Friday, June 20, 2014


(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha)

The only time I met Hillary Clinton - or am likely to meet her - was at a small luncheon hosted by Natwar Singh, then our External Affairs minister. I had been specially invited because Natwar knew I had spent two years in our Embassy in Baghdad (1976-78) and was currently Petroleum Minister, a portfolio with a crucial connect to West Asia and Iran who supplied (and continue to supply) the bulk of our massive crude oil imports. 

I was startled to find that Ms. Clinton did not seem to have heard of either the Battle of Qadisseyah, where in 637 AD the Arabs drove the Persian Sassanids out of Mesopotamia, nor of Ismail I who from 1501 AD started the progressive transformation of Persia into a Shi'ite state, thus imparting to traditional Arab-Persian ethno-linguistic rivalry the sectarian complexion of a Sunni-Shia confrontation whose historical roots go back to the succession to the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). 

The emotional consequences of the assassination of the Prophet's son-in-law, Ali, in 661 AD in the Grand Mosque of al-Kufa, and the military defeat of his sons, Hussein and Hassan, at the hands of the Ummayad Caliph, Yazd's army, at the Battle of Karbala, 680 AD, reverberate down to the 21st century, never more strongly than the present when US intervention in Iraq has brought Shia Iran cheek-by-jowl with Sunni-Wahabi Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Emirates of the western coast of the Gulf that they share with Shia Iran on the other side of the same narrow waterway.

Till almost exactly a hundred years ago, Iran's Shi'ism was principally pitted against the Sunni Turkish Empire of the Ottomans and the Sunni Kingdoms of Central Asia. The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire as a result of their defeat in the First World War led to the emergence of a number of Arab nations generally under the Mandate of Britain or France. Britain got Iraq and the modern history of Iraq begins in 1932 with King Feisal I being placed on the throne of Harun al-Rashid but as a vassal of the British Empire. (As an aside I cannot resist recalling that under the Mandate, Iraq was administered as a district of the Bombay Presidency. So, when on arrival in Baghdad, I asked my Ambassador, the gracious Romesh Bhandari, what were our "larger goals'" in Iraq, he punctured my pompous question by remarking, with a wicked gleam in his eye, that our larger goal was to re-establish that position!)

But to return to our narrative, the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and a decade later the Ba'ath Party under Saddam Hussein established its murderous rule. Murderous it might have been but it was also modernizing and secular. Shia and Sunni both were to be found in high office in the Baghdad where I served, both at the ministerial and civil servant level. The presence of numerous women in universities as unveiled teachers and students, as also in high public sector positions, was truly impressive. Any number of minorities, including the Christian number two to Saddam, Tariq Aziz, even the wretched Armenians, were given respect and security (provided, of course, they hailed the Leader). The Iraqis were especially proud of preserving and pointing out to Indian visitors the precincts where Guru Nanak is said to have meditated on returning from Mecca to India via Baghdad. For Saddam, India was so much the secular exemplar to follow, even as India to him was Indira (which is why he held a mass rally in Baghdad in support of her Emergency!) that when she was defeated in the elections of 1977, I saw several Iraqi officials wearing a black band of mourning on their upper arms in the expectation that in India, as in Iraq, the leader would be hanged when their government fell!

My closest encounter with the secular Iraqi state came from being required from time to time to visit Najf and Karbala on the Euphrates to distribute largesse from a fund set up by the Nawab of Rampur in the thirties to support Indian Shias resident in these holy places. After Independence, the administration of the fund had devolved on the Indian government and through it to the Embassy. That too was when I discovered the extent of Sunni-Shia rivalry for the temperature would be hovering near 50 degrees centigrade but Azmi, our English-Hindi-Arabic interpreter, would drink no water. I asked him discreetly whether he was not thirsty and he solemnly warned that since his name gave him away as a Sunni, he feared the Shias would spit in his glass before they served it to him!

All this changed with the ascendance of Ayatollah Khomeini (who, in fact, had spent 14 years of his exile in Najf under the benevolent secular protection of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni). By mid-1978, as my posting was drawing to a close, it became clear that the Shah of Iran's days were numbered. At this, Saddam startled the world by inviting the Shah's sister, the notorious Princess Ashrafi, to make a state visit to Baghdad. All stops were pulled out to make the visit a really grand affair (including all private house-owners with villas on the banks of the Tigris being ordered to vacate their homes to make these available to Princess Ashrafi's large suite) in order the better to signal the Ayatollah that the triumph of a clerico-political Shia order in Iran would be fiercely resisted by the Ba'athist regime in neighbouring Iraq. This reflected the millennial paranoia of the Iraqi Sunni that were the Sh'ia Iranians from in front and the Shias of the Euphrates (Farhat) from behind to clamp their jaws together, the Sunnis on the Tigris (Dijla), to whom Saddam and a large part of his cohort belonged, would simply be snapped up as so much carrion.  

When the Ayatollah took over, and the US hostage crisis began, the Americans (specifically Donald Rumsfeld) saw in Saddam their surrogate who would win for them their war against the Ayatollah. That is when secular Iraq crumbled. Invoking the Battle of Qadisseyah, Saddam, with massive and unremitting US backing, went in to invade Iran. Meretriciously, he called this the Second Battle of Qadisseyah. While the war with Iran ended in a draw (and the worst blood-letting since the Second World War), the Nineties brought on the first Gulf War, followed a decade later by the second, under respectively the two Bush's, father and son. Iraq as a shared home of Sunni and Shia, and a secular buffer state between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, was destroyed. The latest ISIS capture of almost all of Iraq north of Baghdad definitively smashes the buffer and brings Shia and Sunni into eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over Baghdad. Worse, with US power exposed as hollow and non-sustainable, the field has been cleared for a resumption of the seventh-century Battle of Qadissiyeh, backed respectively by the Sunni Wahabis of Saudi Arabia and the Shia clergy of Iran.

This has been the disastrous long-term outcome of the vacuous American intervention that began with their encouraging Iraq to invade Iran in the Eighties - and all that has since followed. While we might rely on the excellence of our Foreign Service officers to rescue the Indians caught in someone else's war, as they did so magnificently in the two previous Gulf wars and more recently in Libya, what of our political leadership?

From Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi, the careful cultivation of Arab friendships made us the most influential outsider in the Arab world. We began siding with Israel and cozying up to the Americans in Narasimha Rao's time (who, I often think, was perhaps our first BJP Prime Minister). By neglecting our relationship with the Arabs for the better part of the last twenty years, we are now virtually without a voice in a region from where we import 70% of our oil and is host to some 7 million expatriate Indians whose remittances fill our coffers. 

What little influence we had left is now reduced to nil by an inaugural President's Address that studiously and insultingly ignores West Asia and a Prime Minister who does not know the difference between Bhutan and Nepal or Ladakh and Thimpu. How then can we expect him to tell between the Farhat and the Dijla? In this gathering darkness, all we have to rely on is the ever-reliable Indian Foreign Service to which I once had the proud honour of belonging. Allah preserve us from the saffronisation of the Indian Foreign Service. 

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