September 23 has special significance in the history of Israel and India. On this day, exactly 100 years ago, the Indian soldiers from Jodhpur and Mysore princely states had liberated Israel, then known as Palestine, from the clutches of the Ottoman rulers. Organiser Chief News Coordinator Dr Pramod Kumar spoke to Shri Ravikumar Iyer, the author of ‘Indian Heroism in Israel’ about the significance of this day and how India and Israel look at it today. Excerpts:
What is the significance of September 23, which is celebrated as Haifa Day, for us Indians?
The date marks a turning point in the history of India and Israel. The famous Haifa battle was fought on September 22 and 23, 1918. This battle took place towards the end of World War-I. It was a unique battle. The British had promised the Jews to fight against the Ottoman Empire and dethrone them from the areas then called Palestine. The Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine for 402 years. The famous Balfour Declaration was made in 1917 between the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and Israeli leader Chaim Weizmann. As per their promise to the Jews, the British arrived in West Asia with their troops. As usual their troops contained many Indian soldiers specially recruited for this war. They had also formed Australia New Zealand Armed Corps (ANZAC) in 1914 and they too arrived in Middle East to liberate Palestine. Maharajas of Jodhpur and Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad also sent their soldiers to help British army in ousting the Turks.
The World War-I was fought in Europe, Africa and West Asia. Israel was part of the West Asia campaign. The soldiers sent by Jodhpur and Mysore Maharaja and the Nizam of Hyderabad along with the British Army, which also constituted some other Indian soldiers and soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and other countries, moved to the Israel port city Haifa. Since it was a seaport, it was the supply line of the Ottoman rulers. Strategically, it was a vital link. Hence, the Britishers decided first to capture Haifa so that the same port could be used as a supply centre for the British army during the war. Capturing Haifa port was winning about 90 per cent battle. Hence, the Britishers made an aerial survey of the port area and found that it was poorly guarded.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu at Teen Murti Haifa Chowk in Delhi
Later the British realised it was a trick by the Turks to trap the Allied Forces. Going by their aerial survey, the British troops decided to attack Haifa. The Ottomans were helped by the German, Austria and Hungry forces and their soldiers had positioned on top of Mount Carmel. They were heavily guarded with cannons and machine guns. Moreover they were hiding in trenches. They were firing shells. All roads leading to the city were cut to prevent the British troops from advancing. There were many other roadblocks also. When the British forces could not move ahead, and the enemy was found positioned on top with continuously firing at them, the Britishers felt that the war was tough to win and it may claim the lives of a large number of their troops. Hence, they decided to withdraw. But, the soldiers of Jodhpur and Mysore princely states, who had gone to help the British army, did not agree to this decision of the Britishers. The Hyderabad Nizam’s soldiers were deployed by the British to guard the Prisoners of War and were not part of the Haifa battle directly.
Then what did the Indian soldiers do?
The soldiers of Jodhpur and Mysore states met the British officers and clearly told them that they are Kshatriyas and their dictionary does not have the words like ‘retreat’ and ‘withdrawal’. Once they decide to attack no matter what happens, they have to advance. They said their salary was paid by their Maharajas and they would surely ask them as to why did they retreat. They said their people in their native villages also would spit at their face if they withdrew. So, it was better to die in the battle than to go back to India with a black face. They said they would fight. The Britishers tried to explain to them that if entire army cannot win together, how would they win alone. But they did not agree.
Interestingly, in those days none of the princely states’ soldiers in India had rifles. They had only swords and lances. The Britishers were very clever. They did not teach them operating rifle fearing that those rifles could be used against them also. Despite being limited in number, the Jodhpur and Mysore states’ soldiers said they would fight. So, they went ahead and fought. Though they were on horses and foot without any vehicle, yet they fought against the mighty army of the Ottomans, Germans and Austrians in their own land. The soldiers of the enemy were well guarded because they had modern arms and ammunition and were positioned on top of a mountain, yet they lost with the heavy casualty. All their guns were captured and a lot of soldiers were taken as prisoners of war by the Indian soldiers. It was an unparallel example of bravery in the world history. The credit for the entire planning and winning of the war entirely goes to the soldiers and officers of the princely states. It was a turning point in the world history. The Ottoman Empire finally collapsed.
What was the British army doing when the Indian soldiers were fighting?
By 3.00 O’clock on September 23, 1918, the battle was over and the princely states soldiers had won the battle. Immediately after capturing the port city, they signalled the Britishers who immediately took all the generals and soldiers of the enemy as prisoners of war. The whole city was handed over to the Britishers. Once the port city Haifa was captured, winning the rest of Israel was a matter of few days. Gradually, the whole area of present Israel was captured. As the news of Israel’s liberation from Ottoman Empire spread, the Jews living in various countries of Europe including Russia, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Africa, for nearly two thousand years started returning in large number to Israel from 1919 onwards. Their number went on increasing. In 1948, by a resolution of the United Nations, the new state of Israel was formed.
In the formation of the new state of Israel the sacrifices of those Indian soldiers, especially of Jodhpur and Mysore princely states played a significant role. The Jews have created Memorials in Haifa and other places in the memory of those soldiers. The hero of the Haifa battle is called Major Dalpat Singh Shekhawat who led the battle on the first day. He was shot and succumbed to the injuries the next day. Then Captain Aman Singh Jodha took over and the regiment won the war. This was the unparallel and unheard story of bravery. This is the only battle in human history where a cavalry unit with swords and spears has defeated a large army with cannons and machine guns.
Why was this whole record not made available till now?
This war was fought by the Jodhpur and Mysore Princely states’ soldiers and not by the Britishers. It was not properly recorded in the British record, because they did not have the diaries of the soldiers who fought it. Their diaries may be available with the Maharajas of Jodhpur and Mysore. Whatever little information the Britishers could get from here and there they recorded that and kept at the war memorial archive in Egypt. They Britishers did a very good thing. They built a memorial of Haifa war in front of the House of the Commander in Chief of the British Army in New Delhi, which is today called Teen Murti Bhavan. The three Murtis installed at the Chowk there are basically the soldiers of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad. No memorial of any single war has been made by the Britishers, but Teen Murti is an exception.
You have written a Book on this war. How you did that?
I collected information from various sources. When the book was to be released in 2016 by the then Defence Minister Shri Manohar Parrikar, he raised some questions over the war. I provided him with three evidences. Till date, the 61 Cavalry of the Indian army at Jaipur in north India celebrates September 23 as its Raising Day or “Haifa Day”. Teen Murti Chowk in Delhi built in 1922 also describes the bravery of the soldiers of the Maharajas. Also the Israel Ambassador in New Delhi is aware of this battle and Indians role in the formation of modern state of Israel. When Shri Parrikar crossed checked all those evidence, he not only released the book but also admired the work.
Two months later in November 2016 when the Prime Minister of Israel came to India, he, instead of going to Rajghat first, went to Teen Murti Chowk and paid respect to the Indian soldiers, who played a key role in the making of modern state of Israel. When Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi visited Israel, he spent a few hours in Haifa and along with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled a plaque on the road near the Indian war memorial. In January 2018, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to India, and along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi renamed the Teen Murti Chowk as Teen Murti Haifa Chowk.
Jews have been living in India for a long time. How they reached here?
About 2500 years ago, when Israel was attacked by Assyrians, some Jews took shelter in Cochin. Again 2000 years ago when they were attacked by Babylonians, some Jews took refuge in Alibaug in the Western Coast of Maharashtra. According to them, seven men and seven women survived that trip to India. Rest died on their way. Today their number is about 80,000 in Israel and they are very proud of their Indian connections. Many speak Marathi fluently and want their children to inculcate Indian values. About 5000 Jews live in Thane, Mumbai and Gujarat also. The Jews all over Europe were persecuted, tortured and lived as slaves. The only country where they lived with honour was Bharat. This shows the large-heartedness shown by the Hindus. The Jews were physically dispersed all over Europe by the Roman empire 2000 years ago. They went to every European country including Germany, Poland, Russia, etc. But they were victimised and persecuted everywhere; their women were raped, and their books were burnt. But nothing such happened in India. Therefore, the Indian Jews always say that Israel is my fatherland, but India is my motherland. They also say that Israel is in my blood, but India is in my heart. When Israel was formed, the Jews thanked India for taking care of their people for 2000 years and for bringing freedom to their country through the Haifa war. These things cannot be erased from the history. The Jews on their part have maintained the Indian War Memorials in Israel with utmost dignity.
How do you look at the relations between India and Israel now?
Today for India, Israel is a good friend for cybersecurity, military help, cutting-edge technology, agriculture and many fronts. India needs Israel and Israel needs India. During Kargil war also, Israel provided us with major technical support, which helped us to overcome Pakistani threat. Indians and Jews are working together in many multi-national corporations like Google, Facebook, android, etc.
Why was this glorious history not presented before the countrymen after Independence?
There are many reasons. The diaries of the soldiers who fought that war are with the Jodhpur and Mysore Maharajas. Somebody has to go there and search from their archive. n