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Guru Nanak's shrine near Baghdad | Coastweek

Indians have had strong links with Iraq since the 15 century. They lived mainly in Karbala, Najaf and Baghdad and ventured into business. Long distance Indian truckers [left], south Indian Khaja Mohideen [inset] Saddam’s chef at the Presidential Palace, and Guru Nanak's shrine [right] near Baghdad. PHOTOS - KUL BHUSUIHAN and SHAMLAL PURI

Documenting the long rise and sudden fall of Indians in Iraq

NEW DELHI -- Indians have had strong links with Iraq since the 15 century. During the last century, Indians worked in large numbers to build the country now destroyed by wars. Kul Bhushan and Shamlal Puri trace this relationship.

Shamlal Puri visited Iraq, a destroyed country, during the Gulf War with Kuwait in 1990-91 and again in 2008. During both visits, he found a lot of insecurity and fears of being either kidnapped or killed.

When the 43 Keralite nurses from war-torn Iraq were rescued, India rejoiced.

But another 10,000 Indians are still in Iraq.

Some Punjabi workers are at grave risk.

How did they land there?

Indians went to Iraq for pilgrimage and stayed on.

After Iraq’s independence in 1932, their descendants assimilated in the country and acquired Iraqi nationality.

They lived mainly in Karbala, Najaf and Baghdad and ventured into business.

Before World War II, British rulers sent them to build roads, railways, waterways and postal services.

They also worked as accountants, clerks and technicians.

With the discovery of oil in 1960s, Iraq embarked on massive construction projects and Indian companies won lucrative contracts in infrastructure projects and thus Indian professionals and workers went in thousands in 1970s.

The well-established Indians set up businesses and recruited more Indians to work for them.

Saddam Hussein took power on 16 July 1979.

He welcomed Indians as he felt they had valuable contribution to make to Iraq.

In the 1980s, Indians peaked at an estimated 80,000 in Iraq.

Generally, Indians were generally treated well under the Saddam regime but like any other Middle East country, they had to comply with the laws of the land and ensure a trouble-free stay.

Indians, who qualified, were allowed to take up Iraqi nationality.

Interestingly, Saddam’s chef at the Presidential Palace was a south Indian, Khaja Mohideen.

Saddam loved Indian food, especially Rasam and Chicken Biryani which Mohideen cooked in a special Indian food kitchen at the palace.

Mohideen now lives in Chennai and ekes out a living as a street fast food seller.

The Iran-Iraq War 1980 -1988, the Gulf War 1990-1991, US Invasion of Iraq in 2003 that overthrew and captured Saddam, the departure of US troops in 2011 and the continued violence under the elected government had tremendous impact on Iraqis as well as Indians.

Indians were left with no choice but to leave Iraq and either return to India or settle in Dubai, UAE and elsewhere.

Iraq’s links with the Sikhs go back to 1520 when Guru Nanak visited Baghdad on his return journey from Mecca.

Gurudware Baba Nanak was then founded and weekly religious activities continued until 1989.

The recent wars damaged the holy shrine and now efforts are being made to rebuild it.

An Indian Central School was established and supervised by the Indian Embassy.

Apart from skeleton embassy staff, there are less than 100 Indians living in Iraq on short-term visas.

They are mainly United Nations officials or businessmen seeking trading opportunities under the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme.

With the old-timers fleeing the country, a new wave of Indians arrived to help with the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.

Today, there are just over 10,000 Indians, mainly blue collar workers living in very tough conditions and no security.

They are desperate to leave.

Attracted by better salary, unskilled Indians sought any work to enable them to remit money home.

They got jobs as truck drivers, low-level administrators and labourers with the US and British coalition forces.

The new wave of Indians is largely construction labourers, nurses, engineers, missionaries and charity workers mostly from Punjab and Kerala, but also from Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

They went to Iraq chasing new opportunities and fortunes as the country was rising from the ruins of war and reconstruction was going on with foreign and local money.

They went where they found jobs:

Baghdad, Tikrit (Dictator Saddam Hussein’s birth place); Mosul, Erbil, Najaf, Basra, Karbala, among others.

They live in poor accommodation, cooking and eating together.

Socially, they stick in groups of Punjabis or Keratitis with little or no cross-cultural socialising due to language barriers.

Most illegal entrants originally went to Dubai or Teheran on visitor visas but failed to find jobs.

Sensing lax security and jobs, Keratitis and Sikhs sneaked into Iraq illegally for any jobs.

Those who had arrived to work in Iraq legally, in common with practice in the Middle East, had their passports taken away by their employers and held as security in case they absconded or committed crimes.

These passports can only be released if the employee was allowed to travel on annual leave or at the end of their contract.

Working conditions are now abysmal in Iraq with unpaid salaries for months and blocked pension claims due to the sanctions.

Despite these problems, deteriorating security and a rapidly sinking economy, some employees of Indian companies continue to remain in Iraq.

With the onslaught of the ISIS, the future is bleak for Indian workers still living in Iraq.

Those who have chosen to return to India will not regret their decision.


Former Kenya journalist, editor, author, publisher and a media consultant, Kul Bhushan has worked at senior levels in different countries and continents for over 40 years with international and multi-national organizations.


Former Kenya journalist, editor, author, publisher and a media consultant Kul Bhushan | Coastweek




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