India's Isolationism

Why New Delhi Refuses to Engage the Middle East

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 tied to that of India. As Salman Khurshid, then India’s foreign minister, noted in 2013, the Persian Gulf, which supplies two-thirds of India’s oil and gas, is the country’s largest trading partner -- more important than the 28 countries of the European Union combined. Despite its stake in the region, however, India has remained passive in the face of crises. It appears wary of taking on a more assertive diplomatic or military role -- more likely to evacuate citizens than send more in to grapple with the Middle East’s problems.


Over the past decade, New Delhi has reacted to turmoil in the Middle East with interest but little else. In 2003, for example, according to the historian Rudra Chaudhuri, New Delhi briefly considered deploying its 6th Infantry Division to northern Iraq -- a contingent that would have been the second largest in the country, behind only that of the United States. New Delhi ultimately dismissed this possibility, however, in the absence of a supportive resolution from the United Nations. Although New Delhi appeared eager to advance the

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