A full three years have passed since 40 Indian construction workers, most of them from Punjab, were abducted by the Islamic State (IS) terror organisation from their job site in Mosul, Iraq.
As much as the Ministry of External Affairs has helped Indians in distress around the world under the leadership of Sushma Swaraj, its handling of the crisis of the 39 missing men – one of them escaped, and what he had to say, and how he has been treated by the government, is key to the story – raises troubling questions.
Rewind to 2014: the Modi government had barely been sworn in when the news erupted of a group of 46 nurses from Kerala, trapped in a Tikrit hospital as IS militants and Iraqi forces fought around it. Days later, as all hell broke loose, the IS bussed out the nurses and took them to Mosul. By then, the government has rushed in a special envoy who managed to have the nurses freed and returned.
But by then it emerged that another group of Indians, all construction workers, had been abducted by the IS.
In Punjab, the state government was at the receiving end of unfavourable comparisons. People saw the Kerala chief minister at the time, Oommen Chandy, camping in Delhi from where he “personally supervised” the rescue of the nurses, liaising with Sushma, keeping in touch with the families in Kerala through their 23-day ordeal. He was there to receive them when they returned.
Meanwhile, pressure grew on then Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir as well as the Shiromani Akali Dal, a partner of the BJP at the centre and State. On June 19, a delegation of the Punjab families, headed by Chief Minister travelled to Delhi to meet Sushma.
There would be many more such meetings, sometimes with Union Minister and Badal bahu Harsimrat Kaur heading the Punjab delegation of families, or some other notable, usually from the Delhi SGPC.
Each time, the External Affairs Minister would assure the families that she had heard from “four” sources or “multiple” sources that the men had been spotted alive, along with some random detail. For instance, that they had been seen working at a construction site.
The return of the nurses in July spurred hope for a similar rescue of the construction workers. But that did not happen.
Meanwhile, a man who claimed he escaped when the militants shot and killed the rest of the group, made contact with Indian diplomats in Iraq, and was sent back home. In Delhi, Harjit Masih is taken to a “safe house” and not allowed to go back to his village in Gurdaspur.
When his family complained that he called them to say he was safe and has since disappeared, Sushma told Parliament that he needed to be protected because of the threat to his life from IS. When he was finally released and returned home, the relatives of the other men around on him – he was linked to the ‘agent’ who got the men their jobs in Iraq – filed a case against him for trafficking. Masih spent months in jail.
Each time the families requested meetings with Sushma, she obliged, and sent them back with the same motherly reassurance.
A year passed, then two, and now three. Last year, around this time, a team of Indian Express reporters, including myself tracked down each of those families scattered across Punjab, Himachal, Bihar and West Bengal. Their stories were heart-rending.
In Punjab especially, the wives, most of them in their twenties, said they did not know what to believe. Almost everyone said they wanted the government to “tell us the truth”. Some wives continued to live with their in-laws, while others had gone back to their parents’ homes.
All were dealing with the social pressures of being a single mother for all practical purposes, and the economic difficulties that had sent their husbands to Iraq in the first place.
At one home, the brother of one of the missing men complained that his sister-in-law’s parents wanted him to marry her; at another, the wife complained that her in-laws did not want her back anymore. In many homes, there had been squabbles between the wife and in-laws over who got to keep the monthly “pension” of Rs 20,000 that the Punjab government was giving them.
At another village, a mother was up to date on all the developments in the region, including how Iraqi forces were planning to retake Mosul, because she was following every bit of news coming out of Iraq, in the hope that she would be reunited with her son.
Sadly, if it was not clear a few months after their abduction, it should be abundantly so by now that the chances of these men being found alive are remote.
But the government continues to be dilatory by handing out reassurances – the latest was as recently as June 8, when the families met Sushma once again.They wanted to know what the government was doing to trace the men now that Mosul was almost liberated.
Pat came the assurance: another purported “sighting” of a group of 20-25 Indian men, apparently in a church in the tiny patch of territory still under IS control; and as no other Indians had approached the ministry, the possibility was high this was part of the missing group of 39.
The Minister and officials in the MEA evidently believe information that the IS, in its last stand against the Iraqi forces, and now confined to a few sq kms of Mosul, is dragging its hostages with it from place to place.
The families of the missing men came out of last week’s meeting not knowing what to think, especially as the so-called sighting held out hope only for 25 men, with no information on which ones.
Three years ago, it may have been politically risky, but certainly more honest to make it plain that while the government would do everything in its power to trace the men, the families should not keep their hopes high.
In a few weeks if not days, when all of Mosul is finally liberated from the IS, Sushma Swaraj is bound to find herself facing the families once again. What will she say now?