Ex-Prime Minister Vajpayee: No to Indian troops in Iraq
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.
"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.
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.
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.
This shadowy group of kidnappers demanded that Indian troops immediately leave Iraq and stop assisting US forces.
The hostages have been freed after more than a month
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.
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 obvious 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 was 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 kept 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.
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.
He heads what is described as the National Group of Iraqi Tribal Leaders. He has three wives and 12 children.
Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaimi has a passion for Bollywood
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".
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 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.
My magazine, Outlook, ran a lead story on their plight in August.
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 and 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.
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.
He earns close to $1,500 a month. In India, if he could find a trucking job, he would be earning $150.
Many Indians brave the dangers of Iraq because they are well paid
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."
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.
The men's families endured weeks of anguish waiting for news
If the three hostages were held captive in Iraq, their families were held captive by the media.
TV crews were perpetually camped outside their villages in the Punjab and almost every evening at prime-time, tearful wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters berated the Indian government for not doing enough to get the hostages freed.
Mercifully, the hostage drama has now ended and it has proved once again that there are some crises in the life of a government which cannot be anticipated.
You just have to live with them and hope for the best.
The only losers in this extended drama are the media. They have lost a cracker of a story.
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.
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