans. Having fled to India in 1959 in promise of freedom of speech and religion, this community has always hoped to enjoy the same democratic rights granted to all Indians. However, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent statement asserting that India “recognized Tibet as an inalienable part of Chinese territory and will not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China activities,” not only has India’s ambiguous political game come into question but also its seemingly hypocritical commitment to its democratic constitution.

In hope of a peaceful and well-executed BRICS exhibition, Indian authorities have arrested almost 250 Tibetan activists during recent protests as well as placed New Delhi’s Tibetan community under house arrest. As we all know, this is not the first time either. A breach of democratic rights? Evidently, yes. But in what is this ambiguity rooted? The timely coincidence between India’s improving economic relations with China and its problematic role as protector to the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile has forced India into an arduous fix. While on one hand China has expressed it appreciation towards India’s position, on the other, the international community remains critical of India’s inconsistent democratic efforts.

Therefore, is this a matter of economic gain versus democracy? Perhaps the issue is not as clear-cut as that. However, what is clear is that India’s way of dealing with such politically charged protests has once again put its wavering approach to democracy under the spotlight. Too often ready to forsake democratic rights in the name of social stability or economic benefit, perhaps India needs to take a moment and assess the many trade-offs prevalent in its ambiguous political game.


Written by Zara Juneja. Zara is a sophomore studying at Tufts and the assistant web manager and blogger at SAPAC.


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