The sources who gave the government confidence of not abandoning the search for 39 Indians abducted in Iraq include a "head of state and a foreign minister of another country," External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha today. She, however, refused to disclose the identity of the sources, citing "diplomatic confidentiality".
Making a statement in response to Zero Hour mention on the issue raised by Pratap Singh Bajwa (Congress) on July 19, Ms Swaraj vehemently denied that she ever misled Parliament or the country on the fate of the people abducted three years back.
She said she has all through maintained that there is no proof of the abducted Indians being alive or dead.
And in absence of "solid proof", it is a "sin" at personal level and irresponsible act on the part of the government to declare them dead, the minister said. She asked, "Why should I apologise? That I did not declare them dead?"
Opposition Congress, however, tried to corner her by saying the government has been changing goal posts all through and she has to give "one proof" for believing they are alive.
"I have said in Parliament and outside that I have no evidence of their being alive or dead," Ms Swaraj said, adding in absence of any solid evidence or proof she cannot presume them dead.
"We are not sitting idle. All countries which can help have been asked for help," she said and added, "Why will I mislead? What will I gain? What will I gain, what will my government gain by misleading?"
Mr Bajwa countered Ms Swaraj's assertion, asking what would Harjit Masih, one of the abducted Indians who had escaped, gain by claiming that he had witnessed the 39 being shot dead. Responding to this, the minister said she was first to speak to Mr Masih after he called up on but did not provide convincing reply how he was able to escape from the ISIS captivity.
Also, family of one of the abducted persons had received a call from the captors, saying the captive was alive, she said.
The minister threw a challenge to the Congress leader, saying if he was convinced that the Indians are dead, he can call up the families and tell them that.
Ms Swaraj said she had never stated that the 39 Indians are alive and that she will ensure they come back home safe. She said she had in the past told the Parliament that in absence of a proof, the option before the government was to abandon search or continue its efforts to locate them.
"I had asked for permission of House (to continue efforts to locate them) and had not just taken it in confidence," she said, claiming the members had given their consent by thumping of desk or nodding.
The minister said her deputy V K Singh had travelled to Iraq on the very next day ISIS was overthrown from Mosul on July 9 this year.
Senior Iraqi officials told him that they had information of the Indians being picked up from Mosul airfield three years back and after holding them in captivity for some time, they were made to work in a hospital and then in agriculture field.
Thereafter they were in early 2016 shifted to the prison at Badush, some 30-km away of Mosul town, she said. "That is the last known location," she said, adding she had informed the families of the victims about the same.
Countering the Congress charge, she said this government knows how to protect its people. "Relief for stranded person abroad is one tweet away," she said, adding 80,000 people have been helped by her ministry in last three years.
These are ones for whom the government paid air-tickets and does not include the numbers who were helped but had paid for their own ticket, she said.
"This government's credibility cannot be questioned relating to protection of its citizens," she said.
Ms Swaraj said the day evidence is available, she will inform Parliament without delay and if Parliament is not in session, she would take to the twitter in 10 minutes to make the news public.
"Without evidence I will not declare them dead," she asserted.
Mr Bajwa asked why the government was not believing the version of Harjit Masih and sought to know the 5-6 sources she keeps quoting for her statement.
He said upon the fall of Mosul, it was said that the Indians are in the prison at Badush but that jail was demolished three months back.
"They have misled the Parliament. They have misled the country," he said. "Give one proof how do you say they are alive."
He said an all-party delegation should be sent to Iraq to get the first-hand account.
Ms Swaraj said he asked Mr Masih how did he survive but he did not give a convincing answer. "He wants to mislead how he came out (of ISIS captivity)."
She said the Congress was using the issue as a political agenda.
"There is a difference between information and proof. There is no proof," she said. I have said there is no solid proof of their being alive or dead."