Almost 10 months after 40 Indian labourers were abducted by Islamist rebels in Iraq, a protest and hunger strike by their family members has been getting very little political or media attention.

For the past 10 days, 36 family members of the abductees – all from low-income families in Punjab – have been sitting on a dharna at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, demanding some information about the government’s attempts to bring back their loved ones. Of these, 12 protesters are on a hunger strike.

The 40 Indian men were kidnapped last June by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from a construction site near Mosul where they were working.

The last that was heard about them, in November 2014, was news from two Bangladeshi labourers who had also been kidnapped in the same batch, but later released. The Bangladeshis claimed that 39 out of the 40 Indians had been shot dead by the ISIS militants, while one managed to escape. Almost immediately, however, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj announced that there was no proof of the deaths of the abducted Indians, and that the government’s search for them would go on.

There has been no fresh news about the kidnapped men since then, pushing their family members to get attention through a dharna.

“Since the protest began, we have tried to reach Sushma Swaraj through our union minister from Punjab, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, but we were simply told that there is no new information,” said Parvinder Lucky, a labourer from Hoshiarpur in Punjab who has three relatives in ISIS captivity – his brother Kamaljeet Singh and two brothers-in-law, Kulwinder Singh and Gurdeep Singh. “Yesterday, 10 people were on hunger strike, today two more of us have joined.”

The protesters are demanding meetings with senior ministers in the government, including prime minister Narendra Modi, but so far, they have been met only by Badal, Aam Aadmi Party MP Bhagwant Mann, Congress MP Ravneet Singh and Congress politician Ajay Maken. “Ravneet Singh has assured us that Rahul Gandhi will bring our issue up in Parliament,” said Lucky.

Alive or killed?

The ministry of external affairs could not be reached for comment, and the last time it put out an official statement about the case was six weeks ago, on February 22. Summing up Swaraj’s sixth meeting with the family members of the 40 missing men, her statement on the ministry’s website said:
“…till date we have no evidence if they are alive or dead. But due to the efforts we are putting in, we have been informed by many sources that they are still alive. And we believe the information is true, so we are still searching for them…We have deployed our full resources to resolve this issue.”

“We keep making calls to the government in Delhi, and they keep telling us they are trying,” said Anita Rani, wife of Gurdeep Singh who ended up getting kidnapped exactly a year after he left for Iraq to work in mechanics and construction. Rani lives in Jaitpur, a village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, and finds it difficult to get labour work while looking after her four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. “Gurdeep was the only earning member of our family so we are now struggling financially. And our children don’t even remember their father much.”

Keeping the faith

While Rani says she has no option but to have faith in the external affairs ministry, the family of Manjinder Singh from Bhoiwal, Amritsar, is beginning to lose hope.

“The ministry does not even answer our phone calls anymore – we don’t know what to do and where to look for my brother,” said Gurpinder Kaur, a teacher and Manjinder Singh’s sister. Many families, she said, were hoping journalists would be able to give more information about the missing men from the central government.

Like most of the other Punjabi construction workers caught in the ISIS nightmare, Manjinder Singh left for Mosul in late 2013 after an agent promised him a good job to improve the prospects of his farming family. “But he was not happy there because the construction company he worked for seized his passport on arrival and did not treat him well,” said Kaur. “If they hadn’t taken his passport, he would have been back home before this kidnapping happened.”

The family first came to know about the kidnapping on June 11, 2014, when Manjinder Singh called to say they were being abducted. They heard no more for the next few days, but finally reached his phone again on June 15. “He said they were alright, but were being moved from one place to another. He said the Bangladeshis were being freed but the Indians were being held,” said Kaur. “Almost all the 40 families managed to speak to their men around that time, but then the phones went off.”

All the families contacted had the same story about the last call from Mosul, and similar levels of desperation.

“My son went to Iraq only because there were no jobs in here, but for the last two months before the kidnapping, he had not even been given his wages,” said Shimbu Kaur, the mother of Kulwinder Singh, a construction worker originally from Jalandhar district. “Now we have no idea where he is, and the grandchildren keep asking me, when will we see papa?”