International

'Friend, She Is My Elder Sister': Revisiting Yasser Arafat's Ties With Indira Gandhi

Yasser Arafat was familiar with India and its leaders and regarded Indira Gandhi as his sister. Dressed in olive green fatigues with a black and white keffiyeh wrapped Arab-style on the head and thrown across the shoulder, Arafat cut a dashing figure.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and PLO leader Yasser Arafat
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Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was a charismatic figure with a huge fan following across the world. At the end of the Second World War, the world was very different from what it is now as countries in Asia and Africa were throwing off their colonial oppressors and were finally free. There was hope in the air, for the new liberal order. Revolutionary leaders from Che Guevara to Fidel Castro to Yasser Arafat were hugely admired by the young.

India was no exception. Indian leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru supported the Palestinian movement and their right to live in dignity in the land that was taken away from them. India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the PLO in 1974. The next year the government allowed the PLO to open an office in Delhi. Palestinian students often came to Indian colleges at that time right up to the 1980s.

Arafat was familiar with India and its leaders and regarded Indira Gandhi as his sister. Dressed in olive green fatigues with a black and white keffiyeh wrapped Arab-style on the head and thrown across the shoulder, Arafat cut a dashing figure. A popular quote from the PLO leader at that time was: "I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.’’

There are many anecdotes and stories about Arafat in his prime. Ambassador Rajiv Dogra, remembers an incident in New York when Arafat went to address the UN General Assembly. As his car was on its way to the UNGA, he saw an anti-Palestine demonstration was on. Protesters held placards with the words "Arafat go Home.’’ He stopped the car and went out to speak to the crowd, pointing to the placard he is reported to have said. "Thank you. That is what I have been trying to do all these years, go home.’’

In his book, One Life is Not Enough, Natwar Singh, former diplomat and minister recalls how the temperamental Yasser Arafat created a near diplomatic flap when he wanted to walk out of the Non-Aligned Movement summit held in India in 1983. The late Satinder Lambah, or Sati Lambah as he was called, rushed to Natwar Singh in panic.  

"Sir, we have a hell of a problem on our hands (Lambah said). Yasser Arafat is most upset - he says he felt insulted by being asked to address the opening plenary session after the leader of the Jordanian delegation. Arafat has already alerted the crew of his aircraft and will leave New Delhi this evening."

Natwar says Indira requested Castro to tackle the situation. "To watch the Cuban leader, handle the temperamental PLO leader was an education. Arafat reached Vigyan Bhavan in record time. Castro asked him if he was a friend of Indira Gandhi," Natwar writes.

"The response was something along these lines: 'Friend, friend, she is my elder sister and I will do anything for her.' Next, Castro told Arafat, 'Then behave like a younger brother and attend the afternoon session.' It was over in two minutes. Arafat did as he was told."

Ambassador K.P. Fabian also recalls meeting Arafat in Baghdad in 1991, when he was travelling with the former prime minister I.K. Gujral. Arafat was then staying in Iraq, and Gujral was invited to dinner at the PLO leaders' home. Fabian recalls the charisma, wit, and depth of knowledge of their host. He would work 24x7, and many of his advisers often had to travel with him to get the time to discuss pressing issues. The former IFS officer recalls that a buzz in the diplomatic circuit was that the Israelis had a mole within Arafat’s closest advisers.

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The Oslo Accord of 1993, won both Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin the Nobel Peace Prize, but it was doomed right from the start as extremist elements on both sides saw it as a sell-out. Both Hamas and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party were up in arms and ensured it remained on paper. 

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