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Opinion | Sardar Patel’s Son, Dahyabhai, Was A Rare Pro-Israeli Parliamentarian – News18

On December 21, 1964, with India in the grip of a severe food shortage, the then Minister of Food and Agriculture Chidambaram Subramaniam fumbled for words in Rajya Sabha when Dahyabhai V. Patel wanted to know if India had received any offer of help from Israel in the agricultural sector. Dahyabhai already possessed the information that the Consul General for Israel had come to New Delhi from Bombay (now Mumbai) to extend an offer in the sphere of dry-land farming.

The minister initially denied it, but it being an oral answer (No.712) where supplementary questions were permitted, he kept silent as other MPs like Arun Arora, Prof. M.B. Lal and Dahyabhai himself probed the matter further. At last, Subramaniam admitted to meeting the Israeli Consul but stated that no specific offer was on the table. He feigned ignorance to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s supplementary query on whether Israel had offered scholarships to Indian students in agriculture. Cornered at last, he advised the Members not to think in terms of foreign assistance whether American, Russian, Israeli or Taiwanese as India was fully capable of developing its own technology.

India shunning foreign assistance in agriculture was a joke. Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) was established in Ludhiana, Punjab in 1962 with long-term support from Ohio State University. India was working in close partnership with the US on a high-yielding variety of wheat. C. Subramaniam, as the Minister of Food and Agriculture, was closely involved in the project whose details he later gave out in his six lectures in Australia (1978), which were subsequently called ‘The New Strategy in Indian Agriculture: The First Decade and After’ (Vikas; 1979).

A search through the Press Information Bureau (I&B Ministry) archives shows that announcements about Israeli scholarships in Arid Zone farming actually go back to 1954. In 1958, one Sudama Singh received a post-graduate scholarship in Arid Zone farming from the Israeli government. Similarly, Inder Pal Abrol and Suresh Chandra Modgal received scholarships for post-graduate study/research in Soil Science from the Israeli government in 1962 for studying in that country.

Yet, it was strange that the minister was at a loss for words, when put an innocuous question on agricultural cooperation, simply because the matter involved Israel. It is an example of the sensitivity surrounding the Zionist country in India then. Though the Government of India had granted recognition to Israel in 1950, full diplomatic relations were established only in 1992.

Who was the inquirer Dahyabhai V. Patel, who stumped the Food & Agriculture Minister?

Dahyabhai Patel (1905-1973) was the son of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-50), the first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India. He was earlier the mayor of Bombay. A victim of Jawaharlal Nehru’s mechanism, who wanted to keep Patel Jr. out of active politics, Dahyabhai left the Congress to join Maha Gujarat Janata Parishad, formed by Indulal Yajnik, a freedom fighter and playwright. However, acceding to his sister Maniben’s request that he should not contest the election against the party, which their late father gave sweat and blood to build, Dahyabhai entered the Rajya Sabha through the Maha Gujarat Junta Parishad route.

Dahyabhai later joined the Swatantrata Party, founded by C. Rajagopalachari, and rose to become its Vice President. Howard L. Erdman described him as one of the ablest spokespersons of the Swatantrata Party in Rajya Sabha (The Swatantrata Party and Indian Conservatism, P.133). Sardar Patel had strictly instructed his children against using his name for political or career-related purposes. This is also a reason why Sardar Patel’s progeny like Maniben and Dahyabhai remained less celebrated despite being in politics.

A survey of Parliamentary debates between 1950 and 1991 shows India’s irrational antipathy towards Israel on the ground that the latter had occupied Arab territory i.e. Palestine. This view attained a proportion of dogma in the world’s largest democracy, overlooking the fact that Israel was a vibrant democracy in a sea of theocracies and dictatorships of the Arab world. Israel’s diplomatic presence in India was restricted to the functioning of the Consulate in Bombay since 1950. Even that was meant to facilitate the Indian Jews, who wished to migrate to Israel.

Dahyabhai was a sympathiser of Israel, virtually taboo in the Indian political circle in those days. While speaking on a Government Motion on the International Situation on June 23, 1967 (a fortnight after the six-day war), Dahyabhai tore into the Government of India’s foreign policy of Non-Alignment, calling it a misnomer for alignment with the Communist nations only. He squarely blamed Egypt (considered a great friend of India in those days) for instigating the six-day war by massing troops on the Sinai border, and demanding that the 3400-strong United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) be withdrawn from the Egypt-Israel border.

UN Secretary-General U Thant yielded, but Canadian Foreign Minister Paul Martin questioned Thant’s authority to withdraw the troops and refused to pull out the 800-men Canadian contingent. There was widespread criticism of U Thant for this pull-out. The Palestine Liberation Army (estd.1964) moved into the posts vacated by UNEF.

Dahyabhai informed that on May 19, 1967, Cairo’s Ministry of Religious Affairs ordered mosques to preach Jihad. He condemned India’s External Affairs Minister for concealing this fact from Parliament. On May 21, Cairo announced mobilisation of reserves adding more than 1,00,000 men to Egypt’s armed forces, estimated at 2,00,000 men. Dahyabhai exposed President Gamel Adbel Nasser’s overt instigation to war by closing the Gulf of Aqaba to ships waving the Israeli flag. He also quoted the words of Israeli Prime Minister (Levi Eshkol) offering peace to President Nasser and Jordan’s King Hussein. When EAM Sardar Swaran Singh wanted to know his source of information, Dahyabhai said it appeared in the press, and he could send in the report, if the Minister desired. Dahyabhai praised the President of Israel (Zalman Shazar) for not taking the position of victory after the six-day war, but wanting to settle the matter peacefully.

Dahyabhai preferred calling a spade a spade. He would not spare Egyptian President Nasser, who was built up as an icon in India during the Nehruvian era. While speaking on a statement made by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Rajya Sabha on the West Asian situation on June 7, 1967 (a couple of days after the six-day war began), wherein she had made a pitch for world peace, Dahyabhai said, “Let us look at facts as they are. Is it not a fact that President Nasser vowed to obliterate the state of Israel which has come into existence, which the United Nations have approved of? Along with him, all Arab nations have joined, some at his call immediately, some have come to his aid. How does this augur for maintaining peace in the world, and why was it necessary for our Government here and the Minister of External Affairs here to take a partisan attitude in this matter? Why should we support a person, who calls for obliteration of a State that has come into existence under the auspices of the United Nations?”

It is a pity that nobody asked such frank and fundamental questions for decades even as Yasser Arafat replaced Gamel Abdel Nasser as the poster boy of Arab nationalism in India in the 1970s.

Dahyabhai was critical of India’s Arab fixation as a one-sided affair. He asked what the Arabs did for India when it was attacked by China (1962) and Pakistan (1965) even as India had gone to aid Egypt during the Suez War (1956). He supported the Israeli surprise attack on the Arabs in 1967 by saying that offence was the best form of defence.

In another discussion held in Rajya Sabha on June 9, 1967 (while the six-day war was on), he criticised the government for messing up the evacuation of Indian troops who were part of the UNEF in the Gaza Strip as the hostilities broke out. As a result, 11 Indian soldiers were killed, whereas 24 were injured. He attributed it to the government’s disastrous policy of having no direct communication channel with Israel. India’s communication with Israel was allegedly through a third party, as a result of which India got second-hand information with a time lag. Dahyabhai wanted to know why the Indian Air Force was not used to evacuate the Indian soldiers, even as the government wasted time in splitting the bill over the cost of UN-led evacuation. Had Dahyabhai been alive today, India’s prompt airlift policy from West Asia would have satisfied him.

Dayabhai was ahead of his time. Today, Israel’s hard response to terrorism has a large constituency of admirers in India. There were very few takers in those days. He was thus a rare parliamentarian. “When we took the offensive, we failed; we could not reach Lahore,” rues he (in obvious reference to the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War), “while little Israel, when they took offensive, they succeeded in making the enemy for its life.”

Dahyabhai’s remarks were not without a tinge of humour. On December 19, 1968, N. Sri Rama Reddy put a question in the Rajya Sabha about the progress made by the Atomic Energy Commission on the desalination of seawater. The discussion naturally turned to Israel, whose expertise in the field was globally recognised. M.P. Bhargava wanted to know whether India had sent any representative to Israel to study the technology. “We practice untouchability” quipped Dahyabhai, “how could we do it?”.

The reference obviously was to India’s policy of ostracism towards Israel. Deputy Minister Dr Sarojini Mahishi wanted a notice from the chair for this remark. Dr Bhai Mahavir wanted to know if there was actually a taboo on India receiving technical aid or help from Israel. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who held the Portfolio of Atomic Energy, had to get up and clarify there was no taboo about receiving scientific and technical aid or information from anyone.

Dahyabhai passed away on August 11, 1973, shortly before the Yom Kippur War depriving us of the opportunity to listen to his analysis of the event. In 1977, when the Janata Party government came to power, Israel made a serious bid to establish full diplomatic relations. The then Defence Minister of Israel and hero of the 1967 War viz. Moshe Dayan (1915-1981) visited India incognito to meet Prime Minister Morarji Desai and External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. We will catch up with that episode in the next part.

The writer is author of the book “The Microphone Men: How Orators Created a Modern India” (2019) and an independent researcher based in New Delhi, Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect News18’s views.

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