As the bodies of the 39 Indians abducted and killed by Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq in June 2014 arrive home, the sorry saga of the hapless victims and the consistent statements of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the last three years affirming that they are alive, has deepened the perception that this is a government which can lie through its teeth to protect its political interests.
Much before Swaraj’s announcement on March 20 that all 39 Indians were dead and had been identified in a mass grave in Iraq from their DNA samples, there was reason to suspect that the worst had come to pass. Harjit Masih the lone survivor of the 40-member group had said as much two years before Swaraj’s March statement. Masih, who fled Iraq under circumstances that remain somewhat unclear and then appeared in Punjab, said he had escaped but the others had been killed by the militants right before his eyes. He was immediately picked up by security agencies and kept in ‘protective custody’ for a year.
Although this was supposed to protect him from possible harm, most saw his sudden absence as a way to prevent him from talking to the media. When he was released he reiterated his story and is now wondering why the government refused to believe him all along. Indeed, there was no reason or monetary incentive for him to lie. We now have the bizarre spectacle of a senior minister joining issue with a poor labourer from Punjab whose basic story actually turns out to be true.
Sushma Swaraj is rightly facing flak for her handling of the entire episode. When I was covering the issue for The Hindu in 2014, it was quite clear that the chances of the abducted men surviving were bleak. But we in the media and the relatives of the now dead men believed Swaraj when she asserted that at least six sources in Iraq had confirmed to them that the men were alive. Who were these sources? In hindsight, they were far from credible. But based on their information, Swaraj went on to inform Parliament thrice that the men were alive and safe, were getting food and that Indians should not believe rumours that stated otherwise. In July 2015, minister of state for external affairs, VK Singh, also informed the Lok Sabha that information from multiple third party sources was that the men were safe.
Two points emerge regarding this issue that need to be addressed. With all the resources available at its command and the information channels it has within the Iraqi government, is it possible that the government could not get authentic information on the missing men? And if indeed its sources were dodgy, was it correct to mislead the relatives of the captive men, the Parliament and the Nation? Swaraj posed for photographs umpteen times with the relatives of the men while reassuring them, or talked personally with some of them on the phone.
Instead of telling everyone that the government had information that the missing men were being fed-well (when actually they were lying dead in a mass grave somewhere in Iraq) the right thing to do would have been to admit upfront that as they had very little information and no means of penetrating a war zone, there was a possibility that the abducted men had been killed.
Significantly, after the first few panicky phone calls from some of the men in June 2014 to their kin back home, nothing was heard from them. It would have spared the relatives this prolonged agony where despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, they hoped against hope that their loved ones had not been killed. That too only because the government was economical with the truth. But to be upfront and candid would have been a politically disastrous line for the government to take. Remember, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh were both due for Assembly Polls in 2017 and most of the men were from these two States. Besides 2014-15 were heady days for the Modi government when people still believed that a strong Narendra Modi could accomplish anything. His ministers, Swaraj and Singh, sought to strengthen this perception with their bold statements and wilfully tried to bolster the government’s image with half-baked information from poor sources.
Even today thousands of Indians are working in dangerous conditions in Iraq and other countries in the Gulf and elsewhere. With just one year left for the next general elections it seems too much to ask the Modi government to dedicate itself to providing better livelihoods to the people so that they do not have to risk their lives to earn a decent living. Bodies returning in coffins from foreign shores should be a stomach-churning sight for any self respecting government.