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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 30-31, July 22 & July 29 2023

A Book on Forgotten Refugees | Joydip Ghosal

Saturday 22 July 2023


Forgotten Refugees, Two Iraqi Brothers in India

by Nandita Haksar

Speaking Tiger Books LLP


ISBN- 978-93-5447-311-1

Nandita Haksar is an eminent human rights lawyer who has left her own imprint and set a precedent in the arena of human rights law. Apart from that she is a renowned campaigner and teacher. Both in Indian courts and international fields she fought tirelessly for the rights of refugees whether they were internally displaced people or refugees evicted from other countries. Apart from setting precedence in refugee law, she had taken initiatives to introduce courses on refugee law for law colleges. Her book Forgotten Refugees, Two Iraqi Brothers in India published by Speaking Tiger is a truly remarkable story of two Iraqi brothers, their lives in the all engulfing fire of unending violence. It is their saga of losing everything but they refused to be shattered.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR 4.5 million Iraqis faced displacement in a timespan of four year. It began immediately before US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nandita Haksar informs us that 2.3 million people were internally displaced and 2.2 million people crossed international borders at that turbulent period. UN High commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in 2007 proclaimed that exodus of Iraqis could be termed as the largest population shift in Middle East since the ‘’displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of the state of Israel.” We are shocked to learn that as of early 2022, over 9.2 million Iraqis were refugees abroad. There were also the hapless ones who were internally displaced. They had to face unbearable tragedies, loss, trauma, and pain. The author unequivocally told that their stories needed to be told. They had been slipped into oblivion. They were not on anyone’s list of priority. In this book the author told the story of two Iraqi brothers who were evicted from their homes and took refuge in India. They were forced to camp outside the gate of UNHCR office in Delhi. They also demanded resettlement. It was a protest against the world that has forgotten them. While documenting their grief and pain she discovered many aspects of India’s history and its connection with Iraq. She aptly described this book as the story of lost friendship between two countries and their inhabitants. She met the two brothers outside the gate of UNHCR office in November 2021. She went there to express solidarity with the Afghan refugees. The two Iraqi brothers wanted their stories to be heard. They called themselves Babil (Babylon) and Akkad( Akkadian Empire). It was a way of asserting their claims over their country’s rich and glorious heritage- from pre- Islamic times to modern Iraq. That rich history was ravaged and subjected to acts of violence and mayhem by Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Here the author quoted the words of Iraqi archaeologist Behnam Abu Al- Soof( 1931-2012). “anyone who can read or write or who tills the soil, anyone who cherishes religion, practices law, or studies the stars, owes a silent thanks to those who pioneered along the Euphrates. ”An organisation RASHID (Research, Assessment, and Safeguarding of the Heritage of Iraq in Danger) stressed that “The lives of Individuals may compose the body of a people, but their culture represents its soul.”

Nandita Haksar delineated briefly the relationship between India and Iraq. It dated back to 1952 when both countries signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship. After Iraq transformed into a republic in 1958 India was among the first to recognize the Ba’ath Party-led government. Nandita Haksar recalled the journal al Arab, the mouthpiece of the League of Arab States Mission. It was published from Link house in Delhi. The author was in praise for the cultural diversity of that country. It was the embodiment of secular Arab Nationalism. In 1972 it entered into a treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Soviet Union. She delved into different aspects of Saddam’s regime. He became the President of Iraq in 1979. He and his Bath party ushered a decade of reforms. Though his reign was marred by several dark shades there was no denying the facts that he nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company and independent banks. He popularized the concept of universal free schooling and initiated the concept of modernized public health system. In 1974 when he was the vice-President he visited India. Compared to women in other parts of that region women enjoyed greater freedom and liberty. From this book we also got to know that when Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash Saddam Hussein sent a verse to Mrs. Gandhi quoted from Quran to give solace to the grieving mother. He treated her as her sister.

When Babil and Akkad arrived in India a Hindutvabadi majoritarian party came to the helm of affairs in our country in 2014. In that year Daesh unleashed an offensive on Mosul and Tikrit. The author observed that both countries had undergone a massive transformation.

Both the brothers were born in 1988 and 1991 respectively. They stood witness to the fact that after the Gulf war their country descended into impoverishment and utter chaos. After the US-led invasion the whole country was immersed in gory, macabre sectarian violence. Their father was disappeared. They took a flight to India and sought the protection of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Before coming to the country both the brothers were told that it was a place of tolerance. But in this country, they metamorphosed into nowhere people. They were dubbed as illegal foreigners. They lived in constant fear of being deported. They had to withstand the daily rigors. Their misery was compounded by perilous communal marginalization.

Haksar who was committed to humanitarian cause portrayed that in this conflict-ridden, jingoistic world society got more polarized. In this book she let the protagonists to air their voices freely. This book forced us to think from a different angle regarding International Refugee Law. Nandita Haksar unequivocally declared in this book that refugee studies was a discipline in its own right. To establish her point she cited the example of Behrouz Boochani who was a Kurdish – Iranian journalist. Apart from that he was a human rights defender. He was held in Australian–run Manus Island detention in Papua New Guinea. He used phone voice calls, tweets, texts, and emails to divulge the sordid state of refugees. They lived in utter misery detained by the Australian Government. In that period he wrote a memoir titled ’No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’. “The book was typed out on a mobile phone in a series of single messages over time.”

India was not a signatory to UN Convention on Refugees, 1951. She clearly showed that only a minuscule number of refugees were under the protective guidance of UNHCR. But they were not adequately protected. When she first took the cases of refugees the refugees were provided a monthly stipend. But over the years the amount got lessened. Of late limited number of refugees were provided financial assistance. She clearly stated that Indian law courts recognized the principle of non-refoulment or ‘’ the right of the refugee not to be returned to his or her country where his or her life would be in danger or he or she is likely to be tortured, imprisoned or executed.” Nandita also informed us that Member of Parliament Mr. Shashi Tharoor requested the Migration and Asylum project of the Ara Trust in Delhi to draft a bill. Tharoor introduced the Asylum Bill 2015 in Loksabha successfully.

So this remarkable book which is moving and inspiring at the same time compelled us to look at refugees not as statistics but as human beings. The brother’s testimony helps us to delve deeper into the different aspects related to refugees whether in India or abroad.

(Book Review Author: Joydip Ghosal is a human rights activist)

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