The Big Story: False hope
Thirty nine Indian families who have been waiting for more than four years for information about relatives missing in Iraq finally received sad news on Tuesday. The Indian and Iraqi governments confirmed that the 39 workers kidnapped by the Islamic State in 2014 had been killed. DNA analysis of bodies found in a mound near Badoush prison matched with samples taken from the families, giving authorities proof of what many had suspected all along. The story is a tremendous tragedy but it has been compounded by what happened in the interim.
The conduct of Members of Parliament, particularly the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, on Tuesday was deplorable. With news that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj wanted to make a statement updating the Lower House on the situation of the 39 Indians, the MPs nevertheless continued their din in an attempt to prevent the proceedings. Ultimately, the minister was unable to say her piece. She did manage to get out the full statement in the Rajya Sabha, which returned to its own ruckus soon after.
The lack of attention to the statement was not just a problem because it was insensitive. It was also an opportunity for other MPs to question the government on the specifics of what has occurred, and indeed, there are many questions. The disappearance of the Indian workers was reported just weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, in some ways giving his government its very first crisis. Rather than acknowledge the massive difficulty involved in getting anyone out of the captivity of the Islamic State group, the government assured Indians that the workers were alive and safe and it was making efforts to repatriate them.
Off the record, the government even planted stories about how Modi would send his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval (who was being presented in some sections of the media as India’s James Bond) to solve all the country’s woes in Iraq. As the Indian Express has detailed, over the course of the next few years, the government made six statements not just saying that it was waiting for information about the workers but specifically claiming that they are “alive and safe.”
This became even more incongruous when one man, Harjit Masih, returned to India and said that he had seen the others being killed by the Islamic State. Swaraj said on Tuesday that Masih was unable to substantiate his story or properly explain how he managed to escape. And she insisted, as the government has for a little while, that it was duty-bound to make every effort to find the Indians even if indications are likely that they have been killed.
The problem lies in the way it was framed. The government statements specifically mentioned inputs that they were “alive and safe”, but claims now seem unlikely. This gave the families hope and also avoided negative headlines. In the event, on Tuesday, the families were not even informed before Swaraj gave her statement to the Rajya Sabha, with the minister saying afterwards that she was duty-bound to inform Parliament since it was in session. The government can hardly be blamed for a crisis that emerged soon after it took over, involving a hostile terror group. But its conduct following the news, and playing to its characteristic tactic of managing the headlines rather than the actual events, does not reflect well on it.
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