NEW DELHI – While the world gets a first-hand peek into the prison horror stories of Iraq, Indian workers who have managed to “flee” US military camps have an equally harrowing account to tell. The tales add to the fast-receding image of the United States as the moral keeper of the world, and have brought the Indian government under severe criticism for its failure to protect the interests of its citizens.
The war in Iraq has not only witnessed hordes of Indian ex-soldiers looking for non-combat employment opportunities, but has also engendered a rush of workers looking to perform back-end menial jobs for coalition troops stationed in Iraq and Kuwait. Various travel agencies across India have recruited hundreds, perhaps thousands, of military support staff – chefs, kitchen assistants, service assistants, camp supervisors, mess supervisors, accountants, financial supervisors and bus drivers.
Because of the risk as well as the demand for such personnel, the salary packages offered are considerably better, US$1,000-$2,000 a month, than what such professions would offer in India. The assignments are for periods ranging from six months to two years. In addition to the emoluments, the candidates are offered free flight tickets, food and accommodation.
On April 15 the Indian government banned workers from going to Iraq, for security reasons, but it seems that the government, as well as US authorities, were prepared to turn a blind eye to the illegal transit of Indians through Kuwait or Jordan on their way to Iraq. Until Aliyarkunj Faisal, Haniffa Mansool, Shahjehan Abdul Aziz and his brother Hameed Abdul Aziz, who hail from a village near Kollam town in Kerala, narrated their horror story.
The four were promised $1,000 per month to work in Kuwait, but ended up in a US military camp living in horrible conditions. They claim they were made to work non-stop for 18 hours, beaten up when they complained and paid only $200 a month instead of the promised amount. Faisal says he counted at least 30 other Indians in the camp living under similar conditions. He and his friends managed to escape by bribing an Iraqi truck driver, as well as getting some help from local citizens who are friendly to Indians.
The account of the four Indians has resulted in widespread protests. In Kerala, the state that supplies the largest immigrant population to the Middle East, election-campaign posters have denounced the US occupation of Iraq, as well as the Indian government’s failure to check immigration.
“There are hundreds of Indians trapped in various American camps across Iraq,” Communist Party of India-Marxist leader V S Achuthanandan told an election rally in Kochi, Kerala. “They are doing all kinds of menial jobs. Why is the [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee government not rescuing them? Why does the Indian government want Indians to be slaves to the American army in Iraq? Vote out the Vajpayee government that supports American imperialism!”
The Indian government has asked the United States for information on reports that Indian nationals were being forced to work for contractors in Iraq with little rest and low pay and held “against their will”. The Ministry of External Affairs asked the US Embassy in New Delhi for details on the number of Indians working in Iraq, a ministry spokesman said. The ministry “expressed its concern regarding the disturbing reports about the conditions in which some Indian nationals are being forced to work for contractors active in Iraq”, a statement said. The embassy was asked about news reports “that Indians who wished to leave were unable to do so, and were being compelled to continue to remain in Iraq against their will”, the statement said.
In Washington, a State Department official confirmed that Indian officials had been in contact with the US Embassy in New Delhi. The official said the embassy was seeking additional information about the allegations by the Indian workers. The embassy is looking into reports that US contractors lured Indians into Iraq and mistreated them, the State Department has said. “Our embassy has started to look into these reports and has advised the [Indian] Ministry of External Affairs that it’s doing so. Obviously, we take all such reports seriously, and we’ll do our best to find out the facts of the matter,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The plight of workers, whether exaggerated or not, has fueled the antipathy of the US invasion of Iraq that has wrecked the livelihoods of thousands of Indians in the Middle East. Images of treatment meted out to Iraqi prisoners add to the hostility. Nearly 3.5 million Indian expatriates are employed in the Persian Gulf states, contributing to the bulk of foreign-money transactions in the form of inward remittances. Thousands have returned to India because of instability in the region. There is further hardship to the Indian economy due to the hike in oil prices, with several retail outlets as well as large and small industries exporting to the region affected.
In March thousands of people from many different backgrounds gathered in New Delhi and marched to the US Embassy protesting the occupation. Political-party leaders, members of parliament, activists, schoolchildren, film actors, workers and laborers from various sectors took part in the march. Renowned writer Arundhathi Roy (Booker Prize winner for God of Small Things) said that the United States should be expelled from the United Nations for its blatant violation of international law. She appealed to people to impose “sanctions” on the US by boycotting its goods. Three hundred thousand people marched through the streets of Kolkata on March 30 to register a vociferous protest against the US aggression on Iraq.
Highlighting the case against the US, a comment titled “Iraq abuse cases are no aberration” in the Times of India dated May 7 reads: “President George W Bush declared that the evidence of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in US-occupied Iraq is ‘abhorrent’ and ‘does not represent the America that I know’. The reality, say US-based human-rights groups and legal scholars, is that the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ has spawned a set of aggressive detention and interrogation practices that have broken down the time-honored taboo against torture and exposed prisoners to the depredations of interrogators and guards who know the usual rules no longer apply. From the notorious black hole of Guantanamo [in Cuba] to the numerous detention centers run offshore by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] so as to exclude the oversight of US courts, it is routine for prisoners to be humiliated or subjected to physical abuse and violence.”
As Tom Friedman wrote in his column in the New York Times: “We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world. I have never known a time in my life when America or its president were more hated in the world than today.”
The treatment of the Indian workers only buttresses this view.
05/8/2004 Siddharth Srivastava, atimes.com