Zachary Keck

Can India Avoid Iraq’s Sectarian Conflict?

Recent Features

Zachary Keck

Can India Avoid Iraq’s Sectarian Conflict?

Around 25,000 Indian Shias have volunteered to travel to Iraq to defend the Shia government in Baghdad.

On the podcast yesterday, Ankit and I briefly discussed how India’s sizeable Muslim population might impact its position on the ongoing sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. I noted that India has the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran, and wondered if this might affect how Delhi handles the Iraq crisis and the rest of the Middle East. This would not be wholly unprecedented — although the situation is somewhat different, it’s worth noting that India’s Tamil population has wielded enormous influence on how India handles ties with Sri Lanka.

There are now signs that in fact India is being dragged into the sectarian tensions, whatever the position of the central government may be. Specifically, Anjuman-e-Haideri — a Delhi-based Shia organization — has begun enlisting India’s Shia population to travel to Baghdad to defend the Iraqi government. According to the latest statements from officials of the organization, Anjuman has already registered 25,000 Shias who are pledging to go to Iraq if they are granted a visa. Moreover, it is only registering Indian Shias who already have valid passports.

Earlier, a leader of the organization had said:

“We started registrations about 10-15 days back just as tension broke out in Iraq. More than one lakh [10,000] people have registered but our target is 10 lakh, which should not be difficult to get, given the commitment of the country’s 5-6 crore [10 million] Shia population. We will go to Iraq under the leadership of Maulana Kalbe Jawad. He is traveling right now, but the moment he comes back we will get in touch with the Iraqi ambassador and apply for visas. Every person will pay for his own trip, they are going there because we cannot let terrorism destroy our sacred shrines.”

To clarify, Maulana Kalb-e-Jawad is a prominent Shia cleric in India and the leader of Anjuman. He is currently traveling in Iran, according to news reports.

Two caveats are in order here. First, many of the individuals pledging to travel to Iraq, as well as Anjuman, are claiming that they do not actually want to take up arms in Iraq. For example, an executive member of the group told The Times of India: “We will not respond to terror with terror,” and instead insisted that the volunteers will provide Iraq’s local population with relief, medical aid and moral support.

Second, some Sunni groups and umbrella Islamic groups have joined Anjuman directly, or separately denounced the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), painting it as un-Islamic and a terrorist organization. This is probably not surprising given the amount of Islamist terrorism India has been the victim of in the past, as well as the fact that ISIL has targeted Indian nationals in Iraq.

The Shia individuals who are volunteering to go to Iraq seem to be slightly mixed in how much sectarian issues figured into their decision to sign up to travel to Iraq. On the one hand, many volunteers quoted by the press express a desire to protect their Shia brethren in Iraq as well as the Shia holy shrines in that country in general, and in the city of Karbala in particular.

For example, one volunteer is quoted by the Indian Express as saying: “Iraq needs our help because Shias are being tortured there…. I am going there because it is my religious duty.” Another volunteer is quoted in the same article as saying, “There is nothing that I will not do to protect Karbala and the [Shia] holy shrines in Iraq, including laying down my life.” Similarly, the form that Anjuman is having volunteers sign states in part, “The decision to travel to Iraq for defending the sanctity and honor of [Shia] holy shrines in that country is solely my own.”

On the other hand, some of the other volunteers quoted by Indian Express and other newspapers focus on the fact that ISIL is a terrorist group. One such individual said he was volunteering because he wanted to “purge Iraq and humanity of terrorists.” Another compared ISIL to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in stating why he wanted to go to Iraq.

It’s also worth noting that some India politicians, including from the ruling BJP, are openly calling for India to side with the Shia forces in the Middle East. On the other hand, the central government and some local ones have been expressing concern that the sectarian tensions in the Middle East could cause conflict to flare up in India between Sunnis and Shias. This appears unlikely to happen, however.