The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Given the political environment in the country it wasn’t the least bit surprising that the government of India give a conditional sanction to sending troops to Iraq. The decision to induct Indian troops into Iraq only in the event of a United Nations resolution followed a predictable opinion moulding in the country. The outcome is foregone when passion, and not pragmatism, dictates policy. If emotionalism is the order of the day then ignorance will become the prevailing input. In India both conjoined to influence a decision that demanded a decisive position, not wavering conditionalism. This indeed is a pity. For the principal casualty in this debate by the ill-informed is national interest.

As one of the two remaining civilizational states, India’s national interests are neither governed solely by the happenings and events of recent days, nor do they the result from the need to cosy up to a trans-national power. National interests prevail within a set framework, with a dab of colour and content added once in a while. And these have been crafted as much by Harappan clay as by the cool calculations of the future. Interests, since those days of dazzling craftsmanship, remain relevant even to this day — secure trade with the neighbourhood, continual supplies of water, an effective state, and the means to reach distant places and influence other peoples. The Harappans had it good on all such points for a while, and so flourished. And these will remain constant in India’s search for its role under the sun.

Both the clay of the past and the calculations of the future, therefore, determine that India be present in modern day Iraq, née Mesopotamia. India must play a role in the efforts to bring peace and order to a people liberated from the cruel confines of a neo-Babylonian dictator. Indians have been going to, trading with and settling in that land of the Tigris and Euphrates from the days of clay craftsmanship.

The Harappans created a civilization that linked up with, among others, Mesopotamia. The traffic was not in the least bit one-way, or uni-dimensional. Rabia Basri’s contribution to the spread of Sufism in India is now largely forgotten, but is tangible in the withering verses. And then there is the most famous horse in Indian history, also Iraqi Arab by birth. Within the last hundred years, Indian soldiers have found themselves in Iraq on two different occasions. So there is every reason for India to be seen aiding the process of bringing order to a long ravaged land, and to a repeatedly abused people.

This presence must not, under any circumstances, be determined by the much-publicized request by the United States of America. India needs to be in Iraq not because Washington has asked New Delhi, but despite that. India’s national interests in Iraq have not been shaped by the emergence of the US as the predominant global power, and the need to get it out of the sticky situation of a post-Saddam scenario. They have been fired in the kilns of history. The lack of consciousness of these interests in the making of the Indian opinion is most mystifying.

There was, firstly, no Indian debate in the build-up to the war in Iraq. The country continued as though the war wasn’t likely to happen. As if that was not perplexing enough, there was the parliamentary resolution which was as anti-historical as it was ill timed, and mis-placed. Perpetuation of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous regime was never in India’s national interest, and could never be. Yet the ill-informed and the arcane prevailed in Parliament. And now the same have done so once again in compelling the government of India to conditionally accept the sending of troops to Iraq. Both are not in India’s long-term interests.

The politico-diplomatic logic of Pokhran II was the need to dismantle an inequitable nuclear regime that governed global relations. That inequity also applies to the United Nations structure and functioning. It is in India’s interest that the current arrangement over the world body becomes undone. Like all dismantling and destruction, this is also not an easy, or painless, decision to implement. But if the future is the concern, then present actions must point toward making that more bountiful. Perpetuating old regimes, of any sort, is certainly not the route to that prosperity. Since the current UN system must go, it does not make sense to tie up India’s interests in Iraq to the condition of deploying troops under the ubiquitous blue banner.

India must be at the forefront to find regional solutions to regional problems. Whatever Washington might believe, and want the world to as well, at the end of the day Saddam Hussein was foremost a regional problem. And so it must be with the deployment of a multi-national force that order is restored. The logic is even more compelling since there is not a country in the neighbourhood that is not glad to have seen Saddam Hussein removed from power. India’s interests remain wedded to the region it has influenced, and been influenced by, for the past millennia. It makes sense, therefore, for New Delhi to embark on a regional coalition-building exercise; one that is willing to take responsibilities in the region, and put its money where its mouth is.

Regional arrangements like the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council exist but only on paper and in conference rooms. If India could help make them more effective on the ground it would earn the goodwill of more Arabs than one thinks possible. There will be far greater dividends to earn from such ventures than the doling out of second-best construction contracts by those that won the war.

Treading on a post-war scenario is akin to walking on a minefield. There is, naturally, much trepidation and fear of the unknown. But that is life at its barest reality. Whatever the half-informed may want others to believe, there are no similarities between this situation and, say, Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka. That was a crisis precipitated by India and further errors compounded it many times over. A peacekeeping operation was compelled to become an enforcement campaign.

Iraq’s requirement, on the other hand, is clearly that of an expeditionary force. On that score, India has plenty of experience — from the Chola armies heading eastward all the way up to the last century when various formations sailed westward all the way up to Flanders. Mesopotamia lay in between those western ports of call, and whose people Indians once helped liberate from tyranny. Now that they have been once again liberated, it behoves India’s civilizational status to ensure those people remain free. The excuse of “policy” will just not achieve that.

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