Friday June 22, 2018
Home India The forgotten...

The forgotten Jews and their significance in India

1
//
845
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…)

SHARE
  • 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

Across Asia’s Borders, Survivors Of Human Trafficking, Dial in for Justice

The trial has been ongoing since 2013

0
Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India.
Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India. VOA

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women

and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

Students Combat Human Trafficking
Students Combat Human Trafficking, flickr

‘Unpardonable’

Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

Silencing Victims
Silencing Victims, pixabay

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

Also read: Imagining Panun Kashmir: Dissent And Detente in South Asia

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.” (VOA)