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Kerala role in nurses’ return

New Delhi, July 5: When Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy today thanked the Centre for helping bring 46 trapped nurses back from Iraq, he was deliberately underplaying the role of another factor key to ending the crisis: the clout his state enjoys in the Gulf.

This factor — privately conceded to The Telegraph over the past 24 hours by multiple officials — cannot be officially articulated by either Chandy or the foreign office.

But it is this that explains the contrasting emotions of relief at Kochi airport where the nurses landed today, and the continuing fear among the families of 39 workers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, who remain in militant captivity in Iraq’s Mosul town.

“The Kerala chief minister is probably also thanking the fact that the (nurses’) abduction happened in that part of the world,” an official involved with India’s Iraq evacuation mission said, referring to West Asia.

The nurses had been holed up in the Tikrit hospital where they worked since the militants overran the city more than three weeks ago.

The foreign office, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, Prime Minister Modi and national security adviser Ajit Doval played pivotal roles in building emergency alliances across nations and communities to facilitate the nurses’ release.

But the influence that Kerala and the Malayali expatriate community wield in West Asia — unparalleled in that part of the world among Indian communities — coupled with their behind-the-scenes efforts were critical to the rescue efforts.

Chandy and his Punjab counterpart Parkash Singh Badal have been at the centre of India’s efforts to bring back the two largest sets of Indians trapped in the Iraq conflict zone — the nurses in Tikrit and the workers in Mosul.

But while Badal, in multiple meetings with Sushma, could only offer information available to the families of the 39 men in Mosul, Chandy virtually handed to the foreign office a parallel network of negotiators close to the ground.

Most West Asian countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and even Iraq — have cultivated deep diplomatic relations with top leaders across Kerala’s political spectrum and bureaucracy. Saudi Arabia and the UAE plan to open consulates in Thiruvananthapuram soon.

Their desire for closer ties with Kerala stems from the over one million Malayali-origin expatriates who work in the Arabian Gulf, forming the single biggest ethnic chunk of workers in economies dependent on migrant labour.

The Kerala government also maintains close ties with Malayali businessmen in West Asia, including some of the most influential industrialists in that region, such as Oman-based realty king P.N.C. Menon.

Emissaries from Chandy’s government contacted these industrialists to urge them to use their influence with their local governments.

The foreign ministry had till then, in the eyes of sections in Kerala, not been responsive enough to the three letters Chandy had written to Sushma in June.

But the parallel negotiation attempts by Kerala and the foreign office merged on Wednesday when the nurses communicated they had been taken away by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants.

With the combined weight of India’s traditional diplomatic efforts and the on-the-ground influence of Malayali businessmen, governments in West Asia that were initially cagey about intervening “became more responsive”, one official said.

Punjab — which boasts similar clout in Britain, Canada and, to a slightly lesser extent, America — could not match that influence.