G R O U N D   Z E R O

Why the Iraq crisis will define Modi 
Any lives that are lost in Iraq would reflect adversely against the Modi government. Also, our emigration recording system is a dinosaur as compared to the technology available and needs an urgent revamp.
Raj Chengappa

To say the situation is grim in Iraq is an understatement. But for India, which has high stakes in Iraq, the conflict has become a major foreign policy challenge for the Narendra Modi government. Topmost is the fate of 86 Indians, 40 of whom are from Punjab, who have either been abducted or held in captivity in North Iraq by a ruthless jihadi army called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) with links to the feared Al Qaeda.

Then there are an estimated 3,500 Indians who live in South Iraq. Though they are some distance from the conflict zones they live in fear and uncertainty. There are another 6,000 plus in the Kurdistan region that is now controlled by the largely autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. So far this region remains largely untouched by the ongoing conflict and the reports are that Indians are safe.

Mothers of Punjabi youths stuck in Iraq, with the photographs of their sons
Mothers of Punjabi youths stuck in Iraq, with the photographs of their sons. A file photograph

Most of the Indian workers came to Iraq post 2011 when there was a construction boom. Among them are an estimated 514 from Punjab, 143 from Haryana, 25 from Himachal and seven from Jammu and Kashmir. Most of them have entered into unfair contracts with Iraqi construction companies that could result in monetary penalties if they prematurely return home.

Apart from the humanitarian dimension, there is the worry that if the conflict worsens, the oil supply from Iraq would be affected. Iraq is India’s second largest supplier of oil and if production is hit, it would mean New Delhi would have to shop elsewhere to make up the shortfall. That would come at a higher cost leading to inflationary pressure — the last thing Modi would want having promised “achche din” (good days).

There is a perception that the new government was slow to get a grip over the situation in Iraq. If the criticism has been veiled, it is because the honeymoon period with Modi is still on. But what the crisis did expose was that while pragmatism may have helped us keep our neck out of the strife that has afflicted the Middle East, it is evident that India has limited clout in the region.

In the past India was counted in the Arab world because of its principled stand on key issues concerning the region, particularly support for the Palestinian cause. But as religious and civil strife plagued the Arab Street, India kept a safe distance and was regarded as a passive observer. With its sizeable Muslim population, it may have been practical for India not to have taken sides. But that came at a price as the Modi government is realising.

In Iraq, the problem is exacerbated as the battle is between the ruling Shia regime and the rebel Sunni jihadi group that has already captured Mosul and Tikrit in the North. Ever since Saddam Hussein was toppled by the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq has been plagued with civil strife. The current Prime Minister Nouri al-Malliki, who has been in power since 2006, has never been able to win the trust of the Sunni minority which constitutes around 30 per cent of the population. That is why the Isis was easily able to take the Sunni-dominated Mosul and Tikrit, with the two divisions of the Iraqi Army stationed there putting up little resistance.

The biggest challenge for India would be to persuade Isis to release the 86 Indians that have been either abducted or held captive in North Iraq. As a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin put it, “We are knocking on all doors, front doors, back doors and even trap doors.” There are reports that India has been in touch with Saudi Arabia, which is said to exercise some clout over the jihadis, though the Saudi government denies the charge of funding the Isis.

Any lives that are lost in Iraq would reflect adversely against the Modi government. Already the NDA and the Punjab governments are facing flak for not taking adequate measures to speedily evacuate those who are stranded in South Iraq. So it’s important the Centre and state governments take all steps to facilitate the quick return of those Indians who want out.

What is also evident is the lack of accurate information about the exact numbers of Indians in Iraq, where all are they spread, which companies they work for, how long have they been there and their contact details. That is because our emigration recording system is a dinosaur as compared to the technology available to store and retrieve such information.

The Philippines, which has a large expat population, does keep a detailed record of its migrants apart from introducing initiation courses for those wanting to work abroad. It’s time the Indian government revamped the entire emigration system to ensure that we are able to track Indians who have gone abroad on work permits and help them in times of crisis like this.





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