The abduction of four Indian teachers by Libyan militants is a reminder of how the six million Indian workers in the Arab world constrains New Delhi's strategic role in West Asia. A tenet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy is advocating an India that is more open and honest about its international positions, even if it offends some nations. Nothing puts this to the test more than West Asia.
The four teachers have been taken to the city of Sirte which fell to the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in May this year. The Libyan militants who hold Sirte are a mix of ISIS and supporters of the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Foreign hostage-taking is a common income-earner for Libya’s many militias.
The millions of Indians who live and work between Oman and Morocco are under constant and increasing threat as West Asia falls apart. Yet the narrative of the rags-to-riches fortune of the Gulf migrant, lures Indian workers to even the most volatile regions.
Consider the case of Libya. New Delhi evacuated all 18,000 Indians who lived there during the anti-Gaddafi revolution in 2011. By 2014 this number had gone back to 4000. As Libya descended back into anarchy, India evacuated over 3500 Indians last month. But the foreign ministry estimates that over 2300 Indians still remain – defying requests they leave the country. Yet Libya is so unsafe the Indian ambassador to that country lives in Tunisia.
A similar situation arose in Iraq last year when India had to negotiate for the release of 65 Indian nurses and 40 construction workers, all held by ISIS. New Delhi successfully negotiated the release of the nurses but the workers have disappeared.
India is always in a quandary regarding enemies like the ISIS. The Islamic State makes no bones of its desire to conquer India and make it part of its “caliphate”. A recent 32-page Urdu recruitment document of the ISIS speaks of “preparations” to attack India.
Strategically, it makes sense for India to help countries like Iran and the US defeat ISIS in West Asia before they are able to bring their medieval version of Sunni extremism to South Asia and India. The US has quietly urged India to consider taking a more active role in this struggle.
Such Indian action would seal the fate of Indian migrants in West Asia who ran afoul of ISIS groups. Ransom would no longer be issue. ISIS executes foreigners it captures if they believe their governments to be actively hostile to them – hence their execution of 21 Egyptian Christians in February.
New Delhi struggles to keep its citizens from seeking employment in these parts of the world. But poverty and ignorance overwhelm these actions. Many of the nurses released in Iraq indicated they were prepared to work for ISIS if they were paid. The Philippines has a similar problem – about 4000 Filipinos continue to work in Libya. But Manila has no ambition to be a global player. India does – and this ambition is the real hostage in all this.