The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Freedom clincher: secret statement

Washington, Sept. 12: Three men, at different levels of the Indian government, combined secrecy, duplicity and unconventional diplomacy to secure the release this month of three Indian truck drivers held in captivity in Iraq for 42 days, it can now be reported.

Although Kuwait Gulf Link (KGL), employers of Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev Singh, paid ransom for the release of these three Indians, it was not the key to ending the hostage saga.

Acceding to a firm and uncompromising demand from the hostage-takers, India issued a statement in Arabic in Baghdad expressing unstinted support for the aspirations of those fighting the American occupation of Iraq. The statement never saw the light of day in New Delhi and is still being kept under wraps by the ministry of external affairs (MEA).

Drafts of this statement, which helped restart negotiations with the kidnappers who broke off the talks on August 8, went back and forth between Baghdad and New Delhi on the one hand and between Baghdad and Kuwait on the other as the fate of the three Indians hung in the balance.

The statement finally released in Baghdad was the outcome of a demand by the hostage takers that India should condemn the US attack on Iraq and the subsequent occupation. The demand made the political leadership in South Block sweat, notwithstanding its carefully cultivated image of not being pro-US and its bravado about a foreign policy claiming greater independence from Washington than under the NDA government.

Career diplomats in South Block were in favour of giving serious consideration to this demand by the kidnappers, but the political leadership developed cold feet lest anything on those lines annoyed Washington, even though Indian lives were at stake.

A statement was drafted by Talmiz Ahmad, India's ambassador to Oman, who was sent to Baghdad on July 31 to be India's negotiator with the Iraqis. Ahmad lost no time in getting South Block's permission to fly in Zikr-ur-Rahman, an MEA translator, who was earlier his close aide when Ahmad was ambassador in Riyadh.

Rahman's networking in the closely-knit, secretive royal palaces in Riyadh and Taif and in the sources of theocratic power in Mecca far exceeded his official position at the Indian embassy in Riyadh and was acknowledged by the diplomatic community in the Saudi capital during the years that Ahmad was posted in the kingdom.

Translators are a cadre in MEA, whose services are grossly under-acknowledged. V V Paranjpe, who worked with Jawaharlal Nehru as a Chinese translator posted at the Indian mission in Beijing, is a repository of knowledge on the intractable Sino-Indian border issues in the 1950s and '60s, just one example of the quiet influence translators have on diplomacy.

Ahmad served in Baghdad in the 1970s, in Sanaa in the early '80s and was consul general in Jeddah for three and a half years until December 1990 before his two later postings in the Arab world: as ambassador in Riyadh and now in Muscat.

His brief this time as negotiator in Baghdad for securing freedom for the Indian hostages was an impossible one. No negotiations with the terrorists, the Crisis Management Group set up in New Delhi insisted. And not even a hint that India would pay any ransom.

Ahmad was in an unenviable position. He instinctively realised that what he needed was someone like Rahman: low profile, with a deep understanding of the bedouin ways of life, including their bargaining and negotiating ways.

The brief from New Delhi made it impossible that either Ahmad or the Indian ambassador in Baghdad, B B Tyagi, could be seen as negotiating with hostage takers.

But if a mere translator was talking to the kidnappers, it would keep up the farce in New Delhi that India was not bargaining with terrorists, a position that South Block has kept up to this day as its official policy throughout the Iraq hostage saga.

Rahman's first challenge was to undo the damage done by external affairs minister Natwar Singh's public allegation that the kidnappers were bandits and criminals, a statement widely publicised in the Arab media.

The kidnappers may or may not have been criminals. But it is believed that they decided to demand India's condemnation of the US in order to salvage their reputation tarnished by this public allegation.

As members of the Crisis Management Group spent sleepless nights over the issue of an Indian statement, it became clear that India was averse to an outright condemnation of the US. Ahmad now had to negotiate on two fronts: on the one hand with the hostage-takers through Rahman and on the other with his own bosses in New Delhi.

The outcome of drafts that furiously went back and forth between Baghdad and New Delhi for several days was a final statement that drew heavily on aspects of the Parliament resolution against the war in Iraq. It expressed support for the aspirations of the Iraqi people for freedom and self-rule.

The stage was thus set for resuming talks that led to the release of the Indians, although the statement that was a turning point in the negotiations still remains a secret in New Delhi.

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