The government’s announcement that the remains of 39 Indian workers , kidnapped four years ago by the Islamic State, have been found near Mosul in Iraq, has brought a painful closure to the episode. According to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, remains found in a mass grave have been matched conclusively with DNA samples for all but one of the men declared missing almost four years ago. Part of a group of construction labourers held by the IS shortly after the fall of Mosul in June 2014, they had last contacted their families in the middle of that month and said they were being held in a basement while fighting raged outside. Since then, there was no word from them, but for the version of Harjit Masih, the 40th hostage who had managed to escape. Mr. Masih said he was the only one to escape from being gunned down by the IS captors, and had subsequently fled with a group of Bangladeshi labourers. His account was never accepted by the government. With the recovery of the remains in Mosul after its recapture by Iraqi forces last year, the government must retrace Mr. Masih’s steps in Iraq in a wider effort to end its investigations into the killings. This inquiry should also help answer larger questions about the operating procedure followed by the authorities.
On the positive side, the government followed every lead in the case, and reached out to governments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey in the effort to get any available information. However, it would have been more prudent for the authorities to be circumspect instead of unnecessarily talking up the chances of finding the men alive. At various points, the government told the families that the men had been seen at a construction site, at a church in Mosul, and even that they were being kept in a prison in Badush, a village on the edge the city of Mosul. Subsequent investigations, including visits by Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh, revealed those leads to be wrong. It turned out, for instance, that the prison in Badush had been destroyed by the IS early during its occupation, something that should have been verified before such information was disseminated to distraught family members. On receiving word that the Martyrs Foundation, an Iraqi agency that helped identify the remains, would announce that they had matched the DNA of the 39 men, the Ministry of External Affairs could have shown more sensitivity by informing the families before Ms. Swaraj made the rushed announcement in Parliament. The biggest lesson from the tragic saga is the need for a thorough appraisal of procedures for Indian labour going abroad, so that they are not duped or remain uninformed about the risks of going to conflict areas.