He was the lone survivor among 40 Indians abducted by Islamic State militants from Mosul, Iraq in June 2014. Harjit Masih escaped, was brought back to India via Doha, Qatar and has reiterated since then that all 39 Indian construction workers were murdered in Iraq. Less than a fortnight later, Masih was in the custody of security agencies for months and was arrested in 2016 on a complaint by a relative of one of the missing men that he had indulged in human trafficking. Now out on bail, Masih works as a daily-wage labourer in Gurdaspur, Punjab, and said on Tuesday that he was “vindicated”.
As Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj on Tuesday confirmed 39 Indians missing in Iraq since 2014 had been killed by IS, she reiterated that Masih had lied and called his version a “cock and bull story”. In a statement to the Rajya Sabha Tuesday, Swaraj said Masih posed as Ali from Bangladesh to escape with a group of Bangladeshi men, who were separated from the Indians. Swaraj said the government had learnt this after speaking to the factory owner, where the Indians worked, and a caterer, where the men ate meals.
According to her, the caterer had said he had dropped the Bangladeshi men and Masih in his van to the Erbil border in northern Iraq from where Masih spoke to her. She said Masih could not give her a satisfactory answer when he was asked about how he reached Erbil. She said Masih spoke only in Punjabi and kept saying, “Get me out from here”. Masih, however, told The Indian Express that he had told IS militants his name was Ali at another location where he was taken to after his escape and after the 39 Indians were shot. He claimed he was handed over to another group of militants, who eventually let him go.
Following Swaraj’s statement, he said, “I have been saying from day one that they were killed. I said this to the government when they kept me in custody for one year. I think the government knew about the deaths, but due to political reasons, they did not go public with it. Even the Bangladeshi men had confirmed they were separated from the group of Indians,” he said.
A case was registered against Masih and his relative Rajbir — the agent who is said to have sent men from to Iraq — on March 30, 2016, on a complaint by Gurpinder Kaur, the sister of one of the missing men Manjinder Singh. The case, for alleged offences of cheating and human trafficking among others, was registered on directions from the MEA. The MEA had then alleged Masih had cooked up the story of the 39 Indians being killed. Masih was later arrested and is now out on bail. Fatehgarh Churian Station House Officer Charanjit Singh said Rajbir had also joined the investigation and was out on bail.
“Now, since the government has admitted that the men are dead, the case against me should be withdrawn,” Masih said. Now a daily wager, Masih said he spent six months in jail for “no fault” and for “speaking the truth”. Swaraj, in Parliament, said, “I have two (pieces of) information. First, Harjit Masih who escaped was lying and, second, the Indians are dead. And I have proof of this.”
“Masih had cooked up a story saying they were taken to a jungle where ISIS terrorists fired. The bullet shot his leg. But somehow he managed to leave and the others got killed. Hence, Masih’s story was wrong. He had left in the beginning only by becoming Ali,” she said.
In the complaint against Masih and Rajbir, Gurpinder alleged that her brother had told her from Iraq on June 6, 2014, that Masih, who operated with Rajbir, had deserted them in May 2014. According to Gurpinder, her brother had told her Rajbir sent him and eight others with Masih to Mosul in Iraq, instead of Dubai where they were promised to be sent. Gurpinder also said her brother had told her the Indians in Mosul had neither money nor passports after Masih left. Masih’s counsel Munish Kumar said, “We have argued that since Harjit himself was working in Mosul as a labourer, there was no ground to book him in the cases for alleged offences cheating, human trafficking etc.”