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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 06:18 GMT 07:18 UK
Letter: India's polite refusal

By Vinod Mehta
Editor of Indian weekly magazine, Outlook

India's former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
India's former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee

A month or so before he was removed from office, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee invited me for tea and an informal chit-chat.

He was in a good mood, basking in the opinion polls which had been predicting victory in the elections for the coalition he was leading.

"After you have gone, George will be telephoning me," he said laughingly.

I thought he was referring to his Defence Minister, George Fernandes, and wondered why Mr Vajpayee was passing on this useless information to me.

Observing the look of puzzlement on my face, he said, "George. George Bush."

He then explained that the US president just wouldn't give up.

Largest democracy

"I keep telling him, I am the prime minister of the world's largest democracy and there is no way I can send troops to Iraq against the wishes of my people."

As in most of South and South-East Asia, the US-led invasion of Iraq is terribly unpopular in India.

What else could I say? Colin Powell was standing next to me. I didn't commit to sending troops. I was just trying to say 'no' politely
Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh
An overwhelming majority in the country, according to opinion polls, is opposed to the war and an even bigger majority is opposed to sending Indian troops to Iraq.

An aide to Mr Vajpayee told me: "The prime minister dreads calls from George Bush, because he always has to say 'no'. He is a very polite man. He doesn't like to say 'no'."

Another polite man, the new Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh went calling on Colin Powell in Washington soon after he was sworn in in May.

Standing next to the US secretary of state at a press conference, Mr Natwar Singh mumbled something about re-examining the American request for Indian troops in view of new UN resolutions.

The media back home, his own party and the opposition came down on Mr Natwar Singh like a ton of bricks.

The foreign minister told me on his return, "What else could I say? Colin Powell was standing next to me. I didn't commit to sending troops. I was just trying to say 'no' politely."

Clearly, Indian politicians need to be less polite.

Abduction

The never-ending war in Iraq and the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people courtesy of the Bush administration is generally reported on the back pages of the Indian press.

This despite the fact that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world and also, after Iran, the second largest Shia population.

However, in the third of week of July, Iraq and all its woes were back on the front pages.

Non-combatant India was now very much involved.

On 21 July, three Indian truck drivers were taken hostage in Iraq by a relatively unknown Mosul-based group called the Holders of the Black Banners.

The seven hostages held in Iraq
The hostages have been held for nearly a month now
This shadowy group of kidnappers demanded that Indian troops immediately leave Iraq and stop assisting US forces.

The kidnappers threatened to behead the hostages, one by one, if their demands were not met.

The demands were both bizarre and absurd.

When it was pointed out to the kidnappers that India had no troops in Iraq and was indeed vehemently opposed to the US invasion, the kidnappers quickly moved away from the political demands to the real demand.

That is the ransom.

Demands

The group maintained that the war had killed 250 women and children in Falluja and demanded the Indian government pay compensation to the bereaved families.

Why only Falluja victims? Why not Baghdad or Najaf victims?

Nobody had the answer to these questions. Indeed, nobody here was asking them.

The Indian government was confronted with a huge dilemma.

It could not be seen to be negotiating with the kidnappers, nor could it "officially" pay the ransom.

I use the word "officially" advisedly.

The worst kept secret in Delhi is that the Indian government was, in fact, frantically negotiating with the kidnappers through mediators and that it was apparently willing to pay the ransom quietly but indirectly.

The only problem was that the sole official mediator was a rather erratic Iraqi who keeps upping the ransom money.

A couple of weeks ago, the media was full of stories of how an agreement had been reached with the kidnappers for a reported sum of $350,000.

Mediator

The deal fell through at the proverbial last minute because the Sheikh, speaking presumably on behalf of the kidnappers, upped the sum agreed upon. And then, he went silent.

The mediator was a colourful and flamboyant Baghdad-based Iraqi called Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaimi.

Iraqi tribal mediator Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaimi
Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaimi has a passion for Bollywood
He heads what is described as the National Group of Iraqi Tribal Leaders. He has three wives and 12 children.

He smokes cigars. He has his personal well-armed youth militia protecting him.

When a correspondent for my magazine Outlook met Sheikh Dulaimi in his Baghdad office, he was clearly enjoying the limelight, surrounded as he was by journalists and TV crews.

His mobile rang incessantly.

Sheikh Dulaimi has one other passion: Bollywood. He loves Bollywood films and Bollywood film stars.

The Sheikh told the Outlook correspondent that if big Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Asha Parekh and Dharmendra made a personal call to him pleading for the release of the three hostages, the three, in his words, "would be released today itself".

Bollywood fan

The impact of his interview was instant. Amitabh Bachchan, who was once a member of parliament, responded by saying that he would call Sheikh Dulaimi "100 times, not once" if the government of India gave him the green signal.

The ageing and retired actress Asha Parekh - delighted at some rare media publicity - also got in on the act and offered her services.

The Indian government, incidentally, did not feel the need to use the assistance of film stars.

The central problem in this drama was the Sheikh himself.

The Indian government was extremely wary of dealing with him because, and I quote, "he does not keep his word."

He also had the habit of announcing that he was withdrawing from the negotiations but reinstated himself 24 hours later.

The Indian government candidly admits that it was completely and thoroughly fed up with the unreliable Sheikh.

Unfortunately, they have no other mediator to turn to.

Tragedy

The politics of hostage-taking and hostage release has obscured the real, tragic, human story behind the kidnapping.

This is the story of impoverished Indian truck drivers, cooks, assistant cooks, cleaners lured by big dollars into Iraq.

The dogs of Saddam are everywhere and we cannot afford to be careless
Harjeet Singh from Punjab
My magazine, Outlook, ran a cover story from Baghdad on their plight earlier this month.

It is estimated that there are over 5,000 semi-skilled Indian workers in Iraq and out of these over 1,000 drive trucks on the dangerous Kuwait-Baghdad highway.

Most of them did not even know they would end up in Iraq, they thought they would be employed in Kuwait.

The drivers brave gunfire, ambushes, landmines from disparate Iraqi radicals - former Baathists, jihadis, nationalists or plain kidnapping gangs in a swathe of militant acreage extending from Abdaly in Kuwait all the way to Baghdad.

These 5,000 workers comprise cheap Indian labour from Punjab, Maharashtra, Kerala. Indeed they come from across the country.

Immigrant workers

They work for American companies like Kellogg, Brown and Root, trucking supplies to US military bases in Iraq.

"The dogs of Saddam are everywhere and we cannot afford to be careless," says Harjeet Singh from Punjab.

Harjeet is clocking thousands of kilometres on Iraqi roads weighed down with 25 kilograms of body armour and helmet.

He cannot roll down the windows of his Mercedes truck or talk to Iraqis or even halt to go to the toilet.

Iraq bombe damage
Many Indians brave the dangers of Iraq because they are well paid
He earns close to $1,500 a month. In India, if he could find a trucking job, he would be earning $150.

The Indian truck drivers have some nominal security in the shape of Iraqi guards. Unfortunately, the guards are hopelessly trained.

At the first sound of gunfire they usually run away.

Sheikh Mehboob of Celdon Transport, a US-based trucking company whose drivers are 90% Indian, is lucky to be alive.

The incident happened 20 kilometres from Basra. Driving the 14th truck in a 15-truck convoy, Mehboob came under fire.

He recalls: "My Iraqi security was pathetic. I shouted at him that if you cannot fire your gun yourself, teach me how to do it. I am also a Muslim. I am ferrying goods for the Iraqis. It's for their good."

Security

Mehboob's complaint against private Iraqi security is widely shared.

British security guards are more professional, but they charge a much higher fee and prefer trucks with air-conditioners and cassette players.

Drivers like Mehboob seldom get them.

If the three hostages are held captive in Iraq, their families are held captive by the media.

TV crews are perpetually camped outside their villages in the Punjab and almost every evening at prime time tearful wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters berate the Indian government for not doing enough to get the hostages freed.

The men's families have suffered days of anguish waiting for news
But what can the government do?

The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, told parliament: "We cannot say the hostages will be released tomorrow."

The hope, indeed the prayer, in Delhi is of fatigue overtaking the kidnappers.

They have held their prisoners captive for more than five weeks now and must surely be getting tired of the prolonged haggling.

Meanwhile, there is a slender chance that the kidnappers will listen to a gentleman from Chennai who is walking backwards, hoping that this extraordinary gesture will persuade the kidnappers to release the hostages for "humanitarian reasons".

Delhi is keeping its fingers crossed. There is little else it can do.

Vinod Mehta is one of India's leading journalists and editors. He is the author of three books and president of the Editors Guild of India.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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