If I were a rich man
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum
All day long I'd biddy biddy bum….
sang Fiddler on the Roof, encapsulating the poverty of being born poor.

If the 39 Indian citizens ---confirmed dead by the government after four long years--been rich would not the government of India had to move pillars and bricks to secure their release? And keep a close watch on the developments in Iraq, using every single diplomatic connection to keep the flow of information going?

Just let your imagination run. Had the group of 39 not been landless, poverty consumed labourers but an elite group of Delhi lawyers, business honchos, a bunch of politicians, well known academics and of course a sprinkling of journalists as in every such group would not have the response, even of the Modi government, been very different? With a war room being created for their release, daily briefings by the Foreign Office, hectic coordination with all the states with vested interests in the region, and pressure that the Indian state is capable of generating on all to step in and ensure the safe return of the elite group of Indian citizens?

There was no way any government could have put a lid on the issue, and come out with just an occasional statement saying little but a perfunctory ‘they are safe’.

But they were not rich or elite or connected. They were just poor labourers, at the bottom of the list of applicants for jobs in West Asia, as Iraq itself was in the dumps, war torn, and without the money that their brethren employed in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries for instance,were getting. But as their families now confirm, they had no choice as deep economic distress was staring them in the face, and they took loans and sold the little they had to pay their way to the war zone from where---despite tough and hard conditions---they were trying to send money home.

They disappeared at the wrong time as well. When the new BJP government had come to power and did not want unseemly controversy. And hence tried to cover the fallout of the Islamic State abduction by brushing it under the carpet, even as the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj insisted all were “safe”. An assertion that she kept repeating for years, even when Mosul had been reclaimed by the Iraqi forces, even when the jail where the Indians were supposedly last held had been gutted. No explanation, no details, just a ‘they are unharmed’ assertions that now clearly meant little.

This even when a sole survivor from the group managed to return shortly after the abduction in 2014, and gave a blow by blow account of what he claimed was a massacre. His appearance was too early in the day for comfort and the 25 year old was first detained by the government---as his family said at the time---and then sent back home after doubts about the veracity of his story had been effectively raised. There was not a word from Swaraj about what he had said, and whether a follow up investigation into the account had been ordered with the help of the international agencies and governments.

Swaraj said now that they were waiting for proof before delcaring the workers death. But that was not the impression that she or the government gave at any point, to Parliament or to the families who were told that their bread earners were alive and the government would bring them back. Now the Minister has said that confirmation has come from penetrative satellite images, obviously taken by other governments with more reach and clout than India in the region.

But then, was there not enough evidence before this to conclude that the men had been killed? After all it was not easy for even the ISIS finally destroyed and routed from Mosul to keep such a large group of Indians alive and “safe.” On what basis did Swaraj testify to their safety. What were the urgent measures that the government take to trace, and track the Indian prisoners?

No answer. The relatives here were too poor to be a nuisance for the government that was easily able to fob them off as well as the desultory Opposition with rhetorical responses. Had it been an elite group the government would have had to get back with regular briefings, and with information as soon as it received it. Delays would have generated a storm, unlike now when all that the poor relatives can say “why were they not honest, why did they not tell us before”. And wait, as one of them said, for the mortal remains that of course will be handed over to them amidst the pomp and glory of politics.

The Congress party has released at least six separate statements by the government insisting over and over again that the missing Indians were ‘safe’ and “unharmed’. In fact the responses left little room for doubt without venturing into the realm of speculation.

The questions that Swaraj, free of the cloak of ‘secrecy’ she had used to fob off Opposition queries, needs to answer are:

1. Did the government trace the route of the abduction, and subsequent movements of the ISIS with the large group of Indian citizens? (share the details)

2. Explain why they were being kept alive by an organisation that was ruthless and unresponsive to human rights; was it for ransom?

3. Was any connection established by any agency with the kidnappers, if so when, and what came of it? If not, why not?

4. What was the exact information that made the government insist that the group was alive?

5. On what basis was the testimony and evidence of the lone survivor Harjit Masih rejected by the government and MEA?