India’s modern ties with Iraq commenced with war when, during the First World War, Indian troops marched across Mesopotamia and, after some bitter fighting against Ottoman forces, were able to establish British rule in Baghdad. Every major town in southern
Iraq hosts the remains of Indian soldiers, with graves for Muslims and commemorative plaques for Hindus. While British authority was established in the newly established state of Iraq, day to day matters were largely managed from India, with Indians making
a major contribution in different areas of national development.
These close ties with India were further consolidated with the Republican revolution in 1958 that ended the monarchy, and the subsequent Baathist revolution ten years later. As Iraq took up large-scale national development from the early 1970s, unlike other
oil-rich countries, the Iraqi government awarded a large number of contracts to Indian companies so that, by the end of the 1970s, Indian companies had won over 50 projects, covering areas such as water supply and sewerage schemes; roads, bridges and flyovers;
technical and business management education; railways, and prestigious construction projects such as the Council of Ministers building. Uniquely in the region, India also provided defence training, with a senior army team located in the country’s national
defence college in Baghdad, and Indian Air Force teams providing flight training at all the major Iraqi bases.
This trend of awarding major projects to Indian companies continued through the 1980s in spite of the Iran-Iraq
war. At its peak, the Indian community in Iraq, almost entirely made up of engineers, labour and technicians working for Indian and other projects, numbered around 50,000. Indians also played an important role as experts in almost every government department,
particularly in the petroleum, railways, finance, planning and civil construction institutions.
The bilateral relationship was adversely affected from 1990 onwards by Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, the subsequent Gulf war and the enforcement of the sanctions-inspections regime. However, Indian firms again rose to the occasion when the oil-for-food programme
was initiated, actively meeting Iraq’s urgent needs for foodstuffs, educational materials, computers, medicines and medical instruments, which were together valued at over $ one billion in 2002. India also revived its political ties with Iraq with the exchange
of parliamentary delegations and the revival of the joint commission in 1998 – 99.
With the war in 2003, Iraq’s political and economic situation seriously deteriorated as the country’s political and economic infrastructure was destroyed and the country lost the institutions that had held it together. This led to a countrywide insurgency directed
at the occupation forces. Unfortunately, as a result of divide-and-rule policies, widespread sectarian discord was also fomented in the country, with Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadi elements targeting holy shrines and soft targets. A number of warlords also emerged,
who supplemented their resources with ransom from kidnappings.
In this background, in July 2004, Iraq dramatically entered the consciousness of Indians when three Indian drivers, along with three Kenyans and one Egyptian, were kidnapped in Fallujah and held for ransom for nearly six weeks. These drivers were employed by
a Kuwaiti company that had sent them to Iraq in trucks carrying military equipment and supplies for the US forces. The drivers had no passports or visas, were provided no security, and had no-one to guide them to their destination which was the US military
then besieging Fallujah.
The diplomatic team that was sent to Baghdad to negotiate their release learnt to its surprise that as many as 20,000 Indians were working in the country, many of them in various American military camps, the attraction obviously being the high salaries being
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, which continued till May 2010.
During the 2004 hostage crisis, India’s 24X7 television news channels orchestrated a powerful campaign that highlighted the parlous plight of the drivers’ family members and the government’s "failure" to protect its nationals. Since Iraq was even then a war
zone and did not encourage the presence of Indian journalists, the Indian media did not know that the diplomats in Baghdad were engaged in continuous dialogue for over a month with an interlocutor representing the kidnappers, engaging with him for several
hours every day. The discussions included, first, a political statement criticizing the US occupation, followed by prolonged discussions on the ransom and the modalities for the handover of the ransom and the release of the drivers. The fact that the kidnappers
could be persuaded to reduce their demand from several million dollars to a more modest sum offered by the Kuwaiti company is a tribute to the Indian team’s negotiating skills and the persuasive abilities of the then ambassador in Kuwait.
This experience, the first of its kind for India in a foreign country, revealed many aspects that have come to characterize such situations. First, it affirmed that the welfare of the Indian community will have to be a paramount consideration for all governments
in Delhi, regardless of the situation prevailing in the country concerned or the circumstances in which the Indians go there to work. Again, any situation in which Indians abroad are in a hostage situation or in any other jeopardy, for the news channels this
will be the prime story till the episode is finally resolved. The Indian media will generally show little restraint or understanding of the complexities and difficulties inherent in the situation, but will insist on direct, immediate and robust action by the
government to rescue the Indians. The situation is likely to be further complicated with opposition politicians fiercely castigating the government for its "inadequate” response to the challenge.
Ten years later, with Indian nationals now entrapped in various Iraqi towns due to the dramatic successes of
the jihadist group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in occupying major Iraqi towns, these aspects are being manifested once again. The media has been relentless in pursuing the story and demanding quick action by government. The government’s response
has in fact been quick and effective: a senior officer has been deployed in Baghdad and help-centres, open 24 hours, have been set up in towns where large numbers of Indians are employed. Again, in a powerful statement, the Indian navy has deployed two vessels
in Gulf waters, while civilian aircraft are on standby for quick evacuation when required. Obviously, it is extremely difficult for the Indian diplomats to obtain direct access to those who are held in towns under ISIS occupation. Indeed, the situation could
worsen if there were to be a direct military confrontation between the ISIS cadres and the Iraqi forces that are being regrouped and prepared for combat.
The situation is not without its ironies. During the hostage crisis of 2004, family members would often weep their hearts out on television, swearing they would never in future let their menfolk go abroad for work. However, within a few months of their rescue,
the drivers were back in Kuwait. When interviewed on TV, the same family members now stated, rather aggressively, that the men had to earn a living for their family members! Something similar is apparent even now, in that, while some workers in insecure areas
in Iraq are anxious to return home, a large majority are keen to stay on. The anxiety of people to seek employment in countries experiencing insurgency is affirmed by the fact that, even when the government’s ban on working in Iraq was in force, hundreds of
people from India would come to the UAE or Kuwait and then take off for Iraq, though they were aware of the government’s ban.
This situation emerges from the fact that, even though 40 years have passed since Indians started migrating to Gulf countries to work, we have just not been able to prevent labour contractors from extracting large sums of money from prospective workers. Thus,
returning the loans taken to pay the contractors while simultaneously remitting money to family members makes it absolutely necessary for workers to stay on in difficult and even dangerous situations. For the Indian government, however, the circumstances which
lead its nationals to seek employment in countries experiencing civil strife have little relevance: when the situation deteriorates, the government has no choice but to deploy all its resources to bring them back safely even when we know that they will rush
back to the same country once the situation eases to some extent.
[The author, a former diplomat, was posted in Iraq in 1977-79, and led the Indian negotiating team to Baghdad
in 2004. This article has been written exclusively for ‘In Focus” section of Ministry of External Affairs website,www.mea.gov.in]