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Hostage Crisis: Indian Response And Future Challenges

Updated: August 2, 2014 11:16 am

The fates of the Indians living and working in Iraq have been in the headlines over the last one and half months. And that is understandable. With a fragile democratic system that has been imposed on it by external forces and being a country, where, as in almost all its neighbours, the concept of respecting plurality and peaceful coexistence is not deep-rooted, Iraq is not only witnessing political instability but also confronted with a civil war. Normally, for a foreigner living in such a country is always a difficult proposition. No wonder, many Indians living in Iraq are being evacuated by the Government of India. And the government is claiming to exercise “all its options” towards the safe release of those Indians who are hostages in the hands of the rebel ISIS forces.

Evacuation of Indians from the countries in West Asia and North Africa in troubled times is of course not a new task for the Government of India. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the Indian Navy, the Indian Air Force and Air India have played great roles in Lebanon in 2006 and in Libya in 2011 to evacuate the stranded Indians. In what is called the Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Operations (HADR), the Navy carried out Operation Sukoon, its largest post-independence civilian evacuation, with the objective of evacuating Indian citizens trapped in a civil war in Lebanon during July 2006. Four Indian Naval ships – INS Mumbai, INS Brahmaputra, INS Betwa, and INS Shakti – proceeded to the coast of Lebanon and evacuated a total of 2,280 people (1,764 Indians, 112 Sri Lankans, 64 Nepalese and seven Lebanese with Indian spouses) to Cyprus from where they were flown to the Subcontinent by Air India. Similarly, in early 2011, the Navy embarked on an even larger mission than that of Operation Sukoon to evacuate Indian citizens from the Libyan civil war code named as Operation Blossom. It sent amphibious INS Jalashwa and a destroyer INS Mysore to the Libyan coast at the end of February. Assisted by two contract ferries, Air India and the Indian Air Force, the Navy evacuated around 15,000 Indian citizens from Libya.

Besides, India holds the record of being a country that has undertaken the largest civilian evacuation in history. That was in 1990, and the country involved here was none other than Iraq. In two months in 1990, India managed to evacuate more than 110,000 citizens from Iraq and Kuwait (then under Iraqi occupation) via an airlift that included nearly 500 flights by Air India. To be exact, Air India flew 488 flights over 59 days, carrying 111,711 passengers back home. This was remarkable in the sense that Western historians often write in great detail of the Berlin airlift, which took nearly two years to pull out about 48,000 people; but in India’s case it was only two months to ferry more than twice that number.

It is to be noted here that in each of these operations, India utilised its “soft power” to realise the goal. Goodwill for India in all the countries of the region in general and the countries under turmoil in particular, facilitated the tasks of Indian diplomats considerably. In Iraq, the then ruler Saddam Hussein had undoubtedly a soft corner for the Indians and he easily acceded to the requests of the Government of India for cooperation in lifting those stranded in Iraq and Kuwait that was under his control for some time. Of course, the visit to Iraq by the then external affairs minister I K Gujral and his “infamous” embrace of the Iraqi strongman speeded up the process of evacuation. Gujral’s visit drew a lot of flak, but seen in retrospect, it was statesmanlike from India’s point of view. Because without Saddam’s tacit support, it would not have been possible for the Indians to board planes from Basra, Baghdad and eventually Amman where many Indians reached through the land route across Iraq to the Jordanian border.

It was in 2004 that for the first time India faced a hostage crisis in Iraq. The Americans had invaded Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam, resulting in the political and economic deterioration of Iraq, which, in turn, gave rise to various sectarian outfits and warlords among others. These outfits needed resources and found kidnappings a means to extract ransoms. It is against this backdrop that in July 2004, 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. It may be noted here many such Indians were working for the American military in war zones for higher remunerations. Be that as it may, the Indian diplomats did a competent job in negotiating for over a month with an interlocutor representing the kidnappers, engaging with him for several hours every day. According to Ambassador Talmiz Ahemad, the discussions included, first, a political statement criticising 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”, he says.

Against this background, let us see the present situation in Iraq. Going by the briefings the official spokesman of the MEA to the press, Indians in Iraq may be broadly classified into two categories—those in combat zones and those in noncombat zones. Their figure includes the numbers of those who have returned to the country safely over the last one month. That is why I will be using the words “have been” rather than the word “are” in giving the figure. This figure, of course, is not 100 percent authentic as many Indians have entered Iraq illegally from the UAE and Kuwait. However, to quote External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, an estimated number of 22,000 Indian nationals were in Iraq at the beginning of the conflict. This included 500 in Baghdad, 2,300 in Najaf, 1000 in Karbala and 3,000 in Basra. In the Kurdistan region the number of Indians was 15,000. About 200 Indians were also living in other cities of Iraq.

In the combat zone, particularly in northern Iraq, there have been about 100 Indians, out of whom 17 were evacuated before 40 Indian workers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, were taken as hostages in mid-June. One of them has escaped and now is back in Punjab. Then there were 46 nurses, who were made captives but subsequently released. They are back in Kerala, their homes state. What this means is that at the moment, there are 39 Indian workers who are hostages in the hands of the ISIS, and they are somewhere in Mosul.

From the non-conflict areas, particularly in Najaf, Karbala, Basra and Baghdad, over 3,500 Indian nationals in Iraq have been assisted for returning to India. This includes air tickets to over 2,500 of them. The Government of India has made elaborate arrangements for their return and Indians are returning every day. Again, Indian navy has deployed two vessels in Gulf waters – INS Mysore and INS Tarkash – and if required, both the ships can be pressed into evacuation operations. The IAF also has its aircraft on standby and if asked, it can deploy its C17 and C-130J Super Hercules aircraft at short notice. There have been mobile teams to Najaf, Karbala, Basra and Baghdad. These teams have been authorised by the External Affairs Minister to contact Indian nationals in their places of residence to advise them that it is best that they leave their places of work and return to India. Airports in Irbil, Baghdad, Najaf and Basra have been open to normal commercial traffic. In case they have any problems in returning to India in terms of availability of funding for their return tickets, the Government of India is bearing that liability and providing tickets. And if they have issues relating to a contractual or legal nature, about their visa status for example or else about their contractual obligations, the Indian embassy in Baghdad is assisting them in their discussions with the sponsors and Iraqi immigration authorities. As it is, India and Iraq have set up a joint committee to address all issues relating to immigration problems that may arise of Indian nationals coming there.

Now let us discuss the issue of the safe return of 46 Indian nurses. One must complement the government of India that its multiple agencies did rise to the occasion. While External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj engaged her counterparts at the political level in West Asia, including Foreign Ministers of the six oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, sound tactical leadership seemed to have been provided by the diplomats on the ground. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has also played his role. He was believed to have gone on a specific mission to Iraq and other neighboring countries, something the Government is neither confirming nor denying.

In fact, the other day, there was a specific question put to the MEA spokesman whether the National Security Advisor did have any role in these negotiations. I am now quoting the reply of the spokesman: “I explained to you two things. At the diplomatic level these negotiations were involving the External Affairs Minister herself. At the ground level, obviously we will not be able to share, and I had repeated it previously, because diplomacy works through the front door. I had said, we are using other doors. How those doors were used and knocked on, how they were opened up, is a story for another day. The story for today is that one of those doors opened and we were able to extricate our nationals. At the ground level, you would appreciate that it is best we do not get into who, where, when, what and how things are happening. This process did not happen just like that; it happened because there was an enormous amount of effort that was put in both within Iraq and outside Iraq. We have not shared those details with you previously for the simple reason that when there is an operation under way we cannot share those details.”

It may be noted that on an earlier occasion, when asked about the release of the 39 Indian construction workers, he had answered that the issue revolves around three doors: front doors (meaning diplomacy); back doors (implying the use of the good offices of foreign powers who are major stakeholders in Iraq such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, and of course the United States and Russia); and trap doors (suggesting other options). It is obvious that the first two doors were used for the release of the nurses. Through these doors, India did take advantages of the rival factions within the insurgent jihadi groups and unfinished power struggle between ex-Baathists loyal to former President Saddam Hussein who seem to have forged a tactical alliance with the ISIS. After all, India does have decades-old links with former Baathists. Then there has been the cooperation from Amnesty International and the Red Crescent Society in Iraq to engage in talks with the captors.

But what about the third door that includes “other options”? The MEA spokesman has not defined it. And that has left room for speculations that the kidnappers were paid a heavy ransom – amount towards the release of the nurses, something that had happened in 2004. As it is, Khalsa Aid, an international humanitarian organisation based in the UK, has been openly saying that it would pay money to the kidnappers through its interlocutors in Iraq towards the release of the remaining 39 Indians.

Other options could also mean the military options. But then, is India in a position to rescue the remaining 39 hostages by its specially trained fighters, something that countries like Israel and the United States are famous for? This question is particularly interesting, given the fact that not long ago India bought six C-130 HERCULES transport aircraft outfitted for special-forces operations. Besides, it is widely believed that the Modi government is about give the green signal for the setting up a Special Operations Command (SOC) to counter terrorism and conduct unconventional warfare and covert operations in the country and the neighbourhood. The Defence Ministry has approved the SOC in principle and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), chaired by the Prime Minister, is likely to give the final approval. Headed by a Lieutenant-General, the proposed command will report to the National Security Advisor (NSA) and work closely with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) as the commandos may have to carry out strategic strikes outside Indian boundaries.

In fact, this proposal predates to the UPA government which had set up the 14-member Naresh Chandra Taskforce on National Security. The Taskforce in its recommendations submitted to the Prime Minister in 2012 had suggested setting up three commands, including Special Operations, Cyber and Aerospace, to keep abreast with the fast changing nature of war fighting. The Cyber command is supposed to be headed by a Vice Admiral and the Aerospace command will be managed by an Air Marshall. It has been reported that the proposal to have the Special Operations Command gathered momentum after Army Chief General Bikram Singh, who is also Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, gave a detailed presentation about it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month. Once put in shape, the Special Operations Command will see the integration of the commandos of Special Forces of the Army, Marine Commandos (MARCOS) of the Navy and Garud of IAF. They will deal with “out of area” contingencies.

While personally I am in favour of the creation of the SOC, it will be little unrealistic to expect that it will deliver results in near future. In my considered view, the SOC will have teething problems and it will take years for becoming effective. Because all told, if the US Navy Seals succeeded in conducting an Abottabad type operation that killed Osama bin Laden, it was because the CIA provided adequate intelligence inputs for the operation. In contrast, India’s intelligence capabilities are quite limited, the contrary claims of the Research Analysis wing (RAW) notwithstanding. Another thing we should be realistic about is that we simply do not have the technological assets that the US has for these operations. We have then huge political constraints in the sense that our political class is not reputed for taking hard decisions, amply evident in our inability to launch cross-border commando raids. In fact, here I will like to quote novelist Aravind Adiga who is really apt in describing what our leaders say regarding New Delhi’s response to the next major terrorist strike: “The government will immediately threaten to attack Pakistan, then realize that it cannot do so without risking nuclear war, and finally beg the US to do something. Once it is clear that the government has failed on every front—military, tactical and diplomatic—against the terrorists, senior ministers will appear on television and promise that, next time, they will be prepared and teach Pakistan a lesson.”

This being the case, I think the wiser option to deal with the hostage crises in foreign lands, be it in Iraq today or elsewhere in future, is to further fine-tune the mechanisms or instruments of India’s “soft power”. The key here is earning a good will for India abroad, which in turn, could be exploited as an asset by our diplomats in their negotiations. People-to-people diplomacy will also play a supporting role.

However, as a preventive measure, what we can do is to ensure that people are going to the war-torn countries for work legally. Admittedly, no government can control the emigration for work in this age of globalisation, and that too when there is paucity of remunerative jobs for the low-skilled workers. But then one has to ensure that they go normally. Surprisingly, despite its volatility, the overall number of ECR seeking migrants to the Gulf countries has increased during the last three years. The numbers rose from 6, 28,910 persons in 2011-12, to 7, 55,169 the following year and 7, 98,040 during 2013-14. As regards Iraq, the latest official data shows that the movement of Indian workers with ECR clearance to Iraq shot up steeply during 2013-14 compared to the previous years. As many as 7,379 persons had been granted clearance to go to Iraq by the authorities during 2013-14, compared to 1,903 the previous year. Only 1,074 persons had sought ECR clearance during 2011-12. Now if that is so, why is it that many workers who have returned over the last one month complain that that they were underpaid, underfed and sometimes not paid by their employers at all?

In fact, the human rights conditions of the Indian workers in the Gulf countries do not receive the same attention as they do in case of the more prosperous Indian migrants in the western countries. This is something that the Government of India needs to address comprehensively because it is a fact that that those without legal work contracts and entry-permits are more vulnerable to the terrorists and kidnappers.

(Excerpts from the speech delivered at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi on July 17, 2014)

By Prakash Nanda

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