Standing with Shias

Need for delicate balance

The conflict in Iraq poses a foreign policy challenge for the Narendra Modi government.

The security and stability of West Asia always affects Indian interests, because it is a region where millions of Indians live and work and it constitutes a dynamic export market for Indian goods and services and it’s a region, which plays a pivotal role in India’s energy security.

While the Indian mission in Baghdad couldn’t have been unaware of Iraq’s steady slide into ethnic and regional polarisation, the job of evacuating the Indians trapped in the conflict zone has become daunting because of the eruption of civil-war like conditions almost overnight.

Delhi seems to have some idea of the location where the abducted Indians are held, and presumably, a sense of who to deal with. While the layman’s impression could be that the Islamist militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is responsible for the turmoil in northern Iraq, the situation is actually more complicated than that and the Islamists are only one among many sub-plots.

To be sure, there has been an insurrection in the areas of northern Iraq, which constitute the homeland of Sunni Iraqis.

Disparate elements have joined the revolt, bringing together radical Islamists to secularists, who include erstwhile Ba’athist factions, army officers who served under Saddam Hussein, tribal chieftains, ulema and so on, and some of these alienated Sunnis would appear to have taken help from the Takfiri groups operating in the region such as the ISIL.

Since multiple centres are calling the shots, our efforts to get the kidnapped Indian nationals released to safety get complicated. To compound matters, the insurrectionists come under the influence of foreign masters – some of them, at least. Friendly capitals such as Ankara could tell us about the leads to follow in northern Iraq.

The Kurdistan and Mosul regions and the Sunni heartlands of northern Iraq are a hunting ground for Turkey. The ousted Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi lives in exile in Turkey and he hailed last week’s ‘Iraqi Spring’.

Another friendly country with influence with the Islamists could be Saudi Arabia – although it will never display it. Jordan too has a vast intelligence network inside Iraq. In the ultimate analysis, however, much will depend on how wide the Indian diplomats have been casting their net in Iraq.

In countries such as Iraq (or Afghanistan), which has been in stages of fragmentation, it is wiser always to cast our net wide, but then, that is easier said than done.

Delhi needs to evaluate the developing Iraqi situation from several angles. The prominent BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has reportedly called on the Modi government to offer military and economic support to prime minister of Iraq Nouri Al-Maliki.

Swamy also urged the government to “formulate a policy to deal with the long-term issue arising from the imminent Sunni-Shia attrition war”.

Fair enough, in principle. But the alarming thing is Swamy’s estimation that Hindus and Shias are natural allies because the latter has acquiesced with the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, and reciprocally, therefore, the Modi government should “stand with Shias in the emerging Shia-Sunni attrition war in Iraq.

Explosive thesis

This is an explosive thesis. While a good foreign policy is always an extension of the government’s domestic policies, to orientate India in terms of a sectarian Sunni-Shia war would be extremely dangerous and actually unwarranted.

The Shia-Sunni mutual antipathies in history have never stained India’s social fabric or disfigured its political tapestry – unlike in the case of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia – and why should we import into our country such abhorrent cultural strains?


With regard to Iraq’s sectarian politics, on the other hand, India has no reason to play a partisan role. While government-to-government ties with Baghdad will continue, it must be borne in mind that it is not due to financial difficulties or lack of military potential that the Iraqi armed forces melted away at the sight of the ISIL fighters, but there has been a colossal breakdown of the country’s leadership.

Suffice to say, Shia empowerment and the politics based on confessional affiliations in Iraq, bequeathed to that country by the Americans during the period of occupation, need not necessarily have led to widespread Sunni alienation.

Even Iraqi Shia leaders voice criticism of the manner in which Maliki repeatedly adopted an ambivalent stance toward accommodating legitimate Sunni aspirations, which although a minority, used to be the ruling class until a decade ago.

There are three or four key templates where Iraqi developments may impact on India’s regional and global interests. First and foremost, Iraq’s turmoil can lead to rise in oil prices, which would mean more burdensome import bill for the struggling Indian economy.

Second, if the current Iraqi events morph into a US-led ‘War on Terror 2’, it could almost certainly lead to a seamless radicalisation of the West Asian region and the fire could spread sooner than we may expect to the Persian Gulf countries, which have a huge Indian diaspora.

Two, don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, because it is always a bad thing to happen – be it Yugoslavia and, now, Iraq or Syria and Afghanistan – when pluralistic societies fragment or are partitioned, as the history of our subcontinent testifies. Simply put, such wounds take time to heal and it debilitates regional security.


Finally, what exacerbated the contradictions in Iraqi politics has been external intervention beginning with the US invasion in 2003. The US intervention tapped into the old imperial strategy of ‘divide-and-rule’ by playing on Iraq’s sectarian fault lines – not only Sunni-Shia but also the Arab-Kurdish divide. The result is plain to see.

Ironically, the only good thing here, from Indian perspective, could be that the preoccupations in West Asia just might hold back the US from accelerating its ‘pivot’ to Asia, which also emanates out of its strategies of global hegemony and thrives on fuelling regional tensions.

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