An Indian woman displays the photograph of her brother, an Indian worker who was kidnapped in Iraq, in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, June 2014.
Munish Sharma / Courtesy Reuters

Shortly after Narendra Modi became prime minister of India in May 2014, his government faced its first foreign policy crisis. Just weeks after his inauguration, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured 41 Indian construction workers in Mosul and 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit, producing one of India’s worst-ever hostage crises.

This was not the first time that New Delhi had been rocked by events 2,000 miles away. In 1990, for example, India had to evacuate over 110,000 citizens from the Middle East during the first Gulf War -- an operation that required just under 500 flights over a period of two months. Faced with turbulence it could neither prevent nor influence, but which threatened the lives of Indian citizens and the country’s economy, New Delhi carried out similar airlifts from Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2014. 

The fate of the Middle East, home to roughly seven million Indians, has long been

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  • SHASHANK JOSHI is Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, and a PhD Candidate at the Department of Government, Harvard University.
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