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MOSUL NEWS A BUNGLED AFFAIR

Announcing the deaths in Parliament nullified the goodwill the Centre had earned by engaging with the families of the missing Indians

For most terrorism analysts, the hope and optimism being expressed by Indian officials over the fate of 39 Indians who had gone missing in Iraq in 2014 and were believed to have been taken hostage by the Islamic State terrorists always seemed a little misplaced. Therefore, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj informed Parliament that the government had finally received confirmation that these people had been massacred by the Islamic State and buried in a mass grave, the news didn’t really come as a surprise.

What was surprising, however, was the manner in which Swaraj broke the news.

By informing Parliament and the rest of the country before the family members of the deceased were informed – they apparently learnt of the deaths from TV – the government made a grave error. This, in one fell swoop, nullified not only all efforts it had made and resources it had expended to trace the whereabouts of missing Indians, but also the goodwill it had earned by remaining engaged with the families of the missing Indians.

The reason that Swaraj gave for the error – she cited protocol and procedure that mandated her to first inform Parliament – was unconvincing. Sharing information with Parliament is different from making a policy statement in Parliament. As per parliamentary convention, tradition and protocol, the government is supposed to make any policy statement first before Parliament, especially when it is in session. There is no such requirement when it comes to sharing information with the House.

While the criticism of the government over the way it broke the news is entirely justified, the carping over the government’s refusal to give up hope on recovering the missing Indians is plain silly. If anything, the BJP-led NDA government deserves to be applauded for the way it has affected a paradigm change in how the Indian state pro-actively makes efforts to assist Indian citizens who are either stranded abroad or find themselves in some predicament (legal, economic or otherwise).

Ministry of external affairs officials have sometimes complained that the government embarrasses the country by even interceding on behalf of citizens who have been caught indulging in illegal or criminal activities abroad. But isn’t this also what Western countries do with their citizens who are caught on the wrong side of law? How come it is kosher for the Western world to do so and everyone admires them for the commitment they show towards their citizens, but it becomes embarrassing if the same thing is done by India for its citizens? Clearly, interceding on behalf of citizens isn’t an expression of approval or condonation of any crime or infraction committed by them; it is merely the responsibility and duty of the state to provide all possible assistance to them. And this responsibility has been discharged admirably well by the Modi government.

It is against this backdrop that the hope and optimism exuded by the government regarding the fate of the 39 missing Indians needs to be seen. Unlike journalists and analysts, governments do not enjoy the luxury of adopting a cavalier attitude and indulge in speculation over the fate of Indian citizens who have gone missing or are held hostage. Without solid evidence of the death of someone, the government is constrained, even obliged, to assume the person is alive and continue to make efforts to get him back. The government just cannot assume, much less declare, someone dead, without confirmation. Besides the legal and administrative issues involved, there is also a cultural angle that needs to be taken into account. In the culture we belong to, even though we might fear the worst, we continue to hope for the best and lift up the spirits of people by assuring them all will be well, and try to do everything possible to get a positive outcome. It is this attitude that has resulted in the rescue and recovery of many Indian hostages who were in caught in hopeless situations.

Alas, in the case of the 39 Indians abducted by the ISIS in Iraq things didn’t quite work out the way that the families and the government would have wanted. In hindsight, it is easy to accuse the government of exuding unrealistic optimism in the face of harsh ground realities that did not warrant any positivity. After all, given the butchery and savagery that the ISIS shamelessly revels in, it was improbable that they would spare the lives of Indians who were all either idolaters and/or infidels. The testimony of one of the Indians who escaped from the clutches of the ISIS and claimed to have seen his compatriots’ massacre only added to the sense of doom. What is more, unlike in the case of some of the Western hostages who were freed after a hefty ransom was paid by their governments, there was no ransom demand made for these Indians. There were also reports quoting Kurdish intelligence that the men had been buried in a mass grave.

And yet, there were reasons to not believe the worst. For one, there were questions about the testimony of the sole survivor. While he claimed to have witnessed the massacre, there were serious doubts whether he was actually an eyewitness. There was a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe these people were being used as slave labour and might have survived. Fuelling this hope were reports of sightings of the missing Indians being given by a variety of sources – tribal chiefs, Iraqi officials, other intermediaries – that the government was tapping to get some information about their whereabouts. As it turns out, these guys were merrily stringing along the Indian government and fattening themselves on money being spent to gain information. In retrospect, the government can be blamed for being naïve and trusting, and not demanding proof of life, but given the circumstances that existed, there were not a whole lot of options available.

There were clear limits to what the government could do in this particular case. After all, it wasn’t as though the government was dealing with another state and could have used the levers and options that are normally used to intercede on behalf of its citizens. Even if the ISIS was a terrorist group operating under the patronage of a state, some lines of communication could have been opened. In fact, efforts were made to use the offices of some of the middle-eastern states believed to have some leverage or links with the ISIS, but they all proved useless. With no real access to the ISIS, all the government could do was wait and keep trying to get some information about the missing people, which is precisely what it did.

The mistakes made by the government aside, there is also some blame that must rest on the shoulders of some Indians who find themselves in trouble in hotspots around the world. While in the case of the 39 Indians this isn’t exactly the case because despite Iraq being in turmoil, the blitzkrieg of the ISIS and their capture of Mosul did take everyone by surprise. But there have been others who have travelled to places like interiors of Afghanistan, or countries like Yemen despite government advisories counselling people to avoid travel to these places. There have been instances where people have demonstrated against the government for preventing their travel to such hotspots. Some of these people circumvent travel restrictions by taking circuitous routes to the hotspots.

And yet, despite flagrantly ignoring government advisories either because they are desperate for the money or out of sheer greed (in some cases it is also because people are misled by promises of a job in a safe place but end up being deployed in the danger zones), there is an expectation from the government to come to their rescue at public expense. Clearly, the sense of entitlement is not limited to only the rich and the privileged but also extends to others in India. While this is all very well, the simple fact of the matter is that there are limits to what the government can do in rescuing its citizens especially in places where it has no reach or influence.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.