The kidnapping of 40 Indian construction workers in Iraq presents newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who came into office promising to be tough on security – with his first serious foreign policy crisis.
The abducted workers are in a known location and are believed to be held with workers from other countries, officials from India's foreign ministry announced Thursday. Asked if the Indians were safe, foreign office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said “There is no safety in captivity.”
India suspects that militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) abducted the Indian workers as they were trying to flee Mosul, a northern city overrun by ISIS last week. There is, however, no clarity on how the Indians were kidnapped and there have been no ransom demands.
The government sent its former ambassador to Iraq, Suresh Reddy, to Baghdad today to coordinate rescue efforts. India’s foreign ministry has also set up a 24-hour control room in Delhi to provide information on the kidnapping, overseen by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
There has been outrage in India about the government’s inability to inform Indian nationals about the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Many families are calling the control room for information and help. Some met the foreign minister today and asked her to secure the release of Indian workers. The media has also shifted its coverage from domestic politics to Iraq, with prominent footage of ISIS militants.
Many of the kidnapped Indian workers come from the Indian state of Punjab. The majority were working for Baghdad-based construction company Tariq Noor al-Huda. Families say they fear for the fate of the workers, who had gone Iraq to earn a living.
Reema Kumar, the wife of one of the men, told the Hindustan Times that her husband's phone has been switched off for the past week. "We are
constantly trying but his phone is switched-off for one week. It has never happened before," she said.
Another woman, Gurpinder Kaur told DNA India that her brother, Manjinder Singh, is also among the kidnap victims in Iraq. She said she spoke to him on the afternoon of June 15 and that he said there were five others with him in Mosul.
"There was sound of gunfire at the time," said Ms. Kaur. “He said he was safe but scared about the sudden fighting.” After that short conversation there has been no news about Mr. Singh. She said her heart sinks every time she hears about intense fighting in Iraq.
There are about 10,000 Indian nationals living and working across Iraq. The majority of them are in areas not directly affected by the violence. Nearly 100 are in places where the security situation is tenuous, according to India’s foreign office.
As many as 46 Indian nurses were also stranded in another militant-controlled city, Tikrit, the hometown of late Saddam Hussein, waiting for the turmoil to subside.