The kidnapping of 40 Indian construction workers in Iraq by suspected militants has rapidly become the first foreign policy test for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, barely a month after he assumed office.
The workers are believed to have been captured by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) when the jihadist group overran the northern Iraqi city of Mosul this past week.
The Times of India reported that the men were waylaid as they were being evacuated from Mosul. Confirming their abduction, the Indian government said it has learned the location of the men but received no demand for ransom.
Suresh Reddy, a former ambassador to Iraq, has been dispatched as a special envoy to Baghdad in a bid to secure the release of the men, whose plight has exposed the hazards faced by Indian migrant workers.
India’s Foreign Ministry says there are 10,000 Indian workers currently in Iraq. Former Indian Ambassador to Iraq Dayakar Ratakonda says the number is actually much greater, and that Indians are drawn to the relatively high salaries they can earn in exchange for the risk of operating in Iraq as construction workers, IT specialists, oil field engineers, doctors and nurses.
Veena Joseph, 25, is among 46 Indian nurses who she says are stranded at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital in Saddam Hussein’s hometown which has fallen into the hands of the militants.
“We are really stressed. We are hearing bombing[s], gun shots…we cannot go out,” Joseph said. The International Red Crescent has provided the nurses food. But Joseph said the IRC could not transport them to Baghdad because the fighting has made the journey too dangerous.
“We just want to say please rescue us from here,” the young nurse said in a brief telephone conversation from Tikrit.
Ambassador Ratakonda says the next step for Indian officials to win the freedom of the men in Mosul is to establish contact with their suspected ISIS militant captors. But he said a complex set of obstacles including the proliferation of checkpoints set up by Sunni tribesmen allied with ISIS could hamper rescue efforts.
Anxious families meanwhile have been swamping government hotlines. “A majority of the Indians kidnapped in Iraq hail from Punjab,” Punjab’s deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal told NPR. “We are really worried … The federal government must take every necessary action to bring [them] back home.”
Ratakonda says for the most part the missing men are Sikhs, and as such would be seen as neutrals in the Sunni-Shiite Muslim sectarian conflict pulling Iraq apart.
“India’s soft image as not getting involved in the regional politics … or not taking sides helps,” he says.
But whether it’s enough to get them out and home safely is far from certain.
For now Ratakonda says, “India waits and watches.”