India & Iraq: facing realities

Although Iraq has been a particularly good and politically supportive friend to India, and has episodically been the top oil supplier to India in the past, relations between the two countries began to lose momentum in the wake of US policies after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Finally, India lost interest in Iraq after the US invaded it in 2003 — so much so that there was no Indian ambassador in Baghdad from 2005 to 2011.

Yet Iraq has suddenly been dominating Indian public attention for the past month, with India’s 24/7 TV news channels orchestrating a shrill campaign to highlight the woes of the families of 40 Indian construction workers abducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the militant group took control of Mosul. The media has pilloried the government’s alleged ‘failure’ to protect and/or rescue its nationals.

But the Indian public needs to be made aware of ground realities, due to which these things happen.

The 39 construction workers (one has since escaped captivity) are in a war zone and their exact whereabouts are not known. Since neither the territory, nor the captors, nor the evolution of developments is under Indian control or influence, the government is inevitably completely dependent on others — central and regional governments in Iraq; governments of friendly countries who may have local influence; national and international humanitarian and relief agencies; tribal leaders; the militants themselves or other individuals or entities who have influence with the militants — for the men’s safety and return to India. Efforts have been continuing on a 24-hour basis with such entities — that is the best that any government can do.

That is how the recent rescue of 46 Indian nurses, forced by militants to vacate a hospital in the ISIL-occupied city of Tikrit in northern Iraq, was secured.

India and Indians have always enjoyed enormous goodwill in the Arab world in general and in the Gulf region in particular. This is one of the reasons why the Indian nurses were not ill-treated and were then released. If, despite all efforts, the construction workers are harmed, the government should not be blamed.

Not a single country, even those with extremely competent intelligence agencies and foreign ministries, and those that intensively interact with Iraq on a daily basis, had anticipated the blitzkrieg of ISIL in taking over the Sunni provinces of Iraq. The consul general of Turkey in Mosul and 23 other consulate personnel were abducted and are yet to be rescued. One hundred Kurdish schoolchildren have been missing for weeks. Numerous others of many nationalities are missing. Therefore there was nothing that the Indian government or the embassy could have done to prevent the abduction of the Indian workers.

Suggestions made in hindsight that they could have been evacuated in anticipation of events completely ignore how the real world functions. The workers themselves would not have wanted to leave, having made large payments to recruitment and travel agents in India. Suggestions that commando operations can be mounted to rescue them are completely irresponsible.

Exactly ten years ago, something similar happened. Three Indian truck drivers were kidnapped in Iraq in July 2004 while working for a Kuwaiti company that ferried supplies to the US military in Iraq. An Indian diplomatic team was sent to Baghdad and successfully negotiated their release — they had been held captive for 41 days. While negotiations were underway, India witnessed frenetic TV coverage similar to what we are seeing now. However, within a few months of their release, the truck drivers were back in Kuwait. When interviewed on TV, the same family members who had earlier complained about and criticised the government aggressively said that the men had to earn a living for their family members.

This team of drivers had learnt to its great surprise that as many as 20,000 Indians were working in Iraq, many of them in various US military camps — the attraction obviously being the high salaries that are paid for duty in war zones. In the context of the kidnapping of the drivers, the government banned the movement of Indians to Iraq for employment, a ban that continued until May 2010. This was lifted following public demand, and hence the trouble now.

All this highlights the sad fact and national shame that 67 years after independence, millions of Indians have to go abroad to work in conditions that are conducive to their easy exploitation. In the short term, it is difficult to see how this can be prevented. However, one key domestic issue needs to be addressed proactively with a sense of priority that unfortunately no government in the past has done: the nexus between the recruiting and travel agents in India and employment agents in the Gulf countries, which is the main reason for the exploitation of Indian workers. This unsavoury link must be broken and stricter regulations must be stringently enforced.

Last week, ISIL announced the establishment of an Islamic Emirate, which in due course, they hope, will include India. However, there is no reason for major concern because ISIL is going to be extremely busy in Syria and Iraq in order to stave off defeat. Of course, the Caliphate could be an ideological beacon for misguided or unemployed Indian Muslim youth; but ultimately, the causes and remedies thereof lie with the Indian government and civil society, not outside India.

– Ranjit Gupta
(The author is a former member of the
National Security Advisory Board)