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Chowkidar to the Empire?

Should India send troops to Iraq? Support for such a move fills the media. Terms like "rent-an-army" and "lucrative contracts" pop up time and again. But sacrificing our troops to serve American interests and the greed of Indian elite will not be just morally reprehensible. It will be the most dangerous and provocative act of folly, writes P. SAINATH.


AT least 55 U.S. soldiers have so far died in "peacekeeping" in Iraq since May 1. And the United States says "Iraq is not ready for democracy." If the Iraqis don't like it, they can lump it.

As it stands, the Americans can't lump it. Their rising death toll alarms them. (Well, each time one U.S. soldier dies, so do many Iraqis. But that's another story.) And more and more people in that country are confronting the occupying power.

Listen to the New York Times: "American forces are carrying out their largest single military operation in Iraq since the end of major fighting..." The Associated Press puts it this way: "an amalgam of shadowy resistance forces, including unknown numbers of non-Iraqi fighters, are carrying out almost daily hit-and-run attacks against the American occupation forces."

The Guardian, U.K., says: "Attacks occur daily — more than a dozen every day in the past week, according to some accounts." The paper had this to say of the British Minister in charge of "reconstruction" in Iraq. "Baroness Amos had to admit... that she is unable to visit that country." Why? Because "of the risk of guerrilla attack."

It's in this mess that India is being called up to act as chowkidar to the empire. The lives of Indian soldiers are more expendable — in American eyes. But should the eyes of an Indian government see it the same way? That's frightening. We are being hired to patrol the empire's latest outpost. To be the fall guys for its folly.

We're being asked to do this just when Bush might for the first time face questions in the U.S. Congress on the Iraq war. On the fake "intelligence" that helped him deceive his own people. When Labour MPs are calling Tony Blair a liar in Britain. This is when we're being asked to carry the can in Iraq. To legitimise a war always viewed as unlawful across the world. And now increasingly seen that way in the U.S. and Britain — the main warriors — themselves.

We'd be magnets for popular anger in one of the world's most volatile spots -- at a time when the Americans are contemplating a war on neighbouring Iran. What happens if Indian troops are stuck in Iraq when the U.S. moves for "regime change" in Iran? The possible consequences are mind-blowing. Indian jawans would then be at extreme risk. As always, we'll re-learn that it is far easier to get into such holes than out of them. Until next time.

And, as always, the decisions will be taken by those whose children will never fight on any front. That too, on a war Indians hated in the first place. One that our parliament, alone in the world, condemned in a resolution. Suddenly it's, "hey guys, let's be real! It's only the lives of our poorer classes. There's many more where those came from. Think of the gains to be made from carrying the White Man's Burden." Might give us crumbs from the White Man's Contracts.

It's odd that Vajpayee and Advani should seek a "national consensus" on sending troops to Iraq. The rest of us thought we had one. The Indian parliament's resolution in April, condemning America's war against that country, is the clearest consensus that exists in this nation on that issue.

But now we're being invited to make our jawans the targets of explosive resentment. The anger directed at American troops will then come our way. That, in a nation, which has had nothing but goodwill for our own.

Sending Indian troops there is an idea that could — and most likely will — go awfully wrong. For one thing, the people of Iraq have suffered enough, without our adding to it. For another, in the growing challenge to the occupation, those seen as front men of the empire will attract deadly fire. As innocents inevitably die, things will get much worse.

Meanwhile the U.S. has bullied the Security Council (June 12) into giving its troops a year's exemption from the new International War Crimes Tribunal. Only the American "peace keeping forces" have got that. The U.S. sees trouble ahead and will not have its military brought before the tribunal. So much better to have Indians face that music. As they will, when hell breaks loose. Note that Indian troops are not even being spoken of as peacekeepers. They will be a "stabilisation force". Words that imply an active, and if need be, aggressive role.

The journey to Iraq will have little in common with the over 30 UN peacekeeping missions that Indian troops have been part of in the past. This time our soldiers will be seen as front men for the occupiers. And will face an increasingly hostile Iraqi public.

Indian security personnel haven't had the best of times right here at home. In the past decade or so, we've had 15, 000 of them killed or wounded in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and the North East. More than 3,500 killed in Kashmir alone since 1991. (Not to mention 11,000 dead civilians.) Here's the new step. Troop exports. Now the government might pledge even more of these lives to the U.S.

In Iraq, we will be on clearly defined foreign territory. Once again, we're looking at the readiness of India's ruling classes to risk the lives of poor Indians — which is what our jawans are. This time to align and ingratiate ourselves with U.S. power. And take our place in America's New World Odour. (The permission given this week to two U.S. warships to dock in Kochi is one more step in that direction. Both ships are involved in the war in Iraq.)

Plus, by sending our troops, we get to earn a quick buck on the side. So Indian companies will gain what lusting newspapers call "lucrative contracts". And we can sacrifice a few hundred jawans, maybe many more, so that our CEOs can do even better in the next Forbes and Fortune lists. Never mind that these lucrative contracts could place us morally in the ranks of contract killers. No wonder the Americans are seeking our help. They are body shopping in a literal sense. This is one outsourcing of jobs their unions won't protest. The job of dying for U.S. imperialism.

There is, of course, another reason why some in government are so keen to get into this chowkidari. Election year draws near. And the cynical "Back us. Our boys are dying", which we heard in Kargil could make the rounds again.

Kargil saw the most incompetent Defence Minister in our history cover up a colossal failure. And succeed because the media wouldn't call his bluff. Our soldiers died in hundreds. The minister, many scandals later — including one about over-priced coffins for dead soldiers — is still there. A Government with its back to the wall on every issue was able to make that cynical "Stand united behind the NDA" appeal.

Stoking Iraqi hatred in a new and unwarranted direction doesn't count. Elections do. And a diversion from the serious political and economic issues of the day is crucial. If you have an Indian force in Iraq, daily losing lives to snipers and other local attacks, that's the sort of mess an Advani revels in. Maybe he'll take out a rath yatra to rally support for the troops. Men whose lives could in the first place be jeopardised by his colleagues and himself.

Arguably, India should have done well as peacekeeper in Sri Lanka. Didn't both sides accept us, at least to begin with? Instead, our stint there provided Colombo with a diversion. It gave the LTTE a focus for their hatred. Over 1100 men of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) laid down their lives in Sri Lanka. That's more than double the number who died at Kargil.

There will be no one happy to see us in Baghdad. There will, of course, be the usual bunch of regime PROs (some still call themselves journalists) filing those first few stories of a euphoric welcome. Pictures of someone garlanding an Indian soldier. Maybe one of our guys kissing a baby. Then reality sets in.

With all the experience of Sri Lanka behind them. With all the evidence of Iraq before them. Still, quite a few experts, analysts and editors argue it's a good idea. Take a look at the editorials in some of our leading newspapers.

One says it "makes sense to send a stabilisation force to that country". Indeed the situation "demand(s)" that we do so. Another says that Russia, Germany and France have now dropped their "principled" stand against the war for "a real time share in the lucrative Iraqi reconstruction pie. The moral: New Delhi cannot stand on principle in thinking out its foreign policy options in post-war Iraq." It's time to start planning, boys, for the "Baghdad Bandobast".

One newspaper is thrilled by the team from Washington that came to Delhi seeking a rent-an-army deal. Our soldiers may be handed a United Nations fig leaf. Their expenses could be borne nominally by that body. But the Americans will pay us a few dollars more. That didn't excite the paper. What did was that the team "...highlighted New Delhi's impeccable record in peacekeeping abroad."

Well, we withdrew battered from Sri Lanka. And scrambled out of Somalia in chaos. That's an impeccable record?

Think, too, of the fallout at home of our troops getting bogged down in Iraq. When every militant Islamic group there (and perhaps from Iran and elsewhere) targets the jawans as an occupation force. How will that tell on communal tensions here? What a tonic it would be for Togadia and Thackeray, amongst so many others. But that shouldn't upset a bunch whose careers were built on ideologies of hatred. Maybe as the Americans withdraw, we'll send Modi in as Governor of occupied Iraq. He'd be impartial in hating all the Muslims there, Shia and Sunni alike. Christians, too.

At the base, are crude motives of electoral and financial gain for a few. Pointing to post-facto UN resolutions okaying U.S. actions just makes it worse. Do the people of the nations voting for these resolutions see it that way? The Spanish government supported a war 85 per cent of its public opposed. Far more importantly, will the people of Iraq view it that way? Do our own people see it that way?

Historically, the British used Indian troops as cannon fodder for their conquests across the globe. Close to 90, 000 Indian troops died for the Raj in just World War I. That's more soldiers than India has lost in all our wars and insurgencies since independence.

In 1915-16 alone, thousands of Indian soldiers died in Iraq, the then Mesopotamia. Then too, a western power was attempting a "regime change". Our men were sacrificed by the British in their war against Turkey. The year had been disastrous for the Brits. The debacle at Gallipoli meant the war ministry in London needed a propaganda success.

So they threw away the lives of over 22,000 soldiers — thousands of them Indians. That, in a bid to take Baghdad, as the Guardian, U.K. pointed out last year. Even today in the region, wrote Ross Davies in that paper, "...there are 22,400 graves (more than two-thirds of the troops who fought in Mesopotamia were Indians whose faith required cremation rather than burial)."

Then they died for the British empire. Now, they're being asked to die for the American empire. Then, it could be argued, we were a colony — and had no choice. Today, in the era of globalised markets, we'll be doing it for "lucrative contracts". An independent nation driven by the greed and delusions of a few to seek what might well be a quisling's reward.

P. Sainath is one of the two recipients of the A.H. Boerma Award, 2001, granted for his contribution in changing the nature of the development debate on food, hunger and rural development in the Indian media.

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