Handling of ‘Mosul Tragedy’ Shows PMO Holds MEA’s Reins
Sushma Swaraj (L), PM Modi (R)
Sushma Swaraj (L), PM Modi (R)(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

Handling of ‘Mosul Tragedy’ Shows PMO Holds MEA’s Reins

Reports that the Modi government in general, and the External Affairs Ministry under Sushma Swaraj in particular, were less than transparent about the fate of 39 Indians trapped, and later killed by ISIS terrorists in civil war-ravaged Mosul in Iraq, is disturbing for many reasons.

The entire sordid episode, beginning with the willful suppression of information that the entrapped Indians were certainly not safe and that their lives were in imminent danger, bespeaks the government machinery’s apathy.

This indifference is apparent especially with regard to the dire circumstances that itinerant Indian labour face in a part of the world where there is little or no regard for human rights.

Also Read : ISIS Killed 39 Indians, What Took Govt 4 Years to Confirm This?

A Convenient Apathy

The Modi government’s prevarication, exposed in the case of the 39 Indians, is in stark contrast to the massive public relations objectives that it sought to achieve when Prime Minister Modi and Swaraj took to social media at the time the freedom of 46 nurses was secured within a month after the BJP-led administration took over in 2014.

It was no secret at that time that top officials in India’s national security bureaucracy used at least one business contact in the Gulf to make a huge pay-off to the then ISIS which had held the nurses captive.

Later, in the wake of the air attack over Yemen by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of Arab air forces, the Indian Navy and the Air Force coordinated action to evacuate nearly 5,000 Indian nationals trapped in that country. There have been other instances when the Navy acted with alacrity to rescue Indians across the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

These were commendable acts. But what went wrong for the MEA in Mosul? While, Swaraj’s health certainly stood in the way of her playing a lead role in at least making efforts to plan, leave alone launch a rescue mission, government sources revealed that an “information and operational black hole” played an important part which left the 39 Indians at the mercy of a terrorist organisation well known for its acts of extreme levels of brutality.

Also Read : I Kept Saying All 39 Indians Were Dead: Lone Survivor Harjit Masih

Suppression of Facts & Misinformation

The sources explained that since the collapse of civil administration in Iraq, that left the ISIS to rampage through the war-torn country, the presence of Indian officials there had become negligible, causing little or no flow of information or intelligence that could be fruitfully used to undertake rescue missions.

And once Iraq, especially areas bordering Syria, plunged into complete chaos and destruction, there was nothing that India could do about its nationals who might have remained trapped there with no access to the outside world. The 39 Indians, mostly from Punjab but also from Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal were forsaken.

However, instead of making absolutely clear that the Indians in Mosul may not have survived the IS’s brutality, the Modi government chose to be less than economical with the truth lest the reports of the death showed the supposedly “strong” government in a poor light.

Beginning in June 2014, through the first half of 2015, the MEA made repeated statements that the Indians “remained unharmed” and that the government was making efforts to “secure their release”.

This was in the belief – misplaced as it turned out – that the Indian were safe. In one statement to the Rajya Sabha on 6 August 2014, Sushma Swaraj said:

I would like to say here with responsibility that they (the captive Indians) are alive and safe.

Clearly, such overly optimistic statements stemmed from no ground-level knowledge of the Indians’ fate.

Also Read : 39 Indians, ISIS and Harjit Masih’s Great Escape 

Delivering the Unkindest Cut of All

Sushma Swaraj and the mandarins in South Block must now eat crow. On 20 March, as the Indian establishment admitted that the 39 Indians had indeed been killed by the IS, Swaraj trashed the version of Harjit Masih, the solitary Indian who managed to escape Mosul before being brought over to India via Doha around June-July 2014, describing his fears that the captives had been shot as a “cock and bull story”.

Masih claimed that he had repeatedly told Indian security officials, after his dramatic return, that the other labourers in Mosul had been killed by the ISIS. The MEA was also remiss in not first informing the close relatives of the Indians that their bread-earners had been killed by the IS. Instead the minister chose to make the announcement of their death first in Parliament, delivering the unkindest cut of all.

While the government’s prevarication lies exposed, causing trauma to the families of the victims, the issue has exposed the limitations of Swaraj’s office which, since Modi assumed power in 2014, has remained subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

It is not the MEA but the PMO which calls the shots on foreign policy. An unfortunate Swaraj doesn’t even find space on the same dais along with the prime minister when the latter hosts foreign dignitaries or makes policy statements.

Needless to say, this has given rise to speculations that Swaraj is not really in control of the MEA which, more often than not, reports to National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, at least on issues with larger subcontinental and regional ramifications.

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