The safe return of 46 Indian nurses from the area of Iraq held by the Islamist insurgents who are generally called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is an effective demonstration by the Indian foreign ministry of its diplomatic skill. The government needs to be commended for keeping its rescue plan below the radar, and for carrying it out, as far as is known at this moment, without any major quid pro quo or entanglements for Indian foreign policy. India’s engagement with the region is not new; it has many contacts and friends there, dating back to before the United States-led invasion of Iraq over a decade ago now. While the exact details of government action to secure the return of the nurses are not known, it has been reported that an entire gamut of contacts was activated in order to open channels to their captors.
In the aftermath of what was a complex, a time-consuming and, no doubt, an expensive venture, questions are being asked as to whether any responsibility can be fixed for the nurses’ capture in the first place. The nurses were serving at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital, in the Sunni-majority city in northwestern Iraq. After that town – the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and once a stronghold for his Ba’ath Party – came under ISIS’ influence, there were reports that the militant Islamists had taken them captive. Last Thursday, they were moved to the town of Mosul, which ISIS had occupied earlier. But, eventually, news came that a special flight had been sent to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region within Iraq, to pick up the nurses and bring them back to Kerala, from where most of them are. The questions being asked focus on whether the special advisory against travel to Iraq, which was issued by the ministry of external affairs on June 15, came too late. Many of the nurses had been in Tikrit for barely a few months; should they have been permitted to leave India if they were going to Iraq, given the ministry’s access to emigration control mechanisms?
The problem is that it is very difficult to prevent people from moving even to possibly dangerous areas, when there are large wage differentials involved. This is particularly true when information is sketchy – and remember, ISIS’ string of military victories in northwestern Iraq surprised most observers with its scale and speed. By most reports, nurses had been promised Rs 40,000-50,000 a month by the Tikrit Teaching Hospital. In Kerala or in any other part of the country, a nurse gets much less. Even in metropolitan towns, when nurses struck work in May 2012, it emerged that very few were paid more than Rs 10,000 a month. Meanwhile, nursing qualifications don’t come cheap. Many nurses’ families take out loans of between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 5 lakh. In such circumstances, it isn’t surprising that the promise of a fivefold increase in salary is attractive. And what’s true of nurses is true also of many other skilled blue-collar workers who also lined up to go to Iraq. The ministry could try to stop them – but the chances are it would fail. The best that can be hoped for is that the ministry clearly acquaint all such would-be emigrants of the risks.