The death of 39 Indian citizens in Iraq, established after four years of uncertainty, dread and hope for their families, calls attention to the challenges of a global order where citizens must often work in conflict areas far away from home. Going forward, there are also lessons to be learned by the government in handling a sensitive situation such as this one.
It was in June 2014, soon after the BJP-led NDA had swept the general elections, that the families of the 39 men learnt that their loved ones had been captured by Islamic State (IS). In the four years since, there have been Indian citizens who have needed rescuing from extremists, and External Minister Sushma Swaraj has led from the front in several successful operations. In July 2014, New Delhi managed a deal through intermediaries to secure the release of 46 Indian nurses from IS. In 2015, Father Alexis Prem Kumar was rescued from Afghanistan, as was aid worker Judith D’Souza in 2016. As recently as September last year, Father Tom Uzhunnalil was released by IS after 17 months in captivity. That the 39 Indian workers were killed by the IS is a testament to the perils of the broken security and political architecture in West Asia. The lack of a modern state apparatus in parts of the region leaves open only informal channels for rescue operations and negotiation.
To be sure, the Indian government used every means at its disposal to save its citizens. However, the External Affairs Ministry made six statements, including by Swaraj, in Parliament, claiming that the government had confirmed that the hostages were alive. That Swaraj did not want to cause undue anguish to the families of the victims is understandable. But staying with the facts — that the hostages were missing and the government was doing its best — would have been more sensitive and appropriate. Finally, in terms of both protocol and humanity, it was essential that the families of the 39 workers did not first hear the devastating news about their loved ones on television. The economic realities of labour migration coupled with the conflict in West Asia means that Indian citizens could be in danger again. The government must keep in mind its successes. But if tragedy strikes, it must not repeat its mistakes.