New Delhi: The 39 Indians reported missing in Iraq since June 2014 are dead, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj informed Parliament on Tuesday, triggering a storm of protests.
The Indians had been abducted by the Islamic State in Iraq nearly four years ago.
“I am saying this with a heavy heart that all those people who were abducted have been killed," Swaraj said. The minister said DNA samples collected from relatives of the missing had matched all but one of the remains found in a mass grave in near Mosul in northern Iraq. One body had a 70 percent DNA match and one Indian prisoner escaped.
Swaraj recalled that she had said last year that she would not “declare anyone dead without substantive proof."
“Today I have come to fulfil that commitment. ... I had said that closure will be done with full proof," she said in a suo moto statement in the Rajya Sabha. Last year, Swaraj told parliament that until evidence suggested otherwise, the Indian workers would be presumed alive.
Swaraj’s comments on Tuesday raised a storm of protests, with the opposition Congress blaming the government for giving false hope to the kin of those abducted. In the Rajya Sabha, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad demanded to know why the government had raised such hopes, while in the Lok Sabha, Swaraj was unable make her statement due to protests by members of parliament, including those of the Congress.
Speaking to reporters outside the parliament, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor criticized the government for “encouraging" the families of the 39 Indians kidnapped in Iraq to believe they were alive.
“My prayers for the families who have lost their near ones after being really encouraged by the government for four years to believe that these people were alive," Tharoor said. Swaraj also came in for flak for not informing the relatives of their loved ones’ deaths before the statement in parliament.
On her part, Swaraj slammed the Congress for blocking her attempts to make a statement in the Lok Sabha, describing the strategy as “cheap politics." At a press conference in New Delhi, she said the Congress had not raised any protests in parliament in recent days because it was in favour of other opposition parties tabling a no-confidence motion against the government. The motion could not be taken up on Tuesday due to the disruption.
“Today’s behaviour of the Congress is cheap politics. Will we do politics on death (of the 39 Indians)?" she said.
Defending the government, she said it had acted responsibly and only on receiving confirmed DNA evidence, did it announce the deaths of the missing. She said the government had raised the issue of the missing Indians with all its interlocutors in the Gulf region, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself bringing up the matter in bilateral meetings. The heads of governments of two countries had assured the government that the Indians were alive, she said.
“Before the liberation of Mosul, we were hopeful of the missing being alive. But after the liberation of the city, we did not get any information of the Indians being there. We also heard of mass graves in Mosul," she said. It was at this time that the government sought DNA samples from the relatives of the missing.
The remains were recovered from under a mound and they included long hair, shoes that were not of Iraqi make and IDs, which suggested that the remains were of the missing Indians. DNA testing had provided conclusive evidence, she added. Minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh will be flying to Iraq to bring back the bodies on a special flight, she added.
India had also sought help to locate the missing Indians from Iraq, Palestine and Oman besides other Gulf countries.
Swaraj said of the 40 Indians taken by the Islamic State from Mosul in Iraq, one escaped posing as a Muslim from Bangladesh.
According to Swaraj, the owner of the company for which the 40 Indians were working (along with some Bangladeshis), had warned all his employees to leave when the Islamic State started its campaign to overrun Mosul in June 2014.
While the Iraqi nationals working for the company left, the Indians and Bangladeshis stayed behind. This information was gleaned by V.K.Singh who was deputed to travel to Iraq and look for the missing Indians. Swaraj said Singh had met the owner of the company for which the missing Indians were working as well as a caterer who was in charge of their meals.
In her statement, Swaraj said one day when the group of Indians and Bangladeshis were going to have their dinner at the caterer’s place, they were spotted by the Islamic State who asked who they were.
When they were identified as Indians and Bangladeshis, they were told to move to a textile factory in Mosul. There, the group was separated into Indians and Bangladeshis and the latter were taken to Irbil. One of the 40 Indians managed to escape with the Bangladeshi group, the minister said.
On one of V.K. Singh’s subsequent visits, he was directed to Badush by local informants who also told him to look for the missing Indians under a mound.
“We requested the Iraqi government for deep penetration radars to search whether there were bodies under the mound," Swaraj said adding that when the bodies were found, India requested the Iraqi government to exhume them.
The mound that was excavated had contained exactly 39 bodies, she said.
“We requested for DNA tests to be done. For this, we collected samples from families and relatives from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal," Swaraj said adding that till now. Minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh will visit Iraq to bring back the bodies on a special flight.