Indians in Conflict Zones: ‘Military diplomacy’ Vital

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The nation is obviously shocked by the news that 39 Indian workers held captive near Mosul in Iraq were brutally murdered by the Islamic State, also known as Daesh. While Daesh’s cruelty and dastardliness is well known, there was some hope that the workers would be found alive as there was no confirmation earlier that they were dead. The government has come under some fire for this, for not declaring them dead without concrete evidence and giving assurances to their relatives of the possibility of them being found alive. This entire episode needs a pragmatic analysis, especially as we have a large diaspora of Indians living and working abroad. Violence in any part of the world cannot be predicted with accuracy, though worldwide inputs on emerging events are always under the scanner of the MEA and the intelligence agencies.

Indians by and large are considered peaceful members of any society in which they reside. However, they can always be caught in the vortex of different shades of violence anywhere and at any time. The kind of violence that emerged in the Iraq-Syria conflict zone was unpredictable. Without experience of such contingencies, the Indian government did make brave efforts, which succeeded in the case of 46 Indian nurses who too were stranded in Mosul. Although the government quite rightly did not reveal its sources, the identity of interlocutors or the methods used to negotiate their release, that was a success story which was celebrated. Similar efforts were possibly made with regard to the 39 workers, but it was unfortunate the tide of violent turbulence just consumed them. In the absence of any concrete evidence of their death, the government made sincere efforts to get as much information as possible. Minister of state for external affairs Gen. V.K. Singh (Retd), using his experience of turbulent conflict zones, was the pointsman in this regard. While many assumed the worst, the government followed the path of goodwill and sensitivity, assuring relatives of hope despite some unconfirmed evidence from an escaped member of the workers’ group. The pronouncement of their confirmed death after DNA matching with the mortal remains found in a mass grave near the devastated city of Mosul has obviously caused a stir, with relatives accusing the government of insincerity and hiding facts. The emergence of Harjit Masih, the lone escapee, and his statements of having been hounded and kept away from revealing the truth, is adding fuel to the fire.

It’s not the political innuendos launched against the government which concern me as much as the lessons from this unfortunate episode. The MEA, reflecting the sincerity and genuine concern of its senior minister, perhaps failed to sense the political outcome of such negative news, if and when that emerged. As India has one of the youngest populations in the world and the global market for skilled and unskilled workers is only going to expand, many more Indians will travel abroad to find a living. It’s going to happen in the Middle East itself, where countries like Saudi Arabia are going to look at different national economic models beyond the energy-based ones. Russia’s population is reducing, and Central Asia’s is ageing. Today’s devastated conflict zones will need reconstruction on a massive scale in future, which will need labour. Africa, not yet on the fast track of development, will inevitably move up in the long run. So Indian labour and white-collar professionals, known for their hard work and sincerity, will be attracted to these, creating an extended diaspora around the world. None of these zones can be predicted to be completely peaceful.

The Indian government can adopt an insensitive attitude to the diaspora by washing its hands off issues regarding security only at risk to itself. If that becomes clear, the need for greater understanding of any potential turbulent areas, contingency war-gaming by different departments in the MEA as well as other agencies, bringing elements like first responders for potential rescue and relief operations, is something that we need to evaluate and implement sooner rather than later. But even before that, outreach to diverse agencies in host countries is a dire necessity. The current strength of MEA’s officer corps is simply inadequate to handle even routine diplomacy, let alone severe contingencies which demand complete energy, hands-on dealing, negotiations with language skills and maintenance of regular contacts.

That’s where the concept of “military diplomacy” comes in. While there’s no denying that India’s military diplomacy has moved up many notches, the issues under discussion here don’t form part of the traditional areas. As an example, the defence attaché in Ankara, accredited to Lebanon as well, had to move to Beirut to oversee the evacuation of Indians and coordinate the arrival of Indian naval ships during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006. Countries with an Indian diaspora of a given magnitude can’t have accredited military diplomats emerging to handle such issues at the last minute. Such operations require deep contacts and liaison, matters that are never given their due in good times. The second-rung MEA cadre doesn’t have the capability of handling such issues, which fall within the ambit of national security. The Indian Navy and Indian Air Force have both had some experience in this regard, with Yemen being one of the latest examples where evacuation under fire had to be executed. However, a contingency like the kidnapping of workers or any other set of Indian nationals becomes an even more challenging one. While we may have had Indian security forces deployed to protect some Indian assets in Afghanistan, most nations don’t allow the presence of armed foreign forces on their soil. Only an outstanding liaison effort will ensure the core presence of at least a small element, on which a buildup could take place in emergencies. Nevertheless, the need for far greater continuous intelligence, much more sophisticated and frequently shared with the relevant agencies, is a crying need. Finally, it may be time to debate whether the revival of the ministry of overseas Indian affairs, now merged with the MEA, would allow a greater focus on this new challenge that this country might have to meet from time to time.

(This article was originally published in The Asian Age on March 24, 2018 and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)