Updated: March 21, 2018 7:05:32 am
ON TUESDAY, minutes after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declared in the Rajya Sabha that the 39 Indians who had gone missing in Iraq in June 2014 were dead, Gurpinder Kaur’s question summed up the shock, anger and sense of betrayal among the families of those men: “Why did she not tell us first, why did we have to learn about this from TV?”
Kaur, whose brother Manjinder Singh was among the 39, had taken the lead in bringing the families together to press the government to make efforts to trace the men. Several times, under her unofficial leadership, the families had gone to meet Swaraj, to be assured each time that intelligence agencies of other countries had informed that the men were alive.
“The government kept us in the dark for so long. And now, when they announced their death, we learnt it through TV channels. They did not bother to inform the families. They are not even responding to our phone calls. This is not the way. The government should have done this in a more humane way,” said Gurpinder.
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Of the missing men, 27 were from Punjab, four from Himachal, and eight from Bihar and West Bengal. They are believed to have been abducted by the Islamic State on June 15, 2014, and were not heard of since then. Last July, when Mosul was liberated by Iraqi forces, Swaraj had said that the missing men may likely be holed up in a church or held in a prison.
Late last year, the government began collecting DNA samples from the families, giving the first indication of what could be in store.
On Tuesday, as Swaraj’s announcement was telecast on loop, an inconsolable Ranjit Kaur mourned the death of her 25-year-old son, Jatinder Singh.
“We are not sure if we should believe this news or not. All these four years, the government had been claiming that my son was alive. The same Minister (Sushma Swaraj) today announced that he is dead. Which statement should I believe? Tomorrow, they will bring the remains of somebody and tell me that he is my son… do they expect me to believe it?” she said from Sialka village in Amritsar.
“Whenever we visited Delhi, Sushma Swaraj would swear by Kaali maa and say our sons were alright. She used to say ‘Kaali maa ki kasam, bachhe surakshit hain’. Where is that promise now?” said Sardara Singh, the father of 36-year-old Gurcharan Singh, from Jalal Ussma village in Gurdaspur.
Swaraj’s announcement also resonated in the Punjab assembly where Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh informed members about the fate of the 39.
Singh said that he had also written to Swaraj, asking the Centre to announce ex-gratia relief to the families. The Punjab government has been paying Rs 20,000 per month to them. “I would be grateful if the government of India could provide due assistance to the families of the deceased, given the special circumstances,” he wrote.
Leader of Opposition Sukhpal Khaira demanded that the Centre pay each affected family a sum of Rs 50 lakh. Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa, who had raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha previously, called the latest development a “failure” on part of the government.
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