Mourning Mosul

Sushma Swaraj’s statements about 39 Indians found dead in Mosul left bad taste

By DANFES

There were a couple of questions that emerged after Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj delivered her statement about the deaths of 39 Indians who had gone missing in Iraq in 2014, on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on March 20. A few more popped up after she was done with her press conference later in the day.

But first, a bit of background: In June 2014, the Indian Embassy in Baghdad informed the Ministry of External Affairs that it had lost contact with 40 construction workers in Mosul when the Islamic State took over the city and occupied large chunks of territory.

Over the three intervening years, one of these workers, Harjit Masih, managed to escape the clutches of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Swaraj and the Government of India refused to declare them dead and focussed their energies on ascertaining their condition. Until March 20, that is, when Swaraj made the announcement in Parliament. Aggrieved members of the families of the deceased expressed their discontent at the way the matter was handled and an opportunistic Opposition was quick to latch on.

This brings us neatly to the questions raised by Swaraj’s statements over the course of the day.

First, there is the issue of information dissemination. In May 2015, the minister said, “I did not believe Harjit Masih’s claims that 39 Indians were killed:Sushma Swaraj on reports that Indian’s abducted in Iraq have been killed. 8 sources have confirmed to us that the Indian’s are alive, do not believe claims of Harjit Masih.”

A few months later, she stated, “Our sources suggest that the missing Indians in Iraq are alive and well. I assure the families.” In June 2016 she went on to add, “I have no confirmation or proof on Indians being killed in Iraq, infact we have been informed that they are alive.”

A report in The Indian Express details the various statements delivered by the government on the matter between 2014 and 2015, stating that the 39 were still alive. According to a source quoted in the report, “We were clear that we do not want to declare them dead, unless there was incontrovertible proof about their death. What would have happened if we had declared them dead, and even one person had appeared?” That’s probably why the stated position should have in fact been that the government did not know about the whereabouts and condition of the workers.

“It is a sin to declare a person dead without concrete evidence. I will not do this sin,” said Swaraj in Parliament last year, in what seemed to be a course-correction of sorts. Nevertheless, in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, the kin of the deceased were understandably upset and sought to know why the government hadn’t been upfront with them over the past three years. While it is admirable that the government refused to give up on locating the workers, it’s hard not to take the view that the families would have been better equipped to handle the eventual bad news if the government had simply stated all along that while the search is on and no options have been ruled out, the likelihood of good news appears bleak. After the fall of Mosul in July last year, the government had realised as much, as per the Indian Express report.

Second, there is the thorny matter of protocol and procedure. In her interaction with the press, Swaraj pointed out that protocol dictated that if any important incident occurs while Parliament is in session, details are first given to the MPs and everyone else is told later. “I had given my word on 27 July, 2017, that the day concrete evidence is found and if Parliament is in session, I would make the findings known there. And if Parliament isn’t in session, I would tell the entire country on Twitter,” she said.

Protocol is certainly important, but it’s not not unheard of — particularly for this government — to break from it when required. In this situation, and considering the way the hopes of the families of the deceased had been raised and crushed since 2014, it would have been prudent for the government to have notified the next of kin before going public with the information. Keeping in mind the trauma the 39 families are likely to have suffered over four years, a sensitive release of information may have helped set them on their way to some semblance of closure. Maybe ministry officials could have made contact with the families at the same time Swaraj was making her announcement.

That said, it’s perhaps for the best that this information was made public while Parliament was in session, because the less said about the cruelty and disrespect of families finding out via a tweet — after a protracted spell of suffering — that their relatives had perished, the better.

Third, the timing of the announcement is something that must be noted. In this regard, a look at this report is instructive. In 2017, when Mosul had been liberated, it took a month or so for the mass graves to be located. “A missive was sent to New Delhi, which contacted the state government to arrange DNA samples of family members of 39 missing Indians. The process was finally completed with the help of respective district magistrates in October-November 2017,” states the report. According to former CBI forensic expert doctor SC Mittal, who was also quoted in the report, “If the DNA sample of next of kin is available, it takes a couple of days to confirm the identity.”

Considering all this, it’s hard not to pull on that tinfoil hat and view the timing of the announcement as remarkably convenient. We will, of course, have to take the word of the government and Swaraj that the information was made known as soon as they received it. But it’s interesting that the announcement was made on the third day that the Opposition parties were trying (in vain, as it turned out) to push their no-confidence motions through. Whether intended or not, the announcement certainly had the effect of throwing the Lok Sabha into anarchy and forcing yet another early adjournment.

That the Opposition parties will not be able to pull together enough MPs to pull the BJP below the halfway mark (272) in the Lower House is indisputable — considering the party itself has 274 MPs. However, with the crucial Karnataka Assembly election right around the corner, even a symbolic win for the Opposition could boost Siddaramaiah’s chances of returning to power. The BJP will be mindful of this and putting off, if not outright preventing, a no-confidence motion by the Opposition certainly plays in its favour.

It remains to be seen how the issue plays out inside and outside Parliament, but for now, it can be stated that while the government’s efforts to track down the 39 workers were certainly commendable, the manner, form and timing of the announcement left a lot to be desired.