Didn’t Do Enough To Save The 39!

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Forty-six Indian nurses were rescued from the Islamic State in Tikrit. Why not the 39 labourers?

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)

The killing of 39 Indian labourers in Mosul, Iraq, by the Islamic State (IS) sometime between June 2014, when the town fell to the terrorist group, and July 2017, when it was wrested by the Iraqi armed forces, will remain a painful memory, not just for the families of the dead but for the country as a whole. At least, it should be so. It is quite possible that the flood of everyday news would sweep it away from our consciousness, not leaving any time for pausing, pondering and grieving.

It is an unfortunate fact that avoidable and unnecessary death of ordinary people leaves most of us unaffected. The deaths occur all the time, in road and train accidents, in stampedes in temples on festive occasions, in communal and caste clashes, in floods and quakes. These deaths are so frequent that our senses have become numb, and we are almost left with no feelings.

It is, however, necessary to pull ourselves up and think of the unfortunate 39 to understand the agony of the families who believed for at least three years that they were alive for no other reason than that there is confirmation of their death. The confirmation came this week, and it was left to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to make the statement in Rajya Sabha and explain it all at a press conference.

The general opinion is that Ms Swaraj did what she had to do, and it would be unfair and illogical to lay the blame either at the door of the ministry or that of the government. It was absolutely true, as Swaraj had said, that she could not have declared them dead until that was confirmed. And the moment the information came in, she made the announcement.

But the loopholes in the government’s handling of the issue remain, and they were quite glaring loopholes at that. It appears that the government relied on the government sources in the region, including Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, that the 39 Indians held by the IS could be safe. Abbas was surely not telling a lie, and Swaraj and the Indian government were not too wrong in believing Abbas and others. But somewhere, intelligence gathering was not what it could have been.

The 46 Indian nurses who were captured by the IS in Tikrit in 2014 were released after hectic and feverish informal contacts and negotiations. There is a clear difference in how the capture of the nurses in Tirkit was handled, and news of the capture of the 39 workers. The difference was that the moment news came of the capture of Tikrit and of the captive nurses, efforts were on to get them out. There were anxious moments, and there was no assurance about the safety of the nurses until they were released. It is understandable that Swaraj’s confidence that the 39 labourers could be alive was based on her experience with the rescue operation of the nurses.

In the case of the 46 nurses, the Kerala state government along with the Central government constantly monitored the situation and kept the channels of communication active. It did not happen in the case of the 39 workers. There were no political leaders from Punjab who kept the pressure on the state and central governments to get the workers back. It looked like the workers were left to fend for themselves in the extreme situation.

The IS, a terrorist organisation was willing to do business with the outsiders. There were people in Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, even Saudi Arabia, who had lines of communication with the IS leaders.

Remember that the IS did not just execute people, especially the Westerners, but it also made it a point to publicise these. The IS was seeking global attention through its horrendous acts. Why was there then no hint of what they wanted to do with the Indian workers?

What happened to these 39 workers remains an incomplete story. Why did not the IS see them as a bargaining chip? The version of Bangladeshi worker Harjit about the killing of the Indian worker when he fled does not sound true. The workers were not killed in 2014

The window of opportunity, if there was one, lay between June 2014, when Mosul fell to the IS, and sometime in 2016. The Iraqi construction company needs to be probed for further information. It is necessary to reconstruct the details to establish the chain of events.

The contradiction is this: the IS did not kill the non-Muslim Indian nurses in Tikrit. Why did they then kill the 39 Indian labourers who must have declared that they were not Muslims, and spared Harjit Masih? Would the IS killers have spared him if he had said that he was a Muslim and an Indian?

It appears that the IS in Mosul killed the 39 Indian labourers because there was nothing to be gotten out of them in terms of ransom. The local agencies, including the employer of these workers, failed them. The families did not have any clout. The Punjab government was not too bothered. The Union government did what it could, but it did not seem to go out of the way to get back the men.

It shows that we in India do not value the lives of our compatriots, especially if they are poor.

We are unforgivably insensitive.

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