New Delhi/Chandigarh: The 39 Indians abducted in Iraq in 2014 were killed by Islamic State terrorists and buried in a mass grave, the government told Parliament on Tuesday, setting off a row with the opposition, which accused it of being insensitive for not informing the victims' families first.
As many as 40 Indians were abducted by terrorist organisation ISIS in June 2014 from Mosul in Iraq but one of them escaped by posing as a Muslim from Bangladesh, Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha.
The minister said the mortal remains, which were exhumed from a mass grave in Badush, will be brought back to India on a special plane and handed over to their relatives.
"I had said that I will not declare anyone dead without substantive proof... today I have come to fulfil that commitment...I had said that closure will be done with full proof. And when we will, with a heavy heart, give the mortal remains to their kin, it will be a kind of closure," she said.
While it was not immediately known exactly when these 39 Indians were killed, their bodies were recovered from Badush - a village northwest of Mosul, and their identities established through DNA testing, she said.
Of the 40 Indians, Harjit Masih from Punjab's Gurdaspur had managed to escape and claimed to have witnessed the massacre of the others. The government had rejected his claim and stuck to its stand even today.
"His was a cock-and-bull story," Swaraj said.
The Congress condoled the deaths but Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Leader of the Opposition, sought to remind the government that it had "assured us last year that the Indians were alive".
Addressing a press conference later, Swaraj did not give a direct reply to a volley of questions on when the Indians were killed, saying the queries were irrelevant as the bodies could have been recovered only after Mosul was liberated from the ISIS. Mosul was freed from ISIS in June last year.
Swaraj had told Parliament last year that there was no evidence yet to establish they were killed by Islamic State terrorists. She said she would not commit the sin of declaring them dead.
Immediately after Swaraj's statement today, opposition parties, including the Congress and CPI (M) slammed the government over the delay in announcing the death of these Indians which gave "false hope" to their families that they were alive.
"Giving falsehood to people is actually cruel and suggests a certain level of lack transparency on part of the government", Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said.
The statement showed the government was "insensitive and inhuman" as it should have contacted the families of the victims before informing Parliament, CPI (M) leader in the Lok Sabha Mohammad Salim said. "It is a farce...Earlier, the government had always claimed that it was in touch with the families. So many times we see that policies of the government are announced outside Parliament even though the House is in session," he added.
National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said it was "unpardonable" that families of victims had to learn about their heartbreaking loss from television channels instead of the government.
Swaraj was quick to hit back, accusing Congress of playing "cheap politics" and asserted that she did not keep anyone in the dark or gave "false hopes".
On criticism by opposition leaders and some family members of those killed that they got to know about death of their loved ones through television, Swaraj said she followed prliamentary procedures. "It was my duty to first inform the House about (it)," Swaraj said.
For the distraught families of those killed, all hopes of seeing them alive one day came crashing down.
As they struggled to come to terms with the bitter truth, some of the family members wondered why the "Centre kept them in the dark" all this while.
An inconsolable Gurpinder Kaur, whose 27-year-old younger brother Manjinder Singh was among the victims, said, "Initially, they were saying the Indians are alive. Now the minister today made such a statement."
"We were not even told about it; we came to know from TV," she said, her voice choked with grief.
Swaraj had met the families of these 39 Indians several times since June 2014.
As the nation reacted the development with shock and sorrow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "Every Indian grieves with those who lost their loved ones in Mosul. We stand in solidarity with the bereaved families and pay our respects to the Indians killed in Mosul.
He also defended an under-fire Sawaraj. "The MEA and particularly my colleagues @SushmaSwaraj Ji and @Gen_VKSingh Ji left no stone unturned in trying to trace and safely bring back those we lost in Mosul," Modi said in a series of tweets.
In July last year, Swaraj had said that the 39 Indians may be lodged in a jail in Badush in northwest Mosul. Swaraj had said an authoritative Iraqi official quoting
intelligence sources told her deputy V K Singh during his visit there that the Indians were working at a hospital construction site and then shifted to a farm. They were then taken to a jail in Badush in West Mosul after which there was no communication.