External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj today reiterated that she would not declare the 39 Indians missing in Iraq as dead till she has concrete evidence to that effect.
"I repeat, I will not declare them (the missing Indians) dead until we have concrete evidence to that effect," she told Rajya Sabha.
The Minister said that she "never said in Parliament or outside that they are alive, as being claimed by some Congress MPs".
There were some sharp exchanges between the Minister and Congress members Pratap Singh Bajwa and Ambika Soni as the latter accused the government of "shifting goal posts" and demanded to know why she was not trusting the word of Harjit Masih, one of the 40 Indians captured by the Islamic State in Iraq in June 2014, who claimed that the rest of the group had been shot dead.
"Why would Harjit Masih tell a lie? What would he get out of it?" Bajwa asked.
"I have reasons to not trust Harjit Masih. I was the first one to speak with him when he first contacted Indian authorities soon after the incident. I repeatedly asked him over phone as to how he survived when the rest were shot dead according to him. But he kept saying he did not know," Sushma Swaraj said.
"Secondly, the family of Nishan Singh, one of the missing persons, says they spoke with him on June 17 (2014). How is this possible when Harjit claims they were killed on June 15?" she said.
Congress MPs Bajwa and Soni demanded to know what the Minister's sources were on whose basis she was claiming that the missing persons may be alive.
Sushma Swaraj said she cannot disclose sources on the floor of the House as it may put their lives in danger.
"Bajwaji if you have the nerve to tell the families of the missing persons that they are dead, you do it. I cannot do it. I will keep searching for them until I get concrete proof that they are dead," Sushma Swaraj said.
She said that according to the information that has been received, the group was caught at the Mosul airfield, and taken to a jail, after which they were put to construction work, and then farming, before being taken to Badush jail in 2016. But after that there has been no contact.
The Minister said that all the information was culled from different sources and there was no evidence to support any of the claims.
Following reports in the media that the Badush jail building had been demolished, the Minister was blamed for misleading the nation on the 39 Indians.