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Bringing back Indians

The rescue of 46 Indian nurses from Iraq last week is the second diplomatic success for the new NDA government.

The first was the oath taking ceremony wherein the external affairs ministry pulled in all its goodwill to have heads of government of all but one neighbouring countries in attendance.

But there is nothing to beat the optics of healthcare workers being rescued from the clutches of terrorists. Even America could not manage this in Iran in 1980 when an operation to rescue 52 diplomats held hostage ended in a disaster.

Operation Eagle Claw ordered by President Jimmy Carter was a botch-up that resulted in the death of the rescuers. The public humiliation led to Carter losing the election to Ronald Reagan.

Indian nurses who had been holed up for more than a week in Tikrit returned home on Saturday aboard a special flight. Pic/PTI
Indian nurses who had been holed up for more than a week in Tikrit returned home on Saturday aboard a special flight. Pic/PTI

Many have compared last week’s nurse rescue operation to the repatriation of 176,000 Indians during the first Gulf War in 1990 by the ministry of external affairs with I K Gujral at the helm.

Under severe criticism for his “millionaire flight” in which Gujral brought back rich Indians from the Gulf wanting to flee Iraq and for the hug that he exchanged with Saddam Hussein, V P Singh’s government managed the biggest ever air evacuation in history.

Civil Aviation minister Arif Mohammad Khan flew in with the first Air India aircraft on August 12 and after that about 500 flights brought back tired and frightened Indians in daily sorties back to their hometowns.

Brilliant diplomats worked behind the scenes with very little money and muscle power compared to what we have today to manage that operation. India of the 1990s was not the India of today.

The kidnapping of the nurses was a nightmarish situation for the NDA government. It was like history being replayed as the Kandahar hijack episode is still fresh in the memory of Indians. The brief by the Prime Minister for External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was clear: safety of our people.

This could not be allowed to drag on and become a humanitarian crisis like in December 1999 when Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to Delhi was hijacked to Kandahar by terrorists of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

The seven day hostage crisis ended when the then External Affairs minister personally flew to Kandahar airport with the three militants that the Harkat had asked in exchange for the hostages.

The three militants Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Zargar and Omar Sheikh were then involved in terror acts which included 9/11, attack on Indian Parliament and the murder of WSJ journalist Daniel Pearl.

The NDA government came in for massive criticism for the handling of the crisis, from the failed rescue attempt at Amritsar tarmac to non-cooperation in Lahore for release of women and elderly passengers, for not undertaking a commando action in Dubai and bad media management, it all went downhill despite the fact that all but one passenger came back home safe.

While India came for extreme criticism for negotiating with terrorists for ransom and/or swap for rescue, over the years European countries have paid millions to Al Qaeda for release of their citizens in hostage situations.

From Reagan to Bush to Clinton, all American presidents have cut deals with hostage takers. Recently the Obama administration negotiated with the Afghan Taliban for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Israel freed more than a 1,000 prisoners for one captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

India does not have an official hostage policy. We negotiate according to the situation. Frankly, which country has stuck to its declared policy when it comes to hostage situations? So what is the point in formulating a policy when in most cases it must be broken?

From kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed in 1989 to that of film actor Rajkumar by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan to various kidnappings by Maoists to those of truckers by Iraqi terror group, India has negotiated for the safe release either by paying ransom or agreeing to release of prisoners.

The nurses are back, but the task is far from over. There are 40 construction workers still in captivity of terrorists. Their whereabouts, safety and possible evacuation is a matter of speculation as India knocks on all doors. There are about 10,000 Indians in Iraq who might have to be brought back in the near future. That would be a massive exercise in itself.

As city after city falls to the brutal ISIS, it would be impossible to wait for long to evacuate Indians from Iraq. It is going to be a mammoth challenge for the external affairs ministry, Air India and those who help silently behind the scenes. Good luck to them and yes, Shahbash!

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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