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Judaism has existed in India for over eight centuries. Over this time period, Jews have been able to successfully integrate into mainstream Indian society while retaining their unique Jewish identity. Although there is little mention of the community until 18th century history, records show that they resided in Western India and lived harmoniously with other religious groups, such as Hindus and Muslims, that dominated the region.
Jews were not only well regarded by Indians, but were also able to preserve their customs in a culturally and ethnically diverse Indian society.
Much of what we know about Jews in India is through sources available following the arrival of colonial powers, like the Portuguese and the English.
Jewish Contribution to Indian Economy and Society
Despite being incredibly small in size, numbering approximately 27,000 at their peak in 1951, out of a population of 389 million, Jews contributed extensively to India’s economy and commerce and helped develop major trading centres, such as Bombay and Calcutta, which today are amongst India’s five major metropolitan hubs.
In an otherwise highly communal and fragmented country, they were perceived positively. This is owing to their initiatives in healthcare, such as establishment of hospitals and dispensaries; in education, by building schools and universities; and their extensive philanthropy.
Moreover, they were well liked by the British rulers because they helped fund many development projects and British war efforts, further strengthening their position in India.
For example, the iconic Gateway of India was partially funded by the wealthy Sassoon family, as was the David Sassoon reading room.
These were among the many reason why Jews were highly regarded by many across society, from politicians of the Indian National Congress (INC), to British government officials administering India and businessmen.
Lala Lajpat Rai’s Testimony
During the 1920s, rising communal tensions prevailed in the country. However, Jews continued to be well regarded by society and political leaders.
In fact, when a member of the INC, Jintendranath Banerjee, referenced an Anti-Jewish statement made by British government officials at a party meeting in 1921, he was publicly rebuked by the party president, Lala Lajpat Rai.
In a statement to the Jewish community, Lajpat Rai wrote:
"“During my residence abroad I have learned to respect the Hebrew Community and the valuable service they have rendered to the cause of culture and humanity. The Hebrew community has produced some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the world…”"
Lajpat Rai not only reaffirmed his support for Jews but also noted the many achievements and initiatives they had started to help all individuals, irrespective of their religious background.
This source is important because it shows that influential members of Indian politics were willing to support a small minority while there were more complicated issues taking place in the country at the same time, such as Hindu-Muslim riots.
Despite their small number, Jews were supported by renowned political leaders because of their contributions to India.
Jewish Support for Self-Rule
Jews had a positive impression in Indian society not only because of their extensive contributions to India’s economy and culture, but also because many of them openly supported the aims of the INC and Muslim League in their demands for Indian independence.
In a 1917 letter to the newly appointed Secretary of State to India, Edwin Montagu, Bene Israeli Jews expressed their support for Indian self-rule. An extract from this letter reads:
"“The scheme of reforms adopted by the INC and All India Muslim League has been before the country for some time past. This scheme has our entire approval and hearty support. We urge the granting of these reforms at an early date….we cannot but sympathise with the just and legitimate aspirations of three hundred million of your fellow subjects, whose disabilities are mainly based on creed, colour and race.”"
This letter is significant because it was how the Jews expressed their support for the independence movement. Moreover, they agreed with Indian nationalists that Britain’s racial attitudes toward Indians were the reason for Indian suffering and that they could not support such practices.
Given that the INC and Muslim League both felt that British racism undermined them, this letter was extremely popular amongst the parties. The letter was well-received across Indian society, with newspapers, including the Times of India, and political leaders commending this letter.
After the passage of the Karachi resolution, which reiterated the INC’s support for religious equality in independent India, Bene Israeli Jews asked the INC to represent their interests at the London Roundtable Conferences, instead of sending a separate Jewish delegation to London.
In essence, they openly aligned with the INC’s aims for a secular and democratic India, and opposed British rule. This reaction is especially significant because it showed that the Jews trusted the INC to represent them fairly. Thus, this resolution and the Jews’ continuous support of the INC assured them of a place in India.
Indians, as Much as Jews
By the end of WWII, it was clear that India would achieve independence from the British Empire, which raised the question of how Jews would be incorporated in India, given India’s opposition to the State of Israel’s formation. A prominent Calcutta Jew, Maurice Rassby tried addressing this question in an article in the Jewish advocate in 1944:
"“For us to become full-fledged Indian citizens will mean first and foremost complete allegiance to India as our mother country. We are Indians as much as we are Jews. Palestine will have to be our spiritual home just as Mecca is for the Muslims….responsible to one power alone – the government of India.”"
The clarity of this article is extremely important to realising its relevance. Not only does Rassby uphold his commitment to India, but also sends a message to all other groups across the country that minorities are determined to support India, despite the partition.
He also provides suggestions to how Jews can retain their unique Jewish identity while embracing Indian ideals, a balance that was required given, the communally charged atmosphere and anti-minority stance at the time.
As a result, this article guided Jews to achieve this balance, securing them a place as a religious minority in India.
As India nears its 74th Independence Day, it is important for all Indians to reflect on the diverse groups that supported India’s freedom struggle, and acknowledge the efforts of a tiny minority in helping it achieve independence.
From helping build Bombay, to supporting various philanthropic initiatives, and endorsing the INC’s commitment to secularism and democracy during the Roundtable Conferences, the Jewish community played an important part in helping India achieve independence.
Rather than questioning the loyalties of minorities across the country, as the events of 5 August show, it is time for the government to reiterate national unity and embrace the country’s difference.
India’s soul lies in its diversity; the freedom struggle showed that.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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