Sunday January 21, 2018
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The forgotten Jews and their significance in India

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Jews
Image source: en.academic.ru

New Delhi: The Jewish people were once very important members of the Indian society as prime business owners, government officials, physicians, lawyers and academicians. Today, they form a minuscule part of the population here.

Coming to Delhi, the Jewish community here is very small, that is, around 10 families. Though they have a lot of empathy and pride for the India, still quite a lot of them have a soft corner in their hearts for original country Israel, which was created in 1948.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel later this year, the first by any Indian Prime Minister, has touched a chord with most.

There is a lot written about how and when the Jews came to India. The community is currently divided into three chief groups, the ‘Bene Israel’ group settled mainly in Mumbai and Pune, the ‘Baghdadis or Jews from West Asia’ who came as traders and refugees and settled in Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata and the ‘Cochin Jews’. According to the 1951 census, there were 35,000 Jews in India.

In today’s date, there are around 5,000 of Bene Israel, Baghdadi and Cochin Jews left in India. Around 4,000 of them are in Mumbai, 120 in Pune, 140 in Ahmedabad, 100 in the Konkan areas, 25 to 27 in Cochin and Ernakulam, and 24 in Kolkata, informs Ralphy Jhirad, secretary general of the Federation of Indo-Israel Chamber of Commerce, a resident of Mumbai.

Then there are the Jews of Manipur and Mizoram or those who identify themselves as Bnei Menashe numbering “around 5,000,” according to Simeon, a Manipuri Jew presently preparing for his civil services entrance examination in Delhi. There is also a small group of a few thousand in Andhra Pradesh who call themselves Bene Ephraim Jews.

But while the emigrants haven’t lost touch with their Indian roots, many here are finding it tough to continue the grip on to their traditions or having to modify to keep up with the times.

Union and marriage probably are the biggest challenge for the community with many young Jews having migrated to Israel only to find a suitable life partner.

The Jews in India are a minuscule community, but they do not have minority status. They want recognition more than a privilege.

This time, the community is hoping a lot from the Modi government.

“When you fill a government form, Judaism is not even listed as a religion,” says Simeon while talking to reporters. While giving the demographic divide based on religion in the 2001 census on its website, the department did not include the Jews as a separate category. “I hope Modi’s Israel visit, by turning the focus on Jews will give people a little more idea about the community here,” says 26-year-old Abraham Jacob, a Cochin Jew, working as a doctor in Delhi.

Mumbai- “We are Indians first and Jews second,” says Solomon Sopher, chairman of the Sir Jacob Sassoon Philanthropic Trust, which also administers two of Mumbai’s nine synagogues.

Mumbai has a minor but collective Jewish population of around 5,000. According to records kept by the city’s Chabad House community centre, more than 60 percent are above the age of 40. They try to protect or conserve their culture with weekend activities organised at the synagogues.

“The young generation remains an active part of the community, as their parents. They engage with their elders,” says Ronin, a quality management executive with the Indian Registry of Shipping. “It would be helpful if the prime minister nurtured a good relationship with Israel because it would benefit both countries culturally and economically. For example, they could make it easier for Jewish people and tourists in general to visit both countries.”

The two countries have been friends for years. But now with Prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, it will become official. I am very happy. This was long overdue,” says eighty-five-year-old Flower Silliman. Flower is one of 25 members of the Jewish community who are still living in Kolkata.

Kolkata- The Jews, mostly Baghdadi Jews came to Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was then called, during the British rule. Between the late 18th to the mid-20th century, there was a thriving Jewish community in Kolkata. Their number never crossed 4,000, members of the community settled well in Kolkata’s cosmopolitan environment and excelled in business.

The Jews of Kolkata started moving to England, Canada and Australia after the country’s independence when they became unsure of their economic prospects in the newly independent country. By the 1960s, there were only 300 to 400 Jews left.

Cochin- Cochin Jews, also called Malabari Jews, trace their roots to the era of the biblical king, Solomon. After the formation of Israel, all but 100 of Kerala’s 2,800-odd Malabari Jews migrated. With the passage of time, their numbers shrunk further. Despite the dwindling population, the synagogue, believed to be built in 1568, gets a steady stream of visitors.

“During peak season, we get 5,000 visitors a day,” says K J Joy, caretaker of the synagogue for the past 26 years.

Elias Josephai, a resident of Cochin in Jewish area too, was keen to migrate to Israel, but his ailing grandmother held him back. One of his two daughters is settled in Israel and is about to marry a US-based Jew.

As told to Hindustan Times, he says, “We never faced any discrimination here. Some of my best friends are Muslims”. He firmly believes Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel will be a game-changer for the country.

“India has kept its relationship with Israel under wraps. But in the given scenario, Israel is the best country for India to rely on,” he says, adding that they have “pinned much hope on our new prime minister.” (Inputs from Agencies)

  • Zeev Raphael

    This story brought back memories of close to 50 years ago. In December 1967 we – together with my wife and two daughters – were on our way back to Israel, after a prolonged stay in the Far East (South Korea). On 31 December we were in New Delhi, walking in the Laudi Gardens. We met a group of local Jews, having a Chanuka party. They invited us to join them for the kindling of the candles, at their local modest synagogue.
    (Unfortunately, the uploading of a photo of the synagogue failed…)

  • Zeev Raphael

    This story brought back memories of close to 50 years ago. In December 1967 we – together with my wife and two daughters – were on our way back to Israel, after a prolonged stay in the Far East (South Korea). On 31 December we were in New Delhi, walking in the Laudi Gardens. We met a group of local Jews, having a Chanuka party. They invited us to join them for the kindling of the candles, at their local modest synagogue.
    (Unfortunately, the uploading of a photo of the synagogue failed…)

Next Story

All You Need To Know About India’s Strategic Chabahar Port

The Chabahar Port is a seaport in Chabahar, which is on the Gulf of Oman, near Iran-Pakistan border.

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Chabahar Port is of great international significance in terms of trade, especially for India. Wikimedia Commons
Chabahar Port is of great international significance in terms of trade, especially for India. Wikimedia Commons

By Ruchika Verma

  • The Chabahar Port is of great strategic importance for India
  • It is in Iran and is being built and operated by India
  • This port will increase India’s trade with Central Asia and Europe

The Chabahar Port is a seaport in Chabahar, which is on the Gulf of Oman, near Iran-Pakistan border. Chabahar is the trans-shipment and logistics hub for the Makran Coast and Baluchistan province of Iran.

Chabahar Port is built and operated by India. Wikimedia Commons
Chabahar Port is built and operated by India. Wikimedia Commons

The tension between India and Pakistan is nothing new. There are several instances where both the countries have tried to obstruct each other’s political or economic agendas. This obstruction, along with other strategic reasons, resulted in the India and Iran’s deal on the Chabahar Port, which is crucial because of several reasons.

Here are few things about it you may not have known before :

  • Under the Trilateral Transit and Transport Agreement of 2016, the Chabahar port is the gateway to the Transport Corridor between India, Iran and Afghanistan, which allows multi-modal goods’ and passengers’ transport.

Also Read: India and Iran sign agreement to develop Chabahar Port

  • The agreement also states that India will develop and operate two berths in the first phase of the port. The contract is for 10 years and extendable. This time period excludes the first two years as they will be used for construction.
Chabahar Port will make India's trade with Afghanistan easier. Wikimedia Commons
Chabahar Port will make India’s trade with Afghanistan easier. Wikimedia Commons
  • The Chabahar Port’s first phase, which was developed by India, and inaugurated by Iran on 4th December 2017, is of great strategic importance as it makes it easier for India to conduct trade with Central Asia and Europe.
  • Iran’s Chabahar port is also important for India’s trade because of Pakistan’s reluctance in allowing India to send goods to Iran and Afghanistan through its land territory.

Also Read: Gwadar Port: China Turning Pakistan Port Into Regional Giant 

  • The development of Chabahar Port will increase the momentum of the International North-South Transport Corridor whose signatories include India, Afghanistan and Russia. Iran is the key gateway in this project. It will improve India’s trade with Central Asia as well as Europe.
    The Chabahar Port has also reduced Afghanistan’s dependence on the transit road, which went through Karachi. Now, trade can be conducted via Chabahar Port too. Islamabad has accused India of trying to use this development as a means to destabilise Pakistan.

    The Chabar Port is the said to be the counter to the Gwadar Port. Wikimedia Commons
    The Chabar Port is the said to be the counter to the Gwadar Port. Wikimedia Commons
  • The Chabahar Port also acts as a counter to the barely 100 km away, Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is developed by China. However, Iran has defended that Chabahar is not a rival to Gwadar and Pakistan is invited to join in its development.
  • In October 2017, India sent its first shipment of wheat to through Chabahar to Afghanistan, in order to test the viability of the route.
  • India will also construct a 900-km Chabahar-Zahedan-hajigak railway line that will connect Port of Chabahar to Hajigak in Afghanistan. It will also connect Mashad in the north, providing access to Turkmenistan as well as northern Afghanistan.This project is worth $1.6 billion.

    India will supply $400 million worth of steel rails to Tehrain. Wikimedia Commons
    India will supply $400 million worth of steel rails to Tehran. Wikimedia Commons
  • It is being said that India will supply $400 million of steel rails to Tehran. There are also possibilities of setting up a fertilizer plant through a joint venture with the Iranian government.