The smooth efficiency of Operation Rahat, once it got under way, is the latest example of how India’s response systems are at their best when they are put to the test. In a matter of days, the Navy, the Air Force, and Air India were able to rescue thousands of Indians from the heart of Yemen’s war-zone, in an effort coordinated by the Ministry of External Affairs. This has been done under trying conditions, navigating around Saudi Arabian air strikes and negotiating clearances, Houthi firepower, and even al-Qaeda fighters in several areas. The fact that the evacuation was controlled from a third country, Djibouti, where the government’s envoy, General (retd.) V.K. Singh, is based, is a matter of credit to diplomacy and the goodwill enjoyed by India in the region. The government has shown magnanimity by rescuing non-Indians of about 17 nationalities, including Pakistan, a gesture reciprocated by Pakistani forces. However, there is a sense of déjà vu with the Yemen operation that highlights the challenges faced by Indians across West Asia post the Arab Spring. This was seen in Libya and later in Iraq, and is now visible in Yemen. The government needs to reflect on these before the next crisis hits a region that employs more than six million Indians, as they become vulnerable to such recurrent crises.
As in previous evacuations, the need to launch a perilous operation at high cost has come about because Indians based in Yemen refused to heed government advisories issued since January 2015 to leave the country. The reasons for staying back are largely economic: many Indians would brave personal harm and keep their jobs there rather than risk returning to a tenuous future in India. In some situations, the problem is that their employers hold their passports and wages. The Indian government must negotiate better working conditions for expatriates. If we can coordinate evacuation efforts with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, what stops the government from uniting SAARC countries to negotiate collectively for their expatriates who form a large chunk of the labour force in West Asia? It is also necessary to review the early warning systems to anticipate a crisis quickly, and to ensure early departure for Indians from war-zones. In Yemen, as with Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and other such situations, Indians have not been harmed by either side in conflicts because of a perceived neutrality on the part of India. It is worrying to note, therefore, that in his conversation with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed a wish for an “early restoration of peace and stability [in Yemen] under [King Salman’s] leadership”. Until there is a UN mandate for the external intervention in Yemen, it will serve India’s citizens better if the government retains its impartiality on events in the region, which is riven with fault-lines.