Late BJP leader and former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is best known for her untiring efforts in extricating Indians from alarming situations overseas and bringing them home to safety. Notable among those her efforts helped rescue is Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest from Kerala who was kidnapped by suspected ISIS militants in strife-torn Yemen in 2016.
On Wednesday morning, when Fr Uzhunnalil woke up to the news of the untimely demise of 67-year-old Swaraj, he said he was saddened by it.
“I feel so sad about the demise of such a beloved and pleasant personality. Of course, I prayed in the first instance for her soul and then prayed for her near and dear ones,” Fr Uzhunnalil told The Indian Express over phone from Bengaluru.
“My memory went back to the day when I happened to be speaking with her after my release on the 13th of September, 2017. Her conversation with me was more than an official authority as a minister. I felt like she was speaking to me like an elder sister. That was my feeling, the style of conversation, the things she spoke to me,” added Fr Uzhunnalil.
The 59-year-old Catholic priest, who belongs to the Congregation of the Salesians of Don Bosco, had reached Yemen in 2010 and was working with a care home run by the Missionaries of Charity. In March, 2016, when Yemen was in the middle of a violent civil war between the ruling Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi government and Houthi rebels, suspected ISIS militants attacked the old age home in Aden and killed 16 people.
They abducted the Catholic priest, transferring him to another facility and keeping him captive for nearly 18 months. In September, 2017, then-foreign minister Swaraj announced on Twitter that the priest had been released and will return to India shortly. The foreign affairs ministry of Oman and it’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said is believed to have played a key role in his release after active intervention in the matter by the Indian government.
Fr Uzhunnalil said he could have been killed the day he was abducted just like the extremists slaughtered 16 people at the care home. Post his release, he met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Swaraj in Delhi.
“She warmly welcomed me, assured me all assistance and wished me speedy recovery of health. I do not know what exactly she did (for my release) because I didn’t know what was happening here while I was coming out. I wish to thank her in a position like this, thanking God for her in the various ways she has been instrumental in my freedom from captivity,” he said.
The priest said he would get the photograph he took with Swaraj in Delhi framed as part of his memories of the former foreign minister.
Swaraj, who assumed the role of the external affairs minister after the BJP rode to a landslide win in 2014, died at the AIIMS Hospital in New Delhi late Tuesday night after suffering a cardiac arrest. Swaraj had undergone a kidney transplant in December, 2016 and had opted out of the recent parliamentary elections citing her health.
In the previous Atal Behari Vajpayee government between 1999 and 2004, she handled portfolios of health, information and broadcasting and parliamentary affairs. Between 2009 and 2014, she served as the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha and was known for her fiery speeches in Hindi. The prime minister described her as ‘uncompromising when it came to matters of ideology and interests of the BJP, whose growth she immensely contributed to.’ Swaraj is survived by her husband Swaraj Kaushal and daughter Bansuri.