39 Indians killed in Mosul: Spat over 'delay' in announcing deaths unfortunate; government can't jump gun

The Narendra Modi government deserves praise for doggedly pursuing the case of 39 Indians who went "missing" after being kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq's Mosul in 2014. The four-year search for truth ended on Tuesday when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj informed both Houses of the Parliament that the kidnapped Indians were indeed killed by the retreating IS.

It is unfortunate that a controversy has erupted over the government's efforts to gather concrete evidence before declaring the missing persons as "dead". The Opposition has targeted the government for its "delay" in announcing the deaths — implying that instead of searching for and obtaining conclusive proofs, the government should have jumped the gun based on unverifiable and competing accounts.

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File image of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. PTI

A more regressive argument is hard to find. In any other country, a government is expected to do what the Indian government did — look for the missing individuals, try relentlessly to find out the truth in a war zone, seek the help of foreign agencies and sovereigns, get conclusive evidence of death and bring eventual closure for affected families. In India, such an effort evidently invites charges of "misleading the nation" and "giving false hope".

Is waiting for confirmation of death "false hope"? Is refusal to declare the "missing" as "dead" without proof "misleading the nation"? One has to ask, can any government worth its oath presume the "missing" as "dead" without an honest effort?

Harjit Masih, the survivor who ostensibly escaped from the clutches of IS and later held that his compatriots have been murdered, can stick to his statement despite lack of evidence because the burden of proof is not on him. But that cannot be said of an elected government which is accountable to people. Governments must necessarily assume that those missing are alive until conclusive evidence proves otherwise.

It is no less a tragedy that this actually needs to be clarified.

The Malaysian government, for instance, has still not called off the search for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that had disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 with 239 people on board. It is inconceivable that there are any survivors but unless any concrete evidence is found, it is incumbent on the government to carry on with its efforts.

Consider, for argument's sake, that Swaraj takes Masih's words as gospel, abandons the search for missing Indians, declares them as "believed to be killed" and informs their families accordingly. It would have been easy for the government to wash its hands and shake off all responsibility. There was no need to move heaven and earth, liaison with foreign governments, international agencies and look for hope and confirmation amid a mountain of corpses that the terrorists had left behind.

However, that would have been dangerous, unethical and illegal. To declare "missing" nationals as "deceased" without verification and failing to observe due diligence in such a complex, sensitive issue would have been nothing less than dereliction of duty. The government would have failed its people and also the families who would have been denied closure. It would have also made itself vulnerable to criticism had there been any more survivors.

Speaking in the Lok Sabha last year, Swaraj had said: "There is no concrete evidence that the 39 Indians abducted from Mosul in Iraq have been killed…" and added that the government would continue its efforts to trace the Indians. "This file will not close till there is proof that the 39 Indians are dead. I will not commit the sin of declaring them dead without any evidence". She said she was in touch with the Iraq foreign minister on this issue.

The Opposition should have demanded to know whether the government had been scrupulous in its efforts to find the truth. It should have asked of the government to give a detailed account of its efforts. Instead, in an instance of shameful behaviour, the lawmakers not only failed to observe the decorum of the House but were found wanting even in paying respect to the deceased. In the snake pit of Indian politics, nothing is left untouched. Not even a grim tragedy.

Swaraj's attempts to deliver a statement on the deaths of the Indians in the Lower House was foiled amid loud protests by the Congress, leading to the Speaker calling for an adjournment.

In the end, the bodies were eventually located in a mound in Iraq's Badush. Forensic evidence has now proven conclusively that these were the mortal remains of the missing Indians. New Delhi had waited till the civilian government in Iraq with some help from the Martyr's Foundation exhumed the bodies from the site in Badush and took the remains to Baghdad to verify the DNA samples. The final results were conveyed to India on Monday night.

"Yesterday (On Monday), we got information that DNA samples of 38 people have matched and DNA of the 39th person has matched 70 percent," Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha. The news confirms the worst fears of the families of the deceased who have been swinging between hope and despair for four years.

Between apprehension and confirmation lay an agonising wait that was spent waiting to collect information from a war zone, seeking help from a civilian government after transfer of power, painstaking collection of proof involving multiple foreign countries, international agencies and states in India from where the samples were sourced. Four years might seem a long time, but not when one considers the odds that were involved.

In between, the minister had met the families of the deceased multiple times. At a news conference held later in the day, she clarified that she had to maintain protocol and inform the Parliament instead of speaking to the kin first because the House was in session. It is not always that the government carries out duties that are expected of it with dogged determination. The minister and her colleagues deserve a word of praise for their tireless effort in handling a tricky, sensitive and tragic issue. The departed won't return but the confirmation is expected to bring a sense of closure.

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Updated Date: Mar 20, 2018 20:18:09 IST

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