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Iraq and India: A forgotten love story

The abduction of 40 Indians from Mosul, Iraq, has justifiably triggered a wave of anxiety at their dreadful plight. Should New Delhi fail to free the hostages forthwith, the anxiety would likely turn into rage, inspiring stereotypical images of the Islamic world detesting Indians, of us living forever in the crosshair of blood-thirsty militants. This narrative will inevitably portray Iraq as yet another Muslim country hostile to India, a veritable enemy territory.

But all those who worked in or visited Iraq in the 1970s will narrate you another story. They will tell you that unlike, say, the arrogant Saudis and nouveau riche Emiratis, the Iraqis had an abiding love for India, not least because they looked upon it as a civilisation as old as theirs. But this love wasn’t merely sentimental. It was as much based on respect for India’s technological prowess and assistance to Iraq in its quest to emerge as a modern nation-state. There was, even in those days, admiration for India’s democracy and freedom and, above all, its romantic, at times maudlin, Hindi films.

 Iraq and India: A forgotten love story


Indeed, it is vital to recover the narrative of Indians about the Iraq of the 1970s. For one, it will underscore the grossly limited scope of contemporary international relations studies, mostly defined and designed to focus on the interests of global powers. Two, such a narrative will tell you that Iraq wasn’t always an economically backward, Islamic fundamentalist country. Three, and more important, it will portray that a conflict between two nations has severe consequences for a third country even though it doesn’t share borders with either.

Memories of Mosul

Those Indians who lived in Iraq in the ’70s are either very old or dead. It’s, therefore, the responsibility of their children to bring the complicated narratives of the ’70s into the public domain.

I’m one of those children, then a schoolboy who visited his parents in summer or winter breaks every alternate year. My father taught applied mathematics for eight long years in the University of Mosul, the city from which the 40 Indians were abducted a few days ago.

To reside in Mosul was to breathe history, to even live it. The city was said to have been inhabited continuously centuries before the Common Era (CE). Here you could find the mausoleum of Prophet Younis, or Prophet Jonah to the Christians. There were churches and monasteries dating back to the sixth century, in sharp contrast to the monochromatic portrayal of Iraq in the global media.

Even heterodoxy flourished. In the mountains to the north of Mosul, there lived a tribe which was said to worship Shaitan or Satan. Their logic of worshipping Shaitan was impeccable: Since he was the barrier between man and God, the path to salvation could be smoothened through direct invocations to the antithesis of the sacred. I was once taken to the mausoleum which the tribe held in great reverence, for there was buried one who had supposedly acquired enormous spiritual powers through his appeasement of Shaitan. Indeed, a land’s antiquity can be judged as much from carbon dating as from its forms of worship and apocryphal stories.

Mosul was a fine city, spread on either side of the river Tigris. Exclusive enclaves of villas dotted the suburbs, the labyrinthine old quarters and bazaars dominated the city centre. At night, the city would be lit up with a psychedelic touch. From the roadside cafes would waft the aroma of chicken skewered on spindles that turned slowly over the oven, as would drift the lilting voices of Arabic singers. On its roads cruised spiffy cars, from Mercedes Benz to Volkswagen to Toyota to Renault, long before they made the Indian roads as their own. Yet, late night, drunken men returned from taverns in horse-drawn carriages, the haunting echo of clip-clop mingling with delirious laughter.

Mosul, as also much of Iraq, didn’t just choose to dress its ancient soul in the tawdry dress of modernity. It sought to alter the sensibilities of its people, and provide a liberal gait to its ancient style. The societal transformation was manifest in the substantial presence of women in the public arena. They were in government jobs, behind shopping counters, in healthcare and teaching professions. They dressed as they wished, from draping themselves in the black chador to trousers to skirts to micro-minis.

In this file photo, residents shop at a city market in Mosul, Iraq.

In this file photo, residents shop at a city market in Mosul, Iraq.

The freedom the women enjoyed was, in a way, ironical, living as they did under the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. But his rule wasn’t just about keeping people under a tight rein. His Ba’ath party espoused secularism, or strict neutrality towards religion, and undertook the project of building a modern nation-state. Revenues gushing from oil wells helped finance this modernist project. For instance, college education was free, including even textbooks, subject to the proviso that irrespective of the socio-economic status of the student, he had to join the army as an ordinary soldier in case he failed to clear the annual college examination in two successive years.

India, Iraq: A love story

Indians were respected precisely because they played a significant role in Iraq’s project to emerge as a modern nation-state. They held a slew of technical teaching positions in universities, manned its healthcare systems, built its roads and rail links, rejuvenated its agriculture, and trained its air force pilots. These roles the Indians have played elsewhere, but in Iraq rarely were they looked upon, as they are in some Western Asian countries, as citizens of an impoverished land selling their skills for better remuneration. For instance, Indians driving out of cities were often waved past check-posts without security search, an astonishing concession in a paranoid police system that Iraq decidedly was.

Perhaps their respect for Indians was because of the common sensibilities ancient civilisations are said to spawn. It was this sharing of sensibilities which perhaps explains the popularity of Hindi films in Iraq. They were a rage, a new release drawing packed halls. My most enduring image of their love for Hindi cinema was the audience response to a scene in Sholay. It was that dramatic shot in which Gabbar Singh, after mowing down Thakur’s family, points the gun to his grandson, trembling in fear. The audience burst out shouting, “No, no,” and took to hurling coke bottle caps at the screen. You would have thought the Iraqis were incapable of fighting one bloody war after another.

However, it was on the pavements of Mosul I grasped the roots of Iraqi’s respect for India. It had this curious tradition of students spreading their bedrolls on pavements and studying in the bright glow of city lights. Presumably the students belonged to lower socio-economic strata, their home perhaps too overcrowded to prepare for examinations diligently. On such nights they would communicate to me through a smattering of English words and sign language that while Iraq had exceptional wealth, the Indians possessed knowledge and brain-power.
The more articulate among them would ask me what it was to live in a democracy, to vote and choose leaders, to enjoy the freedom of expression. It was brave of those students to speak on politics. An Iraqi friend of my father’s confessed that they refrained from discussing politics in extended family gatherings, suspicious as they were of cousins working as Saddam’s spies. One night an anguished cry rent our neighbourhood. I was later told it was of a man whom the secret police had whisked away for engaging in clandestine political activity. Such men, it was said, never returned.

To my childish eyes, Saddam didn’t seem a brutal dictator on the day we were out on a picnic in the rugged mountains of the Kurdish area. We heard the clatter of choppers as they hovered over us, descending slowly, their tails swaying. From one of them stepped out Saddam, briskly walking around shaking hands. He joined a circle of Kurds, their arms interlocked, taking two steps forward and kicking their right legs high, and then two steps backward to toss their lefts legs in the air. The dictator stood so close I could have even touched him. In hindsight, I guess it was a show mounted for television.

Nevertheless, I was impressed. Till then, the closest I had ever been to a political leader was around 100 meters from Indira Gandhi, who had driven down the roads of Patna, where I was schooled, in a convertible. Later in the evening, I saw Saddam address a crowd from the balcony of the governor’s residence. They cheered him uproariously every now and then. I thought he was Iraq’s Indira, boasting an indomitable will and enjoying tremendous popularity.

Things fall apart

All this was before Saddam entangled himself in the Sunni-Shia competition and opted to become a footsoldier in America’s grand plan to stem the Islamic revolution in Iran from spilling across it borders. Like so many other West Asian leaders in the past, Saddam too wished to emerge as a pan-Arab personality. In 1980, he unilaterally declared he was abrogating the 1975 Algiers treaty that had settled the Shatt-al-Arab border dispute between Iran and Iraq. A desultory, disastrous Iran-Iraq war ensued, prompting Indian professionals to leave the country.

They left not only because of deteriorating security condition; it was also because the government had diverted its financial resources to war efforts and could no longer bankroll an expensive retinue of expatriate professionals. Eight years later, the war ended, but not its consequences.

Presiding over an impoverished state, Saddam demanded monetary compensation from Saudia Arabia and Kuwait for having battled on their behalf the Iranians and their Islamic zeal. Perhaps he wouldn’t have invaded Kuwait but for the duplicitous role American ambassador in Iraq April Glaspie played. The transcripts of her telegrams to Washington reveal she had tacitly encouraged Saddam to invade Kuwait, or at least conveyed the impression that the US wouldn’t intervene in an Iraqi-Kuwait armed conflict. No doubt, Saddam’s troops overran Kuwait in a swift raid, but it also became a pretext for the US and its allies to launch the first Gulf War in Jan 1991. An impoverished Iraq was bombed mercilessly.

But its woes still didn’t end. Stringent UN sanctions were imposed on Iraq, which was disallowed to determine the quantity of oil it could sell. Battered, its economic recovery became impossible and, tragically, infants began to die for lack of food and medicine. Then came George Bush’s neo-cons, who pummeled Iraq further, in the hope of reconfiguring the region to their imagination.

End of the new beginning

Over the last few years, the democratically elected government in Baghdad had succeeded to put Iraq back on rails. Not only did militancy show a downward spiral, Iraq clocked an impressive growth of 8.5 per cent in 2012. In the same year, it pumped 3 million barrels of oil a day, the highest since 1983. It had planned to commit $ 45 billion on infrastructure in 2013, conveying its resolve to rebuild its economic sinews.

A confident Baghdad was also inclined to re-forge old ties with India. In 2012-2013, Iraq accounted for 13 per cent of India’s oil imports, taking the second slot among the countries meeting Delhi’s energy needs. It offset the dip in supply from Iran because of UN sanctions. In 2006-2007, India's exports to Iraq were worth $ 200 million. The figure jumped to $ 1.3 billion in 2013. Iraq’s imports showed even a bigger spurt – rising from $ 5.5 billion in 2006-07 to $ 20 billion in 2012-13.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited India last year, he expressed his wish for a larger Indian investment in the oil and gas industry and cooperation in the healthcare and education sectors. To demonstrate Iraq’s faith in Indian doctors, he checked in at a hospital in Gurgaon. On average, 100 Iraqi medical patients come to India daily.

But hopes of Iraq’s revival were cruelly dashed, yet again, because of America’s adventurism, its penchant for regime change in countries that had been opposed to it. Much of the turmoil in Syria had been courtesy the Americans, who provided arms and logistical support to militant groups arrayed against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It can well be accused of encouraging if not directly supporting the Al Qaeda footsoldiers who have banded under the banner of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It’s the ISIS that has swept through Iraq, triggering an upheaval in which the lives of 40 Indians have been imperilled.

Perhaps the West will argue, stubbornly and hypocritically, that its intervention in the region is to promote democracy and provide an opportunity to an oppressed people to live in freedom. Perhaps they will tell you that it is the price Iraqis, and the Arabs, must pay to build a better future.

Cut to 2003. When the Americans began to amass troops in Kuwait for launching the invasion of Iraq, my father often thought of his Iraqi friends. To allay his worries, I took from him the names of his colleagues, believing academicians had greater chances of surfacing in an internet search. Over weeks of relentless search, I stumbled upon a professor whose name matched one on my father’s list. I wrote to him friend asking him whether he had been in the University of Mosul and remembered my father.

I received a reply from him the next day. Yes, he said he had been my father’s colleague and listed others from the faculty and their whereabouts. They had all moved out of Iraq. Even the Jordanian professor’s extended family had dispersed all over West Asia, and his children were employed in the UAE. He said Iraq has lived through terrible times, and fervently hoped Iraq could recover the happy ordinariness of life now that Saddam had been deposed. But he added a caveat, “Not under American occupation. Never.”

I wrote to him saying, yes, the burden of challenging the American hegemony had now fallen on the Iraqis. He didn’t respond. The professor must have thought of me as a foolish man, preaching defiance and rebellion from the comfort of certainty denied to his country for a generation.

As we worry over the fate of 40 Indians, spare a thought for the Iraqis, who became victim of the overweening ambitions of a dictator and the callous arrogance of a superpower. Undoubtedly, we should bristle against the Islamic militants. But we should also against the Americans, who fight wars in distant lands, their own people insulated from unimaginable miseries and dislocations of wars.

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2014 13:55:07 IST