How Come India Isn’t Speaking Out Against the Islamic State?

Inside India's reluctance to publicly criticize the extremist organization.

US President Barack Obama (R) waves to the crowd as he waits for his motorcade alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2R) after attending the nation's Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26, 2015. Rain failed to dampen spirits at India's Republic Day parade January 26 as Barack Obama became the first US president to attend the spectacular military and cultural display in a sign of the nations' growing closeness. AFP PHOTO / Roberto SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

When President Barack Obama visited New Delhi this week as a guest of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, mentions of the global fight against the Islamic State were notably absent.

The only hat tip to cooperation is buried deep into a U.S.-India joint statement released on Sunday, where the two leaders “reaffirmed their deep concern over the continued threat posed by transnational terrorism,” including groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The White House says India could play a role battling the Islamic State, according to a Reuters report. And yet at least publicly, top Indian leaders have said almost nothing about fighting the rampant terrorist group in Syria and Iraq. So why has India been so quiet?

For one, India has huge stakes in the Middle East — but in very different ways from the United States. India’s concerns in the region are less about national security implications, and more about the safety of its citizens. India is the world’s number one remittance country; it received roughly $71 billion in 2013, according to a World Bank report — and much of that comes from the Gulf.

An estimated seven million Indians reside in the Middle East, overwhelmingly concentrated in the Gulf, where they tend to be guest workers. And India still has an unknown number of workers in Syria. If New Delhi joined a coalition, or started speaking out against the Islamic State, it would “put a massive target on their backs,” says Tanvi Madan, an India expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

In June, the Islamic State reportedly kidnapped dozens of Indian construction workers and nurses in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The nurses were freed within a few weeks; the fate of the construction workers, of which there are believed to be 39, remains unknown. In late November, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said that although her government hasn’t had contact with kidnapped workers since June, New Delhi believes them to still be alive.

“The fear and concern is that, what if you start making noises, and they start publicly doing what they’ve done to others,” said a senior Indian official — referring to the Islamic State’s gruesome videotaped beheading of hostages. Instead of publicly denouncing the extremist group, India’s government has focused its political capital on trying to free the hostages, said the official, who asked to speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“This has come out in virtually all of [Swaraj’s] meetings with countries that have some stake in the Middle East,” the official said.

If the hostages remain a major priority, then attacking the Islamic State “even rhetorically doesn’t help our posture,” says Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor of the Hindustan Times newspaper.

Additionally, India is prepared to push the Mideast only so far due to its dependence on the region’s energy supply. India is hugely dependent on foreign oil, roughly 59 percent of which it gets from the Middle East.

Domestic radicalization is a second-order concern. It appears the vast majority of India’s 176 million Muslims — who make up the world’s second-largest Muslim population, behind Indonesia — want nothing to do with the Islamic State. In November, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval said that no more than 10 Indians actually wanted to join the Islamic State; only four Indians are known to have actually joined. One of them, the 23-year-old Areeb Majeed, reportedly spent much of his time forced to fetch water and clean toilets, instead of fighting.

That said, New Delhi has taken some steps to curtail the influence of the extremist group. In late December, the government’s Indian Computer Emergency Response Team blocked dozens of websites, including the popular video sites Vimeo and Dailymotion, for hosting pro-Islamic State content. And New Delhi is likely quietly sharing intelligence with the United States.

They’ll contribute, Madan says, “but they’re not going to join a coalition or come out and make an announcement.”

It’s also possible that New Delhi just hasn’t decided to spend the bureaucratic energy necessary to form a plan. A high-ranking official with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party acknowledged in December that India has yet to pull together a strategy on dealing with the Islamic State in the Middle East. “It’s a work in progress,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The combination of these issues shows that Indian policymakers are trying not to rock the boat. “Our view is that we can’t afford to alienate anyone out there,” says Chaudhuri.

Syria and Iraq, the two countries where the Islamic State is the biggest threat, are on the “periphery” of core Indian interests, the senior Indian official says: It’s not worth “conducting a commentary” when it’s not.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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