Letter from India

High up in Malabar Hill, one of Mumbai’s most affluent residential neighbourhoods, an aphorism on a billboard attributed to that great Indian apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, caught my eye: “You cannot be a true Hindu if you hate another religion.” Slogans, as I have learned, should be taken with a grain of salt. But in India, the world’s largest democracy and a living laboratory for ethnic and religious diversity, this slogan rings true.

Historically, India – a largely Hindu sub-continent whose land mass includes alpine peaks and steamy jungles – has genuinely welcomed foreigners. Bahais, Sufi Muslims, Zoroastrians and Jews have each found refuge here. And four religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – have arisen in India. Islam was brought here in the 16th century by Mughal invaders, who left behind masterpieces of architecture, notably the sublime Taj Mahal in Agra and the majestic Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi. And Western colonial powers – from Portugal to Britain – introduced and disseminated Christianity to this nation of 1.1 billion, whose population is exceeded only by that of China.

India, having been an exemplary host to all these faiths, is rightly known for its “live-and-let-live” ethos. Yet India’s record as a paragon of tolerance is hardly perfect. Since attaining independence in August 1947, less than a year before Israel’s emergence as a sovereign state, India has been convulsed by several deadly episodes of ethnic violence. The last such outburst took place in the winter of 2002, when Muslims and Hindus massacred each other in Gujarat. Such incidents, in the main, have pitted Hindus against Muslims, who comprise about 12 per cent of India’s overall population and who generally practise a moderate form of Islam that would be alien in, say, Saudi Arabia.

These occasional killing sprees, ignited by political disputes, have tarnished India’s image. But in the congested, frenetic cities of India, from Calcutta to Chennai (formerly Madras), Hindus and Muslims seem to mix freely and easily. India’s status as a melting pot of cultures and religions has been of immense benefit to Jews, whose uninterrupted presence here stretches back to antiquity, to King Solomon’s time, but whose numbers have always been minuscule. In the modern era, India was home to never more than about 30,000 Jews, concentrated in Mumbai (Bombay), the commercial capital and the centre of the Bollywood film industry. With the advent of Jewish statehood in 1948, many Jews immigrated to Israel. Still others settled in Britain, Canada and Australia. As a result, there are only some 5,000 in India today, constituting 0.000455 per cent of its population, a drop in an ocean. That humble figure is dropping due to emigration, part of which flows toward Israel.

Despite its Lilliputian size, Indian Jewry is anything but monolithic. In fact, there are three primary Jewish groups in India. The Bene Israel, the majority of whom reside in and around Mumbai, are by far the biggest. Legend has it that their ancestors arrived prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. For centuries, they were isolated from mainstream Jewry, and some mingled with the locals. These contacts led to caste-like divisions between so-called “white” and “black” Bene Israel. The basic difference turned on skin colour. “Black” Jews were those whose forebears had intermarried. “White” Jews were supposedly “pure.”

During the 18th century, the Bene Israel came into contact with Cochin Jews, who brought them into mainstream Judaism. In the 19th century, the Bene Israel began moving to the cities. But to this day, some still live in villages fairly close to Mumbai. The first Cochin Jews are said to have settled in Kerala, in southern India, during the biblical period. In the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, they were joined by Jews from Spain, Germany and Holland.

They, too, formed sub-communities, consisting of Malabaris, Pardesim and Meshuharim. At first, they were concentrated in two centres: Kudungallur – or Cranganore – and Anjuvannam. But in the early 16th century, after being attacked by the Portuguese and the Moors, the Jews settled in Cochin, a small palm-fringed island in the Arabian Sea just off the mainland. The Baghdadi Jews, the last to arrive in India, initially appeared in the late 18th century, originating from the Middle East. The trickle turned into a stream with the arrival of David Sassoon, a wealthy merchant from Iraq, and his fellow Baghdadis in the first third of the 19th century. The Baghdadis tended to be staunchly pro-British and more socially insular than either the Bene Israel or the Cochin Jews.

In the eastern Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, where many of the inhabitants are Christians, there are people of Chinese appearance who claim to be the descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Describing themselves as Jews, they say they were forced to adopt Christianity in the 19th century by European missionaries. Many rabbis do not recognize them as Jews, but according to recent DNA tests, they carry the same genes as Jews in Uzbekistan and India. In recent years, a handful have made aliyah after formally converting to Judaism. Whatever their origin, Jews in India have been treated with respect by post-independence governments and have never been subjected to state anti-Semitism. India, along with China and the United States, is thus one of the few major countries in history that have not subjected its Jewish citizens to official discrimination. And in this tolerant climate, Jews have been able to flourish in a variety of trades and professions. Nissim Ezekiel was a poet and literary critic. Abu Abraham was a newspaper cartoonist. Helen and David were stars of Hindi movies. Hannah Sen was president of All India Women’s Conference. Gen. Jack Jacob commanded Indian forces in the 1971 war against Pakistan.

These days, a large proportion of Jews are in the professions as doctors, lawyers and accountants, and in the booming computer sector as programmers, analysts and startup entrepreneurs. There are no fabulously wealthy Jewish business tycoons like the Tatas, Parsis ( Indian Zoroastrians) who are known as the Rockefellers of India. Like China, with which it fought a border war in 1962, India is an up-and-coming power. Early last month, when I was in India at the invitation of its tourism board, the current Indian prime minister and the architect of its seminal 1990s economic reforms, Manmohan Singh, declared, “The 21st century will be the century of Asia and without doubt the century of India.”

He may be right. India – a nuclear power that established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 – is expected to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council within the foreseeable future, and plans to launch an unmanned spaceship, Chandrayaan-1, on a moon mission in 2007 or 2008. So India, a land of sharp contrasts with a thriving middle class whose appetite for consumer goods seems boundless, is on something of a roll. Yet most Indians, particularly in remote rural areas far from the gloss and glitter of Mumbai or New Delhi, remain mired in a kind of appalling Dickensian poverty that visitors always find shocking and depressing. Perhaps India can ameliorate this endemic problem as it moves closer to modernizing and reinventing itself as one of the new “tigers” of Asia.


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