Indian Hostages in Iraq: Chronicle of 39 Deaths Retold

Harjit Masih's account of how the 39 Indian workers died matches the official account in all vital aspects. So why did the government disbelieve him for nearly four years?

New Delhi: On the night of June 18, 2014, less than a month after the Narendra Modi government was sworn in, this correspondent filed a story quoting a Bangladeshi source in Erbil as saying that all but one of the Indian workers seized by ISIS in Mosul a few days earlier had been killed. The story appeared the next morning with the headline, ’39 of 40 Abducted Indians Feared Murdered in Iraq’.

Earlier on June 18, at around 4:45 pm, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson had announced at a packed press conference in Delhi that “40 Indians” had been “kidnapped”.

At the time, the government – which would have had access to better sources than a journalist – presumably had no way of firmly establishing that 39 of the kidnapped Indians were already dead. But as the days, months and years went by, the gap between the ugly reality of what had happened and what it was prepared to acknowledge – both in its public pronouncements as well as in its private communications with the affected families – grew wider and wider.

On Tuesday, external affairs minister finally admitted the bitter truth about the 39 men. But she also made it a point to attack the one man who survived to tell the tale, Harjit Masih, even though the account he provided to anyone who cared to listen tallies in all crucial respects with what is now, three years nine months later, the official version of the tragic story.

A providential phone link

As ISIS swept through eastern and northern Iraq, the fate of the 39 Indians was not the only foreign policy crisis facing the Modi government. There was another group of 46 nurses stranded in a hospital in Tikrit. The rescue of the nurses on July 4 has since become a part of several films, in both Bollywood and Mollywood.

After the MEA’s press conference on June 18, 2014, I first tried calling the listed phone numbers of the Iraqi construction company, Tariq Noor Al-Huda, where the Indians were working. The first few calls went unanswered, but then a person came on the line, answering to the name of the owner on the website, Hayder Abdul Hameed Al-Azawi.

In broken English, he stated that the firm had been sold off. “I have been getting a lot of calls from India and I want to help you. So I called up the person to whom I sold the company,” he said. The new management told him that the Indians were safe and “will be reaching Erbil in one-two days”.

He provided another phone number, which was answered by a person identifying himself only as Mohammad, a senior official of Al-Huda. Since he only spoke Arabic, a student of the language was contacted. Through the translator, Mohammad repeated Al-Azawi’s remarks that the Indian workers were safe and in transit to Erbil.

In order to buttress his statement in the face of scepticism, he provided the phone number of one of the Bangladeshi workers who had worked with the Indians.

The number worked – and opened up a different can of worms.

Speaking in Bangla, the Bangladeshi worker, Jamaal Khan, told me that he had arrived in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. He confirmed that when ISIS started to move in and a gunfight broke out – which he described as a ‘Shia-Sunni fight’ – the company had handed over the workers’ passports and told them to leave on their own. “But we protested. We asked for three years’ salary and a plane ticket.” (A senior colleague who was fluent in Khan’s Bangladeshi dialect also spoke to him.)

Khan recounted that 40 Indians and 53 Bangladeshis were working together.

With the ISIS already present in Mosul, the two groups of foreign workers were taken to a ‘hospital’, according to Khan, and confined there for two days. He said that the Bangladeshis and Indians were then separated, and the former were allowed to leave.

“We went on our own to Erbil. After reaching a camp there, we found an Indian called Harkit. He said that he was the only survivor. All others had been killed,” said Khan. He could only remember the first name of the ‘survivor’ as ‘Harkit’.

After getting off the phone with Khan, the external affairs ministry was contacted the same night. It was clear that they already knew about the Indian who had managed to escape to Erbil, and also Harjit Masih’s terrible tale. We can only go on the basis of “credible information”, an MEA official told this reporter.

Khan’s number subsequently became unreachable. The Bangladeshi government had arranged for their nationals fleeing the ISIS-controlled territory to be repatriated to Dhaka.

Differing accounts

In India, the government disregarded Harjit’s testimony and instead chose – for at least two years – to rely on ‘credible information’ that the Indians were still alive. This ‘information’ came from various sources, including the Iraqi Red Crescent, which maintained some field contacts in ISIS-captured Mosul. The MEA had also acknowledged that the public announcement it made of the kidnapping was based on information from the Red Crescent.

According to Indian diplomats who had been directly involved in trying to resolve the case of the missing Indians,  the Indian government came to know about the existence of the 40 workers on June 14, 2014. “A relative had contacted the embassy (in Baghdad) and then the embassy contacted the ministry,” he said.

At that time, families were still getting phone calls from the Indians trapped inside ISIS territory.

It has taken nearly four years for the Indian government to finally announce that the 39 men are dead. In her statement to the Rajya Sabha, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said that the DNA samples of family members had matched with 38 out of the 39 bodies found in a grave in Badush, about an hour away from Mosul.

According to an Associated Press report from Baghdad, Iraq’s forensic director Zaid Ali Abbas said that the bodies were badly decomposed and had been “buried for a long time”.

In the versions given by Swaraj on the one hand and Khan and Harjit on the other, there is similarity in the sequence of events up until the separation of Indians and Bangladeshis at the ‘warehouse’.

Swaraj said that when the workers were divided on the basis of nationality, Harjit was able to slip away to Erbil with the Bangladeshis using the name ‘Ali’. The 39 Indians who remained were later shot. Harjit’s version is more complex. He says he was with the Indian group when it was driven from Mosul to Badush. There, ISIS gunmen opened fire but he survived because another man fell on top of him after being shot. He then managed to make his way back to the warehouse in Mosul – evading an ISIS checkpost along the way by claiming his name was ‘Ali’. At the warehouse, he joined the Bangladeshis who remained and left with them at that point for Erbil.

According to Harjit, the Indians were executed on June 15, 2014, in a ‘semi-hilly region’.

Badush, site of the massacre of 39 Indian workers on June 15, 2014, lies to the north-west of Mosul.

When Harjit reached Erbil, there was no official Indian outpost in Kurdistan. He was met by an Indian resident who used to help informally with trade links.

After a few days, Indian government officials flew down to Erbil to meet with him and coordinate with Kurdish authorities for his return.

Following a week’s stay in Erbil, Harjit was brought to India secretly and kept out of the media glare by the R&AW at a special facility. Harjit now describes the time he spent as “imprisonment” though the technical term used was “protective custody”. However, MEA officials admit that for several months, he was not at liberty to leave and spent most of the time answering questions, as he was made to go through his account again and again. Asked repeatedly to describe what happened, Harjit stuck to his guns. The 39 Indians were dead, he insisted.

The date of the massacre quickly became a key point of contention with officials. “Relatives in India were reporting calls from the men on 16, 17, 18 and even June 21. Those calls wouldn’t have happened if the men were dead,” a source said. On the other hand, Alia Allana, a reporter for Fountain Ink said 29 of the families she managed to speak to said they received no more calls after 5 pm on June 15.

In the fog of war that descended on Mosul and ISIS-controlled Iraq at the time, Indian officials latched on to any and every scrap of information that came their way. One source said the abducted Indians had been in a warehouse outside Mosul from June 15 to June 17. After that, “we heard that they were moved back to Mosul and put to work, maybe in batches. Probably sent to Raqqa… there were many conflicting accounts… Some people saw them in a cold storage factory. The most consistent story we were told was that they were working at the university,” a senior Indian diplomat, now retired, stated.

Between Swaraj’s ‘legalism’ and Doval’s bravado

MEA officials told The Wire that while there had been differing opinions within the ministry on the fate of the 39 Indians, the view taken by Swaraj was that it was better to go down the “legalistic” route in not accepting Harjit’s account of their death without physical evidence or other sources to back him up.

Even before his detailed debriefing, however, the Indian establishment seemed disinclined to believe Harjit’s account. While minor inconsistencies in his story might have fuelled this skepticism, there was also a political dimension that began to intrude and colour the Modi government’s messaging. Harjit’s testimony may not have been enough for the government to publicly declare the missing Indians were dead but it was certainly grounds enough to not raise hopes of their being alive. Yet on June 20, 2014, after Harjit’s account was already known to Indian officials, national security advisor Ajit Doval boldly told the media that the Indian government was “working in a very professional manner to bring our people back so that they can re-join their families”.

“The commitment to bring back stranded Indians from this part of the world is uppermost in the minds of the new government as it moves heaven and earth to achieve this,” Mail Today reported, reflecting the official spin that was being put out.

File photo of national security adviser Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, October 2015. Credit: PTI

With the NSA having pronounced this favourable outcome, the professional foreign policy establishment had no option but to fall in line.

The MEA spokesperson said within a month that he could “confirm”, to reassure families, that “we have had through interlocutors contact with the Indians in captivity”. “And the information that we have got from them is that they are unharmed but remain in captivity,” he added.

A month later, Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha that “the government is making all efforts and taking all steps to secure their release as well”.

As for Harjit Masih, Swaraj told parliament in November 2014 that he was in the “protective care” of the government. She was forced to make a statement after the opposition asked for clarification, following a television channel interviewing two Bangladeshi workers who also claimed to have met Harjit.

After his ‘protective custody’ under the security agencies ended, Harjit went to Bengaluru for advanced training as an electrician.

He returned to his village in Gurdaspur district and laid low, warned by the authorities about his personal security. But he surfaced in May 2015 at a press conference organised by the Aam Aadmi Party in Chandigarh.

A year later, Harjit was charged with trafficking and spent six months behind bars.

Meanwhile, Swaraj told MPs said that “six sources” had confirmed that the men were alive. In 2015, she stated that two more sources – making it eight – had provided the same information.

“As I said before, 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,” Swaraj said in February 2015.

These ‘sources’ did not work directly for the Indian government, but rather for foreign agencies. They included local businessmen and tradesmen who could make rounds of Mosul University, where the Indians were supposed to have been deployed by ISIS.

Swaraj noted that two heads of states had said that all the Indians were safe. According to Indian officials, one of them was Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, while the other may have been the Turkish or Sudanese leader.

Among foreign intelligence agencies, the Palestinians were supposed to have an extensive network inside the ISIS territory. But the best contacts were probably maintained by Qatar, officials believed.

The Qataris said that the Indians remained in Mosul, but they didn’t furnish any more details like the location. “When we asked for proof, they couldn’t give it or didn’t want to…they probably were wary of being perceived to have close links with ISIS,” an Indian diplomat who was involved in the process told The Wire.

Even if these multiple sources were correct, the Indian government was making an additional leap of faith in believing the 39 men could still be alive. In the the two years that they had supposedly been in ISIS’s captivity, they had been visible enough for these “sources” to spot them yet not a single one of them had managed to send a message out. In addition, unusually for ISIS, their captors had not made any announcement or demand or provided any proof of life..

Truth catches up

By 2016, the former MEA official told The Wire, the trail had dried up. “There were no more sightings,” they said. That was when the optimism, or bravado, of the political establishment showed the first signs of waning. Yet Harjit Masih remained for the government an unreliable witness.

In June 2016, Swaraj told reporters, “As far as the question of Indian hostages in Iraq is concerned, I do not have any proof to confirm that they are dead, apart from the statement made by Harjit Masih.”

At nearly all her meetings with the families of the remaining 39, Swaraj had pointed out that Harjit’s words were not verifiable.

During her address to the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday to officially announce that the 39 Indians were dead, Swaraj was particularly trenchant about Harjit. “It was a cock and bull story… He (Harjit) had already left as (a Bangladeshi called) ‘Ali’ in the caterer’s van,” she said.

Over the years, Harjit’s story has remained remarkably consistent. He reiterated again on Tuesday that all the 39 Indians had died on June 15, 2014.

Harjit also disputed Swaraj’s claim he had used the disguise of ‘Ali’ when travelling with the Bangladeshis to Erbil. He claimed to have masked his real identity only after he found himself in the custody of ISIS for the second time after having allegedly witnessed the killing of his compatriots.

File photo of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Credit: PTI

Swaraj had claimed that Harjit’s flight from Mosul, disguised as a Bangladeshi, was corroborated by both the owner of the construction company and one of its contractors.

But according to Harjit, who first told told his story in detail to Alia Allana of the Chennai-based magazine, Fountain Ink, in July 2015, his final flight from Mosul with the Bangladeshis occurred after he was able to return to the factory by himself following the massacre of the other 39. In that 2015 account, he identified the place where the massacre took place as Badush, a fact finally corroborated by the Iraqis and Swaraj.

Even as the Indian government continues to discount Harjit’s version, officials struggle to explain why the 24-year-old would concoct such an elaborate lie. One Indian official speculated that Harjit may have been trying to ‘cover up’ the fact that he had abandoned his group and left with the Bangladeshis. But even then, it is not clear how this “cover up” and “lie” could include the crucial truth that the 39 were killed in one spot, at Badush. How was he privy to this information in the first place? And why did the Bangladeshis who had spoken of the event also broadly bear out his version?

The other question that officials have no answer for is that if Harjit did lie, how could he have been sure that not even one of the 39 Indian hostages had survived, like him. There is no proof so far that Harjit was in touch with anyone inside Mosul after he left. If even one of the Indians had remained alive and got out of ISIS control, his story would have been proved false.

Three years and nine months after he survived and bore witness to the mass murder of his fellow citizens, Harjit Masih remains in no man’s land. The Modi government cannot give him the honour and regard he is due without compromising its own image and standing, for it has no credible explanation for why it gave false hope to the families of the 39 men. Instead of candidly telling the families that an eyewitness who knew the men had spoken of their death and that efforts were on to verify this account and identify the remains of their loved ones, Swaraj and others gave unnecessary credence to phantom sources who were likely feeding the government with information it wanted to hear. As recently as July 2017, Swaraj said the 39 Indians were alive and “probably in Badush jail”. “We cannot declare someone who is missing ‘dead’ without proof”, Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha. The same holds true for declaring someone alive, yet the government flouted this standard for reasons best known to it.