“We had been saying that we neither have the evidence of them being alive nor the evidence of them being dead. We maintained this in 2014 and 2017. We did not keep anyone in dark. We gave no false hopes to anyone” said External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj when faced with criticism about raising false hopes over the past four years that the 39 missing Indians in Iraq were alive and safe. Did the government maintain a non-committal stand about the 39 missing Indians all these years? Did they raise no false hopes?

The statements made by the EAM have to be looked at in the context of the eye witness account of the lone survivor, Harjit Masih, who had claimed that the remaining 39 were shot dead within days of being abducted. It is understandable that the government does not want to confirm the deaths without concrete evidence but did the government reassure the families that their loved ones were safe, when in fact there was no concrete evidence to indicate that either.

According to Harjit Masih, he and 39 others were kidnapped on June 11th 2014. Four days later they were asked to kneel down and shot by the militants. Masih managed to survive and escape and has maintained since then that there were no other survivors.

Let us look at the timeline of important events and the statements made by External Affairs Minister over the last four years.

June 2014

On June 10th, ISIS insurgents seized control of the northern city of Mosul. There was wide scale panic with reports of killing and abduction of foreigners. Evacuation of Indians in the conflict zone started soon thereafter. On June 18th, Amid evacuation of Indians from crisis-hit Iraq, news broke about 40 Indian construction workers missing and possibly abducted in Mosul, Iraq by suspected ISIS rebels.

External Affairs Ministry confirmed in a media briefing that 40 Indians who had gone missing in Iraq had been kidnapped. In a media briefing, MEA spokesperson said that “We have been informed by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry that they also have been able to determine the location where these abducted Indian nationals are being held captive with workers of a few other nationalities.” A week later on June 25th, in another media briefing, the MEA spokesperson confirmed that “they remain in captivity but have not been hurt or harmed.”

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj met with the family members of the missing Indians on several occasions to reassure them.

Aug 2014

Nov 2014

Five months from the date of abduction, MEA confirmed that the kidnapped Indians “remained in captivity”.

Sushma Swaraj made a statement in Rajya Sabha about the 39 missing Indians. Based on her sources, she refuted the stories in the media about the claims of Harjit Masih and the some Bangladeshi nationals interviewed by the media.

May 2015

Around mid-May 2015 when the claims of Harjit Masih about the others being dead surfaced in the media, Sushma Swaraj reacted to his statement saying she does not believe him as she has eight sources that have confirmed to her that the Indian’s were alive.

Sushma Swaraj reiterated her statement two weeks late saying that the abducted Indians are alive

Sept 2015

EAM Sushma Swaraj once again reassured the families that the missing Indians in Iraq were “alive and well”.

June, 2016

EAM once again stated that she had no proof of Indians being killed in Iraq and had information that they were alive.

July 2017

In July 2017 came the good news that Mosul was liberated from ISIS. This raised hopes of finding the missing men and Minister of State for External Affairs General VK Singh traveled to Erbil. Sushma Swaraj informed the distraught family members that the missing Indians are most probably in a jail in Badush.

This news was contradicted by Wion’s correspondent who stated that the Badush jail was already destroyed. It was also disputed by India Today team that visited Mosul.

It is interesting to note that while the Indian authorities were raising hopes about the missing Indians being alive, the Iraqi counterparts were more guarded in their communication. The Iraq’s ambassador to India was clear that he hoped for the best but he has no information on this. Iraqi Foreign minister who visited India initially told the media that they don’t know for sure but made a contradictory statement in his address later that evening.

On July 25th Sushma Swaraj made a statement in parliament where she reiterated that Iraq has never said that the 39 missing Indians are dead.

Oct 2017: Family members were asked to give DNA tests

March 20th, 2018: The 39 missing Indians were declared dead.

There is no doubt that the minister had the best interests of the families in mind. A glance through the Ministry’s twitter timeline shows innumerable occasions when she met the families to reassure them. There is however a fine line between ‘reassuring that the government was doing its best’ and ‘raising false hopes’. Just like the minister insisted that she had no concrete proof that the missing Indians were dead, other than statements of unnamed “sources”, there was no proof that they were alive either. There was no conclusive information about them being dead or alive and this could have been stated clearly while continuing with the efforts to trace the missing Indians. Today, statement after statement of grieving family members stands witness to how they were led to believe that their loved ones were alive and well.

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