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Counter narratives cloud the fate of 39 Indians

The government has said that the fate of the workers cannot be confirmed or denied at the moment.

Kabir Taneja  New Delhi | 6th Dec 2014

People walk past at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad’s Sadr City on Friday. The five separate attacks come as Islamic State militants have taken over large parts of north and west Iraq. REUTERS

he fate of the 39 missing Indian construction workers in Iraq who were taken hostage by the Islamic State remains unknown, as two countering narratives emitting from the government and from other sources add further ambiguity to the entire issue.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha last week that the fate of the workers is unknown, and that "six sources" have confirmed in writing to the government that the workers are not dead. This statement comes as a news channel aired interviews with two Bangladeshi construction workers who said that Harjeet Masih, an Indian worker confirmed to them that the remaining 39 were shot and killed by the Islamic State.

Harjeet, who is under Indian protective custody in Erbil, has reportedly been in touch with his mother in Punjab. According to officials, Harjeet is under Indian government watch and has been questioned by both Indian and Kurdish officials. The sources also suggest that Harjeet is being kept in Erbil possibly due to the 39 workers' fate remaining unknown. Harjeet not being returned to India is also being seen by some as keeping him away from the limelight, which is bound to follow him upon his return, and add further to the speculation till some kind of confirmation is achieved.

Swaraj has also said that New Delhi was contacting every important government in the region, at both foreign ministry and direct head-of-state level to resolve this issue. However, the "six sources", that the government has said it has confirmed with, are reportedly largely based on intelligence gathered by the Kurdish Peshmerga and its affiliates, which could lack consistency. The government has also made it clear that the final fate of the workers cannot be confirmed or denied at the moment.

Harjeet, having been interrogated by both Indian and Kurdish officials, has also reportedly held to his version of the events. Harjeet's version says that all Indian hostages were taken to an isolated place and shot, from where he managed to escape.

Sources at the Ministry of External Affairs have said that Harjeet's case is not something they're dealing with directly. A source at the MEA on condition of anonymity said, "Such matters are not handled by the MEA." This indicates that India's intelligence agencies are directly handling Harjeet's version of the events and trying to gain more information and clarity on the same. New Delhi has sent extra officials to Erbil to expedite the process of gathering information on the missing Indians and during this time, India has also announced that it is setting up a permanent consulate general in the capital of the Kurdistan region. This move is expected to help in intelligence gathering of any further Indian nationals suspected of joining ISIS in the time to come.

Sources in Mosul have previously told The Sunday Guardian that the missing Indians were last heard of possibly being held by an IS group made up largely of foreign fighters; however this information predates Harjeet's version which went public through the press. The Indian workers by some accounts were known to have been constructing infrastructure for the Islamic State.

Reports earlier this year suggested that after the quick rise of the IS and its declaration of the "caliphate", the construction company, which employed the 40 Indian workers, Iraq-based Tariq Nur-al Huda, returned the workers' passports and told them to "disperse on their own". Erbil was seen as the destination to go toward for safety. However, the construction workers never reached the city.

In June, the Indian government sent Suresh Reddy, a prominent diplomat known for his expertise as India's crisis manager in the region ever since the attempts to locate and remove the stuck nurses and workers. Experts believed that India's long-standing goodwill and contacts in former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Ba'thist regime will come in handy to secure the safety of Indian nationals. While contacts may be too old, this method was considered worth the pursuit. Prominent Ba'thist regime generals from Saddam era, such as Azhar al-Obeidi and Ahmed Abd al-Rashid are known to have joined ISIS and have been given charge as governors of cities such as Mosul and Tikrit respectively. However, it remains unclear how successful the old contacts have been. The successful extraction of the nurses from Erbil was a positive sign of India's efforts in the region, however this was not followed by any progress on the construction workers for months.

Regional analysts and monitors have further highlighted the fact that getting information from the Islamic State is getting challenging, as it forms into a more definitive state-like structure with geographical boundaries and a tight command center. However, the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi armed forces have over the past month made some positive progress against the ISIS with help of US-led coalition air strikes. The Syrian opposition has said that the global community needs to help more against fighting the ISIS or groups currently fighting against it may have to surrender and join the ISIS itself in the future as the only way out to survive.

India's own intelligence agencies have been reportedly working overtime to counter any inroads that the ISIS may seek to make into the country. This includes increased vigilance on travellers to the Middle East, especially single males. According to a recent report, young Muslim males under 30 from India have been barred from obtaining visas to Iraq for pilgrimages via an Iraqi government advisory.

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