A controversy has broken out after Russian media reported that an “observer” from India was present at the just concluded referendum in the Donbas region that is expected to join Russia in the coming days. A Russian official message widely shared on Telegram channels of Moscow and the Donetsk People’s Republic and on Russia Today TV channel stated that “representatives from Great Britain, Germany, Syria, Togo, Spain, Colombia, South Africa, Ghana, Serbia, India, Iceland and Latvia worked at polling stations in Donetsk and Makeevka.”
The claim of the presence of an Indian representative has caused a flutter as India urged both Russia and Ukraine to respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty indicating that Delhi is not favourably disposed towards the referendum that will lead to redrawing of the maps of Ukraine and Russia.
The message from the Russian authorities has named Purnima Anand who worked as “an observer from India” during the referendum. Ms. Anand is described by the Russian announcement as President of the “BRICS International Forum”. In a TV broadcast, Ms Anand is shown saying, “In the western media, they tell us that people are forced at gunpoint (to vote). We are here today and we can see for ourselves that the people, whole families with smiles on their faces, are coming to exercise their inalienable right to vote for joining Russia. People are happy, hope shines in their eyes for a peaceful, long-awaited future as part of Russia. And we for our part, understand that after this referendum, the world will become brand new, because now a new history is being created in Donbas.”
But The Hindu has learned from individuals closely following the developments from the Indian side that the Government of India had not sent any authorised participant in the referendum as either “representative” or “observer”. “There is no organisation under the BRICS as BRICS International Forum (BRICS-IF). All organisations under BRICS are inter-governmental organisations and BRICS-IF is not listed under BRICS initiatives,” said a person from the Indian side.
Purnima Anand however said that the BRICS - International Forum is a civil society initiative that was launched after the arrival of the Narendra Modi government in 2014 and is following the 2015 Ufa BRICS declaration that called for the involvement of civil society initiatives under the BRICS. She acknowledged that her organisation is yet to be registered as part of BRICS and said, “We would like to register under BRICS but there is no secretariat of BRICS where we can apply for that process. I have been working internationally in Asia as well as Africa for a long time representing the civil society,” said Ms. Anand speaking to The Hindu from Moscow. She said that India should not object to her presence in the referendum as Russia is a strategic partner and a time-tested friend of India. “Representatives from 90 countries - from Europe, Africa, Asia - were present in the referendum and as observers, we saw the process of polling was transparent and the territories have voted in large numbers to join Russia,” said Ms. Anand who moved to Moscow from Donetsk after the polling ended in Donbas. Ms. Anand said that she worked as a consultant for the World Bank previously.
Ms. Anand said that her team initially had three other members but she was the sole member who travelled to Donbas ultimately.
The referendum in Kherson, Zaporizhzhye, Donetsk and Luhansk concluded on Tuesday amidst widespread expectation that the four regions will soon be incorporated into the Russian sovereign territory after Kremlin issues an official proclamation announcing the formal merger. An official of the Donetsk People’s Republic informed The Hindu on Tuesday that the final voting percentage was close to 99%