By Taruni Kumar
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is facing criticism from all corners, especially political rivals, for her recent announcement of the death of 39 of 40 Indian construction workers who had been abducted by Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq in June 2014. The criticism draws from the story of the 40th of these men, Harjit Masih, who returned in 2014, claiming he’d escaped and the 39 others had been executed. The question why the Ministry of External Affairs continuously chose not to believe his testimony, and subsequent events only made the entire case murkier.
Masih returned to India over a month after being captured and claimed that all the other 39 had been shot in a desert area near Badosh, a village in northern Iraq. Swaraj, in her Rajya Sabha statement Tuesday, said “He was not willing to tell me how he escaped,” and added that she had concrete evidence that Masih lied. “Masih escaped along with Bangladeshis with the help of a caterer using a fake name, Ali. The details were revealed to me by Masih’s employer and the caterer who helped him,” she told the House.
Except here’s the thing: Masih said repeatedly that he, in fact, pretended to be a Bangladeshi named Ali to escape. The only difference is, this happened after the mass execution of the other Indians. So, where’s the lie Swaraj alleges? Then again, what did Swaraj gain from lying about the deaths of the Indians for all these years?
Masih’s story, which was first covered in depth by Fountain Ink, had him escaping in true movie style by diving to the ground as he and the other 39 Indians were lined up and shot at from behind. Over the years, he stuck to the story of his escape from the Islamic State and repeated it in light of the Tuesday’s revelations.
When this reporter spoke to him in 2015, for a story published in 2016 by The Quint, Masih said he was saved from the shooting because he dove down, another man’s body landed on top of him, and he stayed motionless for a period of time that he couldn’t recall. He said it could have been hours, and he was too afraid to move. When he finally stood up, the Islamic State members had left and he was surrounded by the bodies of his fellow workers. He added he was sure they were dead but didn’t stop to check. A reaction that a man who just survived an execution-style shooting can be excused for having.
His subsequent journey took many twists and turns till he finally reached Erbil, after escaping from an Iraqi army checkpoint where he and his fellow Bangladeshi workers (with whom he escaped) were stopped. By now, he claimed, he’d had two other run-ins with the Islamic State but wiggled out by calling himself Ali. Finally, after a week in Erbil, Indian government officials brought him back.
This is where it gets murkier. The Indian authorities kept Masih in “protective custody” for nearly a year: In Bangalore, Gurgaon and Noida. Only after that did he return to his family in Kala Afghana village in Gurdaspur, Punjab.
So why the need for this long custody of a man who’d just escaped a war zone? During which, he insisted, government and “agency” officials asked him not to tell the story of the executions. Now, the question: If Masih is lying, what does he have to gain?
And if, as Swaraj claimed, he escaped before the executions, how was he so sure that the others were shot in Badosh, where the bodies were found in a mass grave, exhumed and sent for DNA testing, according to the Indian government?
Swaraj claims she never gave any of the captured men’s families false hope, but since 2014, she met with them several times and the families insist she told them their abducted relatives were alive and well. Interviewing three of those families was an incredibly difficult task. I had to struggle against my own belief that their abducted sons, husbands and brothers were dead, and make sure I didn’t speak about them in the past tense.
However, their hope made me question my own worst-case assumptions. They seemed to have complete faith in Swaraj and repeatedly condemned Masih for lying about the murder of their loved ones. They continuously returned to the fact that Swaraj was meeting them and reassuring them about the survival of their relatives.
There is even a video of Swaraj claiming on 14 May, 2015, that she has six to eight reliable sources who confirmed the 39 are alive. For years, she insisted that the Indian government was doing its best to bring them home. Not its best to confirm whether they were dead or not. But now, the minister simply claims she could not have declared anybody dead without proof.
So how is it that she declared them alive, if there had been no proof of life received?
And what is it that the government hoped to gain if it has been, indeed, hiding the truth and lying to the men’s families?
The first thought that comes to mind is the fact that the abductions took place on 11 June, 2014, and according to Masih, the killings on 15 June. This was less than three weeks after Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister at a ceremony attended by the heads of all the SAARC countries – which was hailed as a marker of India’s new stronger foreign policy.
It would have been bad optics, perhaps, to admit Masih’s truth. But if this is the case, the 39 families of the victims were emotionally strung up for a cold political calculus. At worst, it was political strategy and at best, a major goof up by the ministry and the minister.
Here’s the final kicker: The families were still not informed before Swaraj made the announcement in Parliament. Despite Swaraj’s defense that she was only following protocol, this callousness goes beyond trying to avoid bad optics and giving false hope.
Co-published with Firstpost.