It has arrived finally, the moment of reckoning for the ministry of External Affairs, as fate sheds its veils on 39 Indians abducted by the Islamic State (IS) terror organisation in or around Mosul, in Iraq, in June 2014. Earlier this week Mosul fell to Iraqi forces, dealing a death blow to IS which had tried to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region, with Mosul as its capital.
After being repeatedly told by External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj over the last three years that “six” separate sources had told her and her officers that the 39 men were alive, that the IS was shuffling them around, that they had been spotted working on a construction site, or being used as bonded labour, it is now the turn of the family members of the 39 men to press for India to act on that information.
As recently as June 8, the Minister gave renewed hope to the families by telling them there was specific information that 20-25 Indian men had been seen in a church in Mosul, and it was almost certain that they were part of the group of 39.
On June 9, when Iraqi forces announced the liberation of Mosul, hopes rose in the Doaba and Majha villages of Punjab, from where many of the men came. The families began calling the Ministry of External Affairs to find out if the missing men had been found. The government responded by sending Minister of State V K Singh to Iraq. He is unlikely to bring anyone back with him.
What is far more likely is that the men were killed soon after their abduction. This is what several government officials familiar with the details of the case have known, or believed and have been privately saying. It is unfortunate that Swaraj, who has commendably done more than any other foreign minister before her to help Indians in distress abroad, continued for so long to convey the opposite impression.
The Indian government had information within weeks of the abduction that the men had all been shot. The person who brought this information was the 40th man in that group, Harjit Masih. By the time he emerged, the MEA had already publicly and strongly committed to the line that the men were alive. His story of a lucky escape from the IS was disbelieved and hushed up.
The government quietly transported him back to India and kept him in confinement for close to six months. Swaraj told Parliament that there was a threat to his life as he had escaped from IS. An official said privately that the government did not want him spreading panic among the families of the 39 men with his stories of how they had been shot. He was placed under virtual house arrest in safe houses in Bengaluru and NOIDA.
When some of Masih’s family members went to meet him in NOIDA with due permission, they came away impressed by the apartment, and the cook, but they still wanted him back home. The government had to let him go. But within months of his release, he was arrested on charges of human trafficking, as he had helped an agent recruit nine of the men. The complainants were the families of these nine men, even though they had not said this earlier. The families of the nine men also regularly received money that they sent from Iraq. Still, the MEA backed up their complaint with a letter to the Batala police asking them to take act against Masih.
How much more sensible, and sensitive it would have been, back in 2014, to tell the families the limits of the possibilities? By now, they would probably be coming to terms with the inevitable, instead of excitedly Googling up images of the church, which was so casually mentioned at their last meeting with the minister. How much easier it would have been for them, and for the government now, had it not ratcheted up expectations at each meeting of family members with the minister.
If there is one thing all the families have in common, it is their trust and belief in the External Affairs Minister. Many of them worship her as the person who is going to bring their loved ones back. She asked them: Do you believe me or Harjit Masih?
Of course they all believed her, even as they struggled, emotionally, socially and economically, living on the hope she held out.
In any other democracy, such treatment of citizens, bordering on the whimsical, would have triggered a controversy by now. But except for the Aam Admi Party, which in May 2015 highlighted the government’s conduct with Harjit Masih, it seemed as if no other political party wanted to be seen on the side of bad news, that too just before the election in Punjab.
Ironically, that’s how it had all begun – in 2014, a newly sworn in NDA had not wanted to break the bad news in Punjab, where allies SAD and BJP were the ruling coalition and SAD was already in election mode at the time.
It’s time to end this long saga. When V K Singh returns – barring of course the unlikely possibility that he brings with him proof of life of the 39 men, or even some of them – the government must come clean with the families, and help them come to terms with the likelier reality. Anything else would be a travesty.