All 39 Indians who went missing in war-torn Iraq in June 2014 were confirmed dead by the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Tuesday. The identity of 38 of the Indian nationals, earlier reported missing, was confirmed through DNA tests while a 70 percent match has been established for the last body.
Twenty-seven of the victims hailed from Punjab, four from Himachal Pradesh, six from Bihar and two from West Bengal. The revelation made in Parliament by Swaraj, unraveled a day of bizarre politicking in the face of the tragedy.
While the Congress accused the government of heartlessly handling a sensitive matter, Swaraj flayed the Opposition party for leading the protests in Lower House while she was making the condolence speech on such a grave matter. But amid all remained the plight of the victims' families, who learnt of the death of their loved ones abruptly through TV channels, after a long three-year wait.
The day's developments:
In her speech in Rajya Sabha, Swaraj said that the Indians were first kept at a textile factory in Mosul where Bangladeshi workers were separated and sent to the city of Erbil. Originally, 40 Indians were abducted by the Islamic but one of them, a man named Harjit Masih, managed to escaped. When next day, a count of Indians found one of them missing, they all were moved to a prison in Badosh, she told the Upper House.
In Lok Sabha, however, Swaraj's speech was interrupted by agitated members protesting in the Well due to various issues. Swaraj blamed Congress and said she was forced to conduct a press conference as the MPs in Lower House did not allow her to speak on such a grave matter.
Swaraj said that she had received assurances from the agitating members that they won't disrupt her speech, but Congress members started creating ruckus out of nowhere. The minister later held a press conference.
How did India retrace its dead?
Facing a volley of questions after she first confirmed the death of Indian nationals in Iraq at a press conference, Swaraj reconstructed the procedure undertaken by her ministry to trace the missing. She said that within a day after the fall of Mosul, she sent her deputy General (retd) VK Singh to Iraq to ascertain the fate of missing Indians. Singh visited Iraq three times after Mosul was freed, while Swaraj also made an incognito visit to Turkey.
She said that till Mosul was freed in July last year from the Islamic State, the government was attempting to ascertain if these 39 people were alive. But, she said after Mosul was freed and there was no word from these workers for 15 to 20 days, even more efforts were put in to trace them. "It was then that we decided to start looking among the dead and requested family members for DNA samples to ascertain whether Indians were buried amid the lakhs of bodies being exhumed from the mass graves."
She said that it was only later that the Martyrs Foundation informed about a mound being found in Mosul with the possibility of bodies being buried there.
"We sought a deep penetration radar of the mound and when it was confirmed that there were bodies buried there, we had them exhumed," Swaraj said. She said that when exactly 39 bodies were found, it became more or less clear these were those of the missing Indians. The bodies, which were exhumed with help from Iraqi authorities, were then sent to Baghdad for DNA testing.
"Bodies with long hair and karas on arms showed that these were Sikh people," she said. Stating that the Martyrs Foundation does not confirm any person's death till 100 percent identification has been done through DNA samples, she said that it was on Monday that reports came of 100 percent identification of 38 of the bodies.
Singh said that it may take up to 10 days to bring back the bodies as there will be legal processes involved. The mortal remains will be brought back to India on a special plane which will land either in Amritsar or Jalandhar in Punjab, and handed over to their relatives.
Swaraj did not give a direct reply to the volley of questions on when the Indians were killed, saying it was irrelevant as the bodies could have been recovered only after Mosul was liberated from the Islamic State.
'Why did she keep saying they were alive?'
The family of Gobinder Singh, one of the 39 victims, found themselves a shattered lot. Despite his disappearance years ago, they were hopeful that, one day, he would walk through the entrance of their residence in Murar village in Kapurthala district. Gobinder is survived by a 19-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter.
The family came to know about Gobinder's death from news channels. "We have not received yet received any call from the Union ministry about the confirmation of death of 39 Indians," said Davinder, Gobinder's younger brother. "We met the Union minister 12 times but every time we were told the 39 Indians were alive," the family claimed.
The financial position of the family is not good. Gobinder's son Amandeep had to leave school and now works in a local factory to support the family, said Davinder.
Other affected families, who all are from poor backgrounds, also lost their breadwinners and the hope of a loved one's return in one moment as they watched media channels go into a frenzy after Swaraj's speech in Rajya Sabha, or had relatives and friends telephone them to give the tragic news. And now with hopes suddenly dashed, anger seethed out.
Gurpinder Kaur, the sister of Manjinder Singh, was angry and shocked at the way the victim' relatives received the news: Through national TV television or through the incessant calls of media persons as the list of names of the deceased was released.
"Why did she keep saying they're alive and she'll bring them back? She could've said she'll bring them back only if they're alive. I want to see DNA reports. We'll get answers only after meeting her," Gurpinder said. "We should have been contacted as soon as they received the information. Had that been done it would not have been such a huge blow. We feel betrayed from all sides," she added.
Sarwan Singh, whose 31-year-old brother Nishan was among those killed, looked dejected. "What do we say now?" he wondered. "The government kept us in the dark all these years. Now, after four years, they are making such a shocking statement."
Sarwan, who belongs to Amritsar, said his family met Swaraj 11 to 12 times. "We were told that as per their sources, the missing Indians are alive. They have been saying that Harjit Masih, the lone survivor, is a liar. If your sources have been saying they were alive, what happened so suddenly? The government should have told us they have no information about missing Indians rather than making false statements."
Congress, BJP trade barbs
Amid allegations and counter allegations, Swaraj claimed that she was duty-bound to inform the Parliament first as the House was in Session, even as the Congress claimed that the decision to finally acknowledge the truth was taken in haste as the Martyrs Foundation decided to hold a press conference.
"Modi government has crossed all limits of insensitivity. When whole world was saying they have died, the Indian government assured the country and the kin seven times that they are alive. The question is why did the Modi government mislead the nation and the family members of those Indians kidnapped by Islamic State?" Randeep Surjewala asked, as he accused Swaraj of playing politics.
LIVE: On Modi Governments statement in Parliament today on declaring ‘39 Indians Kidnapped in Iraq’ as dead. https://t.co/vNHjA9eS7F
— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) March 20, 2018
"Today, Martyrs Foundation announced they will hold media briefing on the issue, so as a result the government panicked and announced the news before them," he added. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah also criticised the government for its "heartlessness":
Nothing Govt of India says can make up for the sheer heartlessness displayed today. Using Parliament as an excuse for the families of 39 dead Indians having to learn of their heartbreaking loss from TV channels is unpardonable. — Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) March 20, 2018
However, defending her move, Swaraj said she followed parliamentary procedures and claimed that she wanted to be absolutely sure before she declared the missing people dead.
In an indirect dig at the Congress, she said there were governments that would interpret missing persons as "believed to be killed" but she wanted to rule out any doubts before she went public.
"I never gave any false hope to anyone. I was not involved in any falsehood," she said, referring to her statements in Parliament in 2014 and 2017.
"I very clearly said that I will declare them dead if I get conclusive proof. I kept my word. I will get my closure when the families receive the bodies," the minister added. India was probably the first country which managed to bring back all the bodies of its citizens from war-torn Iraq, she stated.
'They were made to kneel, and were shot dead,' lone survivor relays account
Masih, the lone survivor who had managed to flee the Islamic State, said he had been maintaining for the last three years that all the other Indians had been killed. He said they had all been held for a number of days, then taken outside and ordered to kneel. Then, the militants opened fire.
"They were killed in front of my eyes,'' he told reporters. Masih also alleged that the government was harassing him by registering a case of human trafficking, which he wanted withdrawn. He also claimed that the government agencies kept him in custody for a year in Delhi, Bangalore and Gurgaon when he returned to India.
"The government told me not to tell anyone that they (other Indians) were dead. They asked me to say that I did not know about them and that I had run away," he told media.
Thousands of Indians living in Iraq fled the country in 2014 after Islamic State started making inroads. However, as many as 40 Indians were abducted by the Islamic State in June 2014 and the Indian High Commission later confirmed losing touch with those lost. Later, Masih from Gurdaspur managed to escape after posing as a Muslim from Bangladesh.
He came back and claimed that all 39 Indian nationals who were taken hostage on 11 June, 2014 in Mosul town had been killed. However, the external affairs ministry maintained that his was a "cock and bull story" and that they had no confirmation over the fate of the missing Indians. The abducted workers, most from northern India, had been employed by a constructfion company operating near Mosul when militants captured wide swaths of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Mar 20, 2018 22:03 PM