If all goes well and there’s no last-minute hitch, a special Air India flight carrying 46 nurses and 70 other Indians stranded in strife-torn Iraq would have landed in Kochi on Saturday morning. That should be celebratory news for families spending sleepless nights ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the ISIL (earlier known as the ISIS) launched its depredations, taking everybody by surprise.
Praying for thier safe return: Indian relatives of workers missing in Iraq pose as they hold up photographs bearing their images in Khatuli village in Patiala on June 20, 2014. Pic/AFP
That’s the good news. The bad news is that at least 39 Indians from Punjab are still in the custody of the ISIS. They are yet to be traced and rescued. There are hundreds of others who need to be evacuated before the ISIL runs amok across Iraq.
It’s only natural that there should be concern, at least among the chattering classes, over the fate of Indians stranded in Iraq where vast swaths of the country have descended into unimaginable barbarism. Mass execution of Shias, destruction of homes and other such horrific brutalities by the Sunni jihadi ISIL have set alarm bells ringing around the world.
The crimes of Al Qaida and its affiliates like Boko Haram pale in comparison to the murderous monstrosities of the ISIL. Horrific photographs and videos have been posted on the Internet documenting the outrages of this terrorist group, among them the photo of a decapitated four-year-old girl, ‘punished’ for being born to Shia parents. Thus has the foundation of the so-called ‘Caliphate’ led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi been laid. What will be built upon this blood-soaked foundation can only be grotesque.
Given this grim reality of the violence unleashed by the ISIL there is reason to fret about Indian citizens caught in a situation that could fetch them and their families grief. We are told the nurses are safe and no harm has come their way, but that is no assurance of the safety and security of those yet to be rescued. Hopefully the government of India will succeed in rescuing and evacuating them before the crisis gets any worse.
It makes little or no sense to pillory the government for the plight of our citizens in Iraq and their families in India.
This is primarily on two counts. First, nobody anticipated such a turn of events. Second, given the ground realities, there is only that much the government can do to manoeuvre the situation to its advantage. Alarm and recrimination will neither change the reality nor make it more amenable to Indian interests.
Which brings me to a point that has rarely if ever been discussed either in South Block or by the people at large: Should Indians be allowed to travel, for work or business, to conflict zones? In the past we have faced similar situations, albeit on a much lower scale, in Afghanistan. While we have been vociferous in insisting that it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Indian citizens, we have eschewed debate on the latter’s duty to steer clear of countries where they are likely to find their safety and security severely compromised.
Ever since the end of the US-led war that resulted in the toppling of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, Iraq has been politically unstable; bombings and sectarian Shia-Sunni strife were, and remain, a common feature of daily life in that country. Those Indians who travelled to Iraq to seek jobs did so with full knowledge of this reality. For them, it was a calculated risk.
There’s a second group of Indians in Iraq — those who entered that country without valid documents, hoping to make their way to a European destination from there. They were sufficiently desperate to ignore the potential risk to their lives and are unlikely to be persuaded to seek the help of our mission in Baghdad to return to India. Of the few thousand Indians in Iraq, only a thousand are believed to have contacted the Indian embassy despite repeated calls to do so. That tells a story of its own.
Such details do not, however, diminish the government of India’s responsibility to rescue its citizens from conflict zones. At the same time, they also serve to underscore the government of India’s responsibility towards preventing its citizens from travelling to conflict zones. In the least, the government should dissuade such travel with the help of advisories.
Sadly, no such effort was made, nor will it ever be made, lest it offend the country or countries named in the advisory. Tragically, such touching sentiments are never reciprocated.
The writer is an NCR-based journalist. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta