The whereabouts of 39 Indians who were working in the war-torn Iraqi city Mosul have been unknown for three years now. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made a statement in Lok Sabha on Wednesday, saying that “It is a sin to declare a person dead without concrete evidence. I will not do this sin”. Ms. Swaraj's statement comes two days after she spoke to Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari on the issue.
Here is the lowdown:
Thousands of Indians living in Iraq fled the country during 2014 as the Islamic State advanced. In the second week of June 2014, Indian officials in Baghdad said they had lost contact with 40 construction labourers, many of them from Punjab, who had been working on a government construction project in Mosul. They believed the Indians were abducted by the IS.
The Indian Embassy and the external affairs ministry have been using various diplomatic channels to establish contact with the abductors as well as the abductees. They are also in touch with the families of the abductees. But the government has never been in direct negotiation over the release of the men and has not confirmed if they have any concrete evidence they are alive.
The return of an abductee
A few days after the abduction, IS released about 55 Bangladeshi workers. One Indian, Harjit Masih, managed to flee making use of this opportunity. Masih claimed all the 39 men, barring him, were executed by the terrorists shortly after they were captured. However, the government is not willing to buy Masih's claim. Ms. Swaraj said she has "six other sources" telling her that the Indians are still alive.
In early July, Ms. Swaraj said her junior minister, Gen. (Retd.) V.K. Singh, during his recent visit to Iraq, got information that the abducted Indians were at the Badush prison in Iraq. Quoting intelligence inputs, the Minister said the Indians were made to work in farms by the IS. They were captured and later lodged in Badush prison. "This was the last time we heard about them," Ms. Swaraj said.
But when the offensive between Iraqi forces and Islamic State reached its peak last month, the Badush prison was completely destroyed. The Iraq government has declared that the prison has no inmates.
During his visit to India, Mr. al-Jafari said his country was not sure if the Indians "are dead or alive". "We are also concerned... we are doing our best," he said. The Islamic State has so far not claimed any responsibility for the abduction, nor have they claimed to have killed the Indians.
Are they alive?
Unfortunately, there is no certain answer to this question. As Ms. Swaraj mentioned in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, no credible evidence such as blood spillage, bodies or DNA samples to prove that the Indians are indeed dead. The External Affairs Ministry has classified them as "missing persons" and continues its search efforts.