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A PENCHANT FOR BLUNDERS
- The UPA government could have avoided the hostage crisis in Iraq

Could the crisis in Iraq involving the Indian hostag- es have been avoided' The answer, sadly, is yes. If the United Progressive Allia- nce government had not rescinded the order of the former external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, in his final weeks in office, prohibiting Indians from travelling to Iraq, last week’s hostage-taking would not have taken place at all. The previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led government barred Indians from journeying into Iraq’s chaos after hostage-takers struck against an Indian once earlier, and complaints reached Sinha’s office that Indians in Kuwait were being coerced by their employers into going across the border into the occupied country. There were numerous complaints that Indian workers in Iraq were being ill-treated, in some cases even subjected to what amounted to slave labour.

The ban on Indians entering Iraq that was imposed under Sinha’s watch was, surprisingly, effective, unlike many previous efforts by successive governments in New Delhi to stop ill-treatment of Indian labour in Gulf states. This was because Kuwait has become progressively sensitive about its borders since it was attacked and overrun by Saddam Hussein in 1990.

The Kuwaitis have become more aware that they are vulnerable, and tightened their borders more and more. With the situation steadily deteriorating inside Iraq, the Kuwaitis are paranoid that any day something terrible — like the train bombings in Madrid in March — could happen within their small emirate. Therefore, they have ensured that people do not go back and forth from Iraq without adequate controls and accountability. Notwithstanding the pot of gold that still awaits Kuwaiti businesses willing to take risks in Iraq, Kuwait’s government has not allowed these businesses to exploit the full potential of making money in Iraq by any means.

For Indians and other foreigners in Kuwait, all this meant that they had to get a no-objection certificate from their embassy in the emirate in order to cross the border into Iraq and to return to Kuwait. Sinha’s order had the effect of ensuring that the Kuwaiti authorities simply shut down the movement of Indians into Iraq because Indians in Kuwait could no longer get no-objection papers from New Delhi’s diplomatic mission there.

Even as Russians, Bulgarians, Turks, Germans and a host of other nationalities were being kidnapped in Iraq in recent months, Indians were not so vulnerable any more. Ill-treatment of Indian workers was becoming a routine, systemic problem in Iraq under American occupation, but with Sinha’s order, that began to change.

However, the new government in New Delhi made other plans soon after it assumed office. Little over a month ago, demonstrators assembled in front of the Indian embassy in Kuwait and demanded that the mission should resume issuing the documents that would enable Indians to travel to Iraq and work there. In Kuwait, there is much speculation about the nature of that demonstration. A popular view is that it was by no means a spontaneous action by Indian labourers, but that the march was actually funded and organized by Indian recruiting agents, who stood to make a killing if the ban on Indian travel into Iraq was lifted.

There are two elements to such a charge. One is that poor, illiterate and ill-informed Indian labourers may have been told that they could make their fortune in Iraq. Many Indian workers in Kuwait have no access to TV in their labour camps. Many are illiterate, cannot read newspapers and may have believed the propaganda. The second element is that these workers were told that the Indian government was standing in the way of their making money — by imposing restrictions on their travel to Iraq.

The result was that the big demonstration was, indeed, held before the Indian mission in Kuwait, a city where demonstrations are virtually unheard of. After the demonstration, a group of recruiting agents met several ministers and officials in New Delhi to plead their case for rescinding Sinha’s ban on Indians travelling to Iraq. The UPA government eagerly directed the Indian mission in Kuwait to resume the practice of issuing no-objection certificates to Indians in the emirate to cross the border into Iraq.

Too late, after Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdeo Singh were kidnapped, South Block reverted to Sinha’s policy of refusing no-objection certificates to Indians wanting to work in Iraq. Better late than never. If any of the Indian hostages come to harm, the decision will be described as locking the stables after the horses have bolted.

But more serious is the sad reality that after having consciously created conditions that led to the kidnapping of three Indians, the UPA government compounded its act of commission by what can be charitably described as its poor handling of efforts to secure freedom for the hostages. It did not come as a surprise that external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh, who has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth as soon as he sees reporters or television cameras, did just that in his very first comments on the hostage crisis.

Many jaws dropped in South Block when Singh announced in Islamabad that India was in touch with the American embassy in Baghdad and that he had talked to Iraq’s so-called foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. Talk to them by all means, but to announce to the kidnappers that Singh was doing so was as good as signing the death warrants for Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdeo Singh. The kidnappers have no grievances against India. At least, they did not have any until Singh put his foot in his mouth again a few days later, describing the kidnappers in unflattering terms, questioning their political credentials and hinting that they were mercenaries. All that at a time when the lives of hapless Indians were entirely in their hands.

Hostage-takers in Iraq, on the other hand, do have grievances against the United States of America and against the so-called sovereign government in Baghdad. Indeed, hostage-taking activities in Iraq are motivated primarily by the political and military objectives of insurgents who want the interim Iraqi government to collapse and the US to leave their country. Therefore, to publicly admit to talking to the Americans in Baghdad was tantamount to waving the red flag in front of a bull during a bullfight. Talking to Zebari was even worse. Announcing such a conversation to the public was as good as insulting the insurgents. Zebari is someone who cannot step out of his house in Baghdad without American protection. Without America’s protection 24 hours a day, Zebari would be a hostage himself — or be history.

Diplomats in Kuwait insist that at that stage of South Block’s fiasco, harm to Indian hostages was averted only because they were with Egyptian and Kenyan captives. Egypt has considerable influence in Iraq, as shown by the quiet release of Cairo’s diplomat, who was kidnapped in a separate incident last Friday. As for Kenya, its government acted with greater maturity than India and made the right noises to ensure, as far as possible, the safety of its national in captivity.

Once Singh realized that he had put his foot in his mouth, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour, according to officials in South Block dealing with the hostage issue. In the process, he left everything to his inexperienced junior minister, E. Ahamed, who is in charge of the Gulf. Ahamed has never been a Central minister before. The last time he was a minister anywhere was a long, long time ago in his native state of Kerala. Ahamed is a successful politician who has won successive elections to the Lok Sabha and to the Kerala assembly. But handling a crisis management group in the Indian government requires more than political success. That Singh left Ahamed to do this on his own for the first time in his life speaks volumes for how vulnerable India has become under the UPA.

The unkindest cut of it all, from the junior external affairs minister’s point of view, was that Singh did not give Ahamed the back up in South Block which was necessary to handle anything like a hostage crisis. Singh left for Islamabad without appointing a secretary in charge of the Gulf in place of R. Abhyankar, who left for Brussels to be India’s new ambassador to the European Union. Abhyankar knew everyone who mattered in Iraq: he was once posted in Baghdad, and he kept up and cultivated Iraqi contacts later, as ambassador in Damascus and Ankara. He played a big role in influencing the BJP-led government’s decision not to send troops to Iraq after extensive meetings last year across the length and breadth of that country.

Worse, Singh flew to Islamabad leaving South Block in the hands of a foreign secretary who was retiring in a few days, whose tenure left much to be desired. He left South Block with no other secretaries in charge except one dealing with economic relations. With such unprecedented abdication of responsibility by a minister, it is a wonder the Indian hostages are still alive.

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