The 39 are alive, no dead!

Mistakes in Mosul

By Dr D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

The tragic death of Indian workers in Mosul, Iraq was shrouded in confusion and miscommunication. The uncertainty of the status of the workers, fuelled by false hope of them being alive, dangled by the MEA, eventually inflicted more pain to the families than perhaps their death. How one whished that the government should have handled it better than it did, the accolades by the Prime Minister to two Ministers of External Affairs, notwithstanding.
Incomprehensibly, the government refused to believe the lone survivor, Harjit Masih, who claimed to have witnessed the shooting of Indian workers in Bundus desert in Iraq. Worse, the government became hostile to him. Intelligence agencies slapped cases on him, he was put behind bars on one pretext or the other. Weirder was that Masih was charged with kidnapping of the workers and misleading the government of their whereabouts. A survivor of shooting that killed 39 people was hounded and harassed.
What are the facts which are now in public knowledge given out by the government itself? In 2014, 39 construction workers — 27 from Punjab, the rest from Himachal, Bengal and Bihar were held hostage by the ISIS militants. According to the eye-witness, the lone survivor, they were executed near Budus desert. The survivor, miraculously escaped, disguised himself as Ali, and with the help of a caterer, he smuggled himself out of the country along with Bangladeshis and reached India.
He met the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and narrated the story. She rejected it as a “cock and bull story”. She based her denial on the incredulous account of Masih’s escape from the clutches of ISIS militants. Then the saga of denial, speculation expectation by the families began for years. It took four long years for the MEA to confirm the death of the workers. The pain and agony of the kith and kin of the victims are beyond description.
Is it insensitivity of the government, inefficiency or over-confidence in their own assertion? The jury is out on this. But suffice it to say that MEA simply mishandled it. To find out if the workers were alive or not was not a task the Modi government could not handle. But, evidently, it could not. It claimed to have sent a senior diplomat, Suresh Reddy who had worked in the area in order to beef up the Embassy in Iraq. The government and MEA sent the Minister himself, a former General of Indian Army to ascertain the truth. The government assured the waiting and wailing family members that it will check with the visiting foreign minister of Iraq, on the fate of Indian workers. All their attempts ended in smoke.
Another version of the event is that the intelligence agencies knew it all along that the workers were killed. Why did the government keep the families and the country in the dark for so long? Why did it announce seven times since 2014, that the 39 Indians were safe, alive, and were provided basic amenities and food? The entire world knew the workers were not alive.
When some of the Indian media went to Mosul, in July 2017 and reported that there was no trace of the Indians, and they were dead, Swaraj rejected it. The Parliamentarians had raised questions on why government was not admitting that they were dead. The only defense of the government was technical, which is, without concrete evidence it was not in a position to confirm their death.
The counter question is if the government did not have concrete evidence to confirm their death, what evidence they possessed to assure the families that they were alive. The government first said that 39 Indians were sheltering in a church in Mosul, then it said they were put in a jail in Bundus desert until it was found that the same jail was flattened to ground by the insurgents.
Without doubt, the MEA and the government of India misled the country on the death of the workers! As is rightly demanded, the MEA owes at least an apology to the grieving families. The families who met Swaraj 11 to 12 times were assured that the workers were alive. She could have simply said, we do not have concrete evidence either way. Let us hope for the best.
But as a Minister of her experience and status when she said to these hapless family members, they really believed that they were alive. What a shock they were given after four years of assurance that their relatives were alive. One family member echoed such a simple procedure, “if your (government) sources were not sure, they should not have been saying they were alive. Look what has happened to us now. The government should have told us they have no authentic information about missing Indians rather than making false statements.”
The family members and many observers feel ‘it is the biggest failure by the government’. When the government could save the nurses from Kerala, why it completely failed in saving the other Indians? It was anger seething out of years of being kept in the dark.
What are the lessons from this pathetic episode? How not to repeat the mistakes we made in Mosul and save us such painful experience in the future. Recall, Prime Minister Modi said, “no stone was unturned” in trying to trace and bring back the kidnapped Indians. He also added that the government remains fully committed towards the safety of Indians living abroad. These now sound like tall talks, the style associated with this government.
Admittedly, the Indians who went for jobs or higher wages, as many Indians do, were caught in heavy cross-fire between the Iraqi army and the Islamic State. The government could not do much about it. The risk was known. But, what the government could have certainly managed better was that accurate and authentic information about the workers could be secured and shared with the country. The MEA was simply speculating. With all its machinery, and NaMo’s high-energy diplomacy, this was not too much to expect. All the three ministers in MEA make a “formidable” team. So, the failure is inexplicable.
The other side of our democracy, the other player is the Opposition. Sadly, they too have failed in holding the government to account. In fact, the role of Opposition in our country, whether led by Congress now or BJP earlier, is to disrupt, stall, and paralyse the functioning of Parliament. At best a nuisance value, not effectively making the government accountable, by quality, informed debates, discussions and engagement.
I have long held that the efficacy of foreign policy is a function of a healthy democracy, robust economy and an informed and vigilant citizenry, backed by a vibrant media. The Mosul mess well testifies this dictum of our foreign policy and exposes the gaps. —INFA