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Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | How important are evacuations in Ukraine to Indian foreign policy?

As the war in Ukraine worsens, India focuses on bringing its citizens home: how important are the evacuations to Indian foreign policy?

In today’s episode, we look at India’s evacuation policy for the diaspora, as the government tries to complete Operation Ganga, its mission to bring home about 20,000 Indian citizens, mostly students, who have managed to come out of the warzone in Ukraine to four neighbouring countries.

First, let’s take a look at the task at hand:

  • As tensions grew between Russia and Ukraine earlier this year, the Indian embassy in Ukraine asked all Indians in the country to register on its website, so it had an estimate of the numbers in case an evacuation was needed.
  • About 20,000 had registered, but thousands more did not. The threat of a Russian invasion did not at the point seem imminent. The U.S. for example had an estimated 20,000-30,000 citizens there, but had been asking them to leave since December, so most had flown out. China has far fewer numbers, an estimated 6,000 citizens, for whom it has also launched an operation to evacuate from the borders.
  • By the time Russian President Vladimir Putin announced military operations in Ukraine on February 24, the Embassy had issued five advisories in increasing degrees of alarm, but essentially asking them to leave the country if possible. When Russian troops invaded, and began to bomb Ukrainian cities — most were caught unawares, and left with few options.

What were the evacuation options?

  • Ukraine closed its airport and shut Kiev airport down on February 24, 2022.
  • This meant those fleeing had to head for the western and southern borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. With officials unable to enter Ukraine, the government set up posts at border crossings to help them cross over, and have now organised flights from Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest and Bucharest.
  • Belarus, that is supporting Russian operations, had sealed its borders.
  • Nor was the border with Russia, where troops were coming in from the North, the East and the South from Crimea, an option for the first week.
  • However, Indian officials are now in the Russian city of Belgorod just across the border from the second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where an Indian student was killed in Russian shelling this week- in case there is an evacuation route set up that allows Indians into Russia, something Prime Minister Modi and President Putin also discussed.

What are the challenges to evacuation?

  • Indian officials and Indian ministers are not actually going into the war zone, so students have to largely fend for themselves, pack into trains or even go long journeys by foot to reach the borders.
  • They have thus far been unable to negotiate a humanitarian window—as they did in Yemen and other ops — when both sides stop hostilities and bombardment and civilians can be taken out by flights.
  • There have been reports of racist behaviour — although these have been denied by the Ukrainian foreign ministry — that targets Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese trying to leave.
  • Indians in particular say they have been manhandled by Ukrainian guards citing India’s UN votes where it has refused to condemn Russia’s actions.
  • The numbers of Indians in Ukraine, the largest diaspora there is a factor.
  • As is the fast closing window. As Russian operations on Ukrainian cities is intensifying, and Ukrainian citizens are preparing for a pushback, which could become more violent.
  • India has no formal rescue and evacuation policy, which would apply a number of SOPs, budgets and keep certain aircraft on standby. So each rescue is an ad hoc operation albeit has to deal with the situation at hand.
  • Here’s why evacuations are important to Indian foreign policy and the Ministry of External Affairs:
  • For any country, each citizen is precious, and India’s foreign policy has a particular place for the welfare of expatriate workers, students and others worldwide.
  • India has nearly 14 million Non Resident Indians officially in 208 countries and jurisdictions around the world, also about 18 million PIOs who are foreign citizens, not to mention tourists and travellers, which means that there is no conflict in the world that doesn’t affect an Indian.
  • Evacuation operations are also an important test of India’s ties and strength of diplomacy around the world, and India’s promise over the decades to bring home every Indian safely is a key part of its soft power.
  • There’s another reason often not looked at- and that is, while the Indian diaspora is in danger, it is impossible to focus on the actual foreign policy issue at hand- in all the UN votes thus far India has abstained, partly because the government does not want to be seen criticising Russia or antagonising Ukraine- in a large part because the focus is on the safety of Indian civilians.
  • In most of these operations, India has given a ride to other nationals, especially those from the subcontinent – Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka even Pakistan, and this has no doubt helped India’s image and influence.

India’s famous wartime evacuations

  • The largest civilian airlift in the world was the Indian operation to fly out more than 175,000 citizens from the Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, an operation that is now the subject of books and a movie.
  • In 2006, an Indian fleet led by warship INS Mumbai went right into Beirut harbour, through an Israeli blockade, with IDF bombing Lebanon, and in two sorties evacuated 2,500 Indians and other nationals to Cyprus, from where they were flown to India, called ‘Operation Sukoon’.
  • In 2011, Air India flights and another Indian naval fleet led by INS Jalashwa went into Tripoli with then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s permission, days before the NATO bombings began, and fighting had already broken out between militia on the ground. They brought out more than 15,000 Indians in Operation Safe Homecoming. Read more on this by Suhasini Haidar here
  • In 2015, Operation Rahat saw a very dangerous rescue from the war in Yemen- then MoS and former Army chief Gen VK Singh, who is now in Poland headed that mission from Djibouti- 5,600 people were brought out in all, some by ships to Djibouti, braving Houthi rebels and armed robbers, while others were flown out of San’aa in a specially negotiated humanitarian window for flights.
  • Gen Singh also oversaw Operation Sankat Mochan, which was a one day operation to bring back about 156 Indians onboard 2 C-17 aircraft from Juba, South Sudan, during a ceasefire in the fighting. The high cost of the military operation when commercial flights were running led to some criticism within the MEA, which now prefers to fund evacuations by commercial airliners, and press military aircraft only when necessary as an addition, as it has for the Ukraine crisis.
  • In August 2021, after the Taliban takeover, the Indian embassy in Kabul and about 400 Indians were flown out of Kabul to India using a circuitous route through Iran, in Operation Devi Shakti.
  • Recommended reading:
  • A good description of the diplomacy required for the Iraq evacuation is in former PM and then FM Inder Gujral’s autobiography: Matters of Discretion.
  • There is of course the movie (2016) Airlift.
  • There is also a stunning account in Ambassador K.P. Fabian’s essay: Biggest Ever Air Evacuation in History in the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal.
  • A paper by Carnegie India and Constantino Xavier looks at ‘India’s Expatriate Evacuation Operation: Bringing the Diaspora Home’, and includes some important suggestions on how to formulate a policy.
  • There’s also an interesting account of the reverse: when Indian diaspora helped citizens in the COVID-19 aftermath, when India shut down all airports and stopped them from returning home for months: ‘Diaspora to the rescue: The role of civil society groups in helping Indians stranded by the COVID-19 pandemic’ by Pradeep Taneja, Surjeet Dhanji.
  • On the Indian diaspora in general: there is the ‘Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora’ by Brij Lal.
  • And a series of books by Author Devesh Kapur- who is really an expert on the diaspora, most notably: ‘Diaspora, Development and Democracy: The Domestic Impact of International Migration from India’ (2010) , and ‘The Other One Percent: Indians in America’ in 2017.


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Printable version | Mar 5, 2022 12:16:32 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/how-important-are-evacuations-in-ukraine-to-indian-foreign-policy-worldview-with-suhasini-haidar/article65191526.ece