There is a saying in Malayalam, enthu koduthalum aasa kodukkaruthu (Give anything but not hope). Betrayal is something which nobody can accept. In the case of the families of 39 people, who were killed in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS), that is precisely what happened. They were given the false hope that their dear ones were alive and they could one day return home.
Common sense suggested that they would have been killed. Let’s recall how the incident happened. Those were the days when the IS was easily capturing territory in Syria and Iraq. It even appeared that neither Syria nor Iraq would be able to resist the IS which was getting newer and newer recruits from even developed countries in the West.
The IS had emerged as a ruthless outfit which did not respect even the Islamic tenets. It had its own rules and modus operandi which the civilised world had difficulty in reconciling itself to. It was an out and out terrorist organisation which would release videos of persons being decapitated by its hooded operatives. Any woman who fell into their hands was kept as a war prize and treated as a fair game by the sex-hungry marauders.
Anyone who stood in their way, whether Muslim or Christian, was shot or decapitated. Their activities would ordinarily have outraged humanity but they were precisely the reasons that helped the IS find recruits from even the Western world. The heavily-indoctrinated youth saw manliness in the killings of the innocents and they believed that it was the way to re-establish the Caliphate that the British had ended in the early part of the 20th century.
The world had every reason to believe that it was indeed difficult to resist the IS which, with the fall of town after town in Syria and Iraq, had gained access to oil and wealth. It could tax the people, make them slaves and strengthen its resources to continue the war. The IS believed that anything and everything, including mass rape, was fair in the war.
When Mosul, situated on the banks of the Tigris, the second largest city in Iraq after the capital Baghdad, fell into the hands of the IS, the whole world could feel the tremors. It knew that it would not take long for the IS to capture Baghdad. And if Baghdad fell, it would be easier to venture into Saudi Arabia and reach Riyadh. It could even expect support from a section of the Saudis who were never enamoured of a family ruling the richest Islamic state.
Small wonder that the Indians, engaged as workers, in Iraq panicked and fled the country. They knew that they had no chance of survival in Iraq once the IS conquered the territory. Alas, the 39 men from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Bihar could not escape. What’s worse, they fell into the hands of the IS. Their fate was sealed as the government did not usually take much interest in such cases.
Take the case of the two Italian marines who were caught by the Kerala Police for killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast. They were ordinary Italians with no connection to the rulers there. Far from leaving them to their fate, the Italian Embassy in India did everything possible to save them. Italy engaged the best lawyers to defend them. It virtually posted a senior diplomat in Kochi to take care of their needs.
When the court released the two on bail, they were allowed to stay inside the Italian Embassy at Chanakyapuri. During the elections in 2014, Narendra Modi and Co. accused the Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, who was born as an Italian, of trying to save the duo. The fact was that neither she nor the Kerala Government, led at that time by Congress leader Oommen Chandy, did anything to save them. They took the stand that the law would take its own course.
Finally, it was the Modi government which allowed the marines to leave India. Today they lead a quiet life in Italy with their own family members. What is quite discernible in all this is the extent to which the Italian government went to save its countrymen. When an American intelligence person masquerading as a diplomat was caught in Pakistan, the US did everything possible to bring him back to America.
Other countries consider their citizens as their wealth. India has a different approach. A video which has gone viral in the social media shows a police officer standing behind Narendra Modi suffering from a heart attack and falling down. He is taken out by his colleagues. They could not save him as the attack was fatal. However, Modi did not stop his speech. He continued boasting about how the number of universities in Gujarat tripled or quadrupled since he came to power.
There is another video which shows Pope Francis leaving his motorcade to take care of a Chilean policewoman who fell off her horse. He returned to his vehicle only after ensuring that she received first aid, was taken to the hospital and he could give her a kiss and say a word of prayer. The contrast is too visible for anyone to ignore.
Ask any ordinary Indian in the Gulf who had to go to the Indian Embassy to seek some consular help about the way he was treated by the booted, suited diplomat, you would know how Indian expatriates are treated. Of course, there are some exceptionally devoted Embassy staff who would go out of the way to help fellow Indians. In the case of the 39 who were caught by the IS, they were contract employees of some American companies. It was foolish to expect the companies to do much to save them.
The IS had considerable expertise in extracting ransom from those kidnapped by it. In the case of all Islamists, nothing matters more than money. Take the case of the Salesian priest, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who remained in the custody of the terrorists in Yemen. It is clear that money changed hands before he was released, though no details are available in the public domain.
One will have to wait for a disclosure in the future about the kind of money paid to secure his release. There were many actors in the play like the Vatican and the ruler of Muscat. Even the best-kept secret like how Naxalite Varghese was killed in Kerala in the seventies eventually comes out.
In the case of the 39 Indians, they could not have expected anyone to pay the ransom the IS would have demanded. The IS was not an organisation that stood for secularism. In fact, it believed in its own version of Islam under which everyone in the world had the freedom to accept their version of faith and become a faithful of the Caliph or embrace death. Death was inevitable under the circumstances.
One did not have to be a Sherlock Holmes to come to this conclusion. Alas, common sense is not as common as it is presumed to be! Nobody could answer the question why the IS should look after the captives, feed them and secure them when it was not sure that it would be compensated to do so. And when the IS came under heavy fire from the skies and it could not hold on to Mosul which the Iraqis re-captured, it could have thought of only a scorched earth policy. And that meant killing them.
That is precisely what happened. The IS killed the 39 and buried them in as clumsily a manner as possible. Fortunately, for India, one of the captives, a Punjabi Christian, who suffered a bullet injury, pretended to be dead, managed to escape and reach India. He gave his first-hand account to the government but he was not believed. Was he not trusted because he was a poor man?
True, he was not like Nirav Modi who could rub shoulders with Modi at Davos, even as he was planning to become invisible or Vijay Mallya for whom both Congress and BJP MLAs would competitively vote in the Rajya Sabha election. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj took the atrocious stand that he was not dependable. It was the same foreign minister who trusted a fugitive Modi and facilitated his travel outside of England.
Like the drowning man who clutches at a straw in the belief that it would save him, the poor families of the 39 believed in Swaraj’s claim that they were alive as the government had multiple sources to believe. The government did nothing to save them, let alone verify the truth.
Finally, it was a Foundation in Iraq which used satellite imagery to detect the mass grave and exhume the bodies. The forensic experts in Iraq were sure that they were shot at least one year ago. They could infer the time of death by assessing the state of decomposition of the body. The metallic bangle the Sikhs wear was a giveaway about their identity. True, India also helped the Iraqi Foundation to identify them using "DNA technology".
The families were outraged that they were not taken into confidence when the government realised that the 39 workers were no longer alive. Swaraj gave an astounding explanation to justify the lapse on her part. She said that she was duty-bound to inform Parliament first. Where in the statute is written that such news has to be given first to Parliament?
Why, then, was the government reluctant to disclose the details of the Rafael deal in Parliament? Any sensitive and sensible government would have taken the families into confidence and not kept them in the dark. Now, why did the government behave in the manner it behaved? All the 39 were poor and their families did not have the clout to be heard in the corridors of power in Delhi, Chandigarh, Shimla or Patna.
Recall how the AB Vajpayee government behaved when an Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked and the passengers were held hostage by the Taliban. The government not only accepted all their demands but it also deputed a senior minister to accompany the terrorist, who was post-haste released, right up to Kandahar in a government plane. Why? Because the relatives of the passengers created a ruckus in Delhi in which the media, too, played its part.
In the same year a larger number of nurses, mostly from Kerala, were held hostage at a hospital in Iraq. Both the Central and Kerala governments played a role in the release and return of the nurses. However, during the recent election campaign in Meghalaya, the Prime Minister described how his government brought back the “Christian” nurses. His emphasis was on the religious identity of the nurses in his bid to woo the voters in Meghalaya.
The fact is that nobody saw the nurses as Christian, Hindu or Muslim, until Modi gave a twist to it. For Parliament, the government and the rest of the world, what matters is the number of those shot in Iraq. But for the families of the 39, timely information was of the essence.
In all religious traditions, deep reverence is shown to the body. Similarly, in all democratic societies, the government does not mind spending any sum of money to send the bodies of people to their relatives so that they can cremate or bury them, as is the case. Only an ultra-nationalist government like the Modi government would think of sending a soldier’s body in a card board box tied together with a piece of cloth.
Last year, the son of one of my friends was burnt alive in Africa when the building in which he lived caught fire. The body was in a bad shape but it was brought to Delhi so that a proper funeral could take place. Also, confirmation of death is necessary for settlement of insurance claims and to complete other formalities.
It is a pity that the Modi government which brought back “Christian nurses” did not trust a Christian eyewitness who saw the IS cowards lining up the 39 Indians and killing them. Otherwise, the families would not have been waiting in vain for the good news of the return of their bread-earners. The least that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj should do to them is to tender an unconditional apology.
(Published on 26th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 13)