Caring for our own

Indian students on their arrival from Ukraine by IAF flights at Hindan airbase, in Ghaziabad on Monday.UNI PHOTO-AK6U

Harsha Kakar

On the 8th of March, the Indian Government was finally able to rescue its 700 trapped students from Sumy in Ukraine. An earlier attempt, a day before had stalled, as conditions were not conducive. The challenge for Delhi was to get Moscow and Kyiv to accept a ceasefire while hiring buses to move students with Ukrainian military escort under the aegis of the Red Cross to a safe location from where they could be transported out of the country. All this from a city facing an onslaught of rockets and gunfire, with shortages in food and water. Success was due to multiple calls between the Indian PM, Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Zelenskyy, followed by diplomatic parleys between countries. India once again successfully rescued its own.
This brought to end Operation Ganga, launched to bring back its trapped nationals from the warzone. The Government employed services of private airlines alongside air force transport aircraft to airlift its stranded students. To ensure seamless coordination the Government had moved four ministers, one to each neighbouring country. Very few nations rescued their trapped citizens from Ukraine.
This is not the first time that India has done so. When the COVID pandemic hit and countries went into lockdown, India launched Operation Vande Bharat, its largest rescue mission, to bring back its citizens, spread across the world. According to data available, over 18 Lakhs flew back on Air India flights, 36 Lakhs on private airlines and 4000 sailed in naval ships. India’s second largest rescue mission was in 1990 when it brought back 1.8 lakh stranded citizens post the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This took 59 days and involved over 500 flights.
In Operation Rahat India evacuated 5,600 citizens from the warzone in Yemen. Operation Devi Shakti was rescuing Indian citizens from Afghanistan with the Taliban takeover. The last batch of 110 Sikhs and Hindus returned from Afghanistan in a chartered flight in Dec 2021.
Historically, India has conducted almost 40 rescue missions. Most of them, especially from warzones, are never simple. They involve coordination with the nation where citizens are trapped, neighbouring countries where they could be temporarily located and finally utilizing means to lift them home. India employed its Gissar Military Aerodrome (GMA) located in Tajikistan to temporarily locate rescued citizens from Afghanistan prior to transporting them home. In the current scenario it needed support of neighbouring countries where Indians moved prior to being airlifted. It was to coordinate this that India deployed its ministers to these countries.
As a rule, Indian citizens located abroad, refuse to adhere to national warnings and evacuate in time. Once the situation deteriorates, they demand to be rescued. In the build up to the Ukraine crisis, war was imminent, though the Ukraine Government kept postponing the announcement. Students located in Ukraine refused to adhere to warnings from the Indian Government. When hostilities broke, they demanded to be rescued.
With a vast diaspora, India will always be expected to rescue its citizens trapped in trouble spots. A benefit is that the Indian community in any country is close-knit and can be banked upon to support its nationals in transit. In the case of Ukraine, Indian residents in neighbouring countries willingly came forward to assist their stranded brethren while Operation Ganga airlifted them back to India.
A news report also mentioned that the PM spoke to global spiritual gurus and Indian community leaders to request their assistance in caring for those transiting from Ukraine. In response to the PM’s call, Sri Sri Ravishankar stated, ‘Art Of Living has been working for the past few days to help refugees who are moving from Ukraine to the Western part of Europe.’ Similar assurances flowed from other spiritual organizations. As always, Sikh organizations were at the forefront providing food and shelter.
In Ukraine, while the US and Chinese Governments initially stated that they were not in a position to rescue their trapped citizens, the Indian Government did not hesitate. The US Government advisory read, ‘The US Government will not be able to evacuate US citizens from Ukraine.’ A rescue operation by a private organization in Florida could only airlift 23-24 American citizens. Similar helplessness was displayed by the British and German Governments. The Chinese envoy to Ukraine mentioned that current conditions were unsafe to evacuate citizens. Following India, China began rescue operations from neighbouring countries, however, has charged its citizens from Ukraine an equivalent of Rs 2.6 Lakhs each. The US had earlier left its citizens stranded in Afghanistan.
Operation Ganga though slow, moved unhindered. All this because nations located on Ukraine’s periphery have positive ties with India. Such is standing of India that Pakistani students leaving Ukraine did so displaying the Indian flag.
Indian foreign policy approach has been positive through the years building bilateral ties. India never interferes in matters which do not concern it. It also supports nations whenever needed. In the current Ukraine conflict India is neutral, while providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid. This positive diplomacy is being paid back when most needed. In every rescue missions, India received support from countries it approached. India has also never hesitated in lifting citizens of its allies and neighbours, adding to its image.
Further, Indian soft power, including Bollywood and its global spiritual and social organizations, have projected a positive picture of the country. A student temporarily located in Poland, with a local family, prior to being airlifted to India, was surprised, when to put her at ease and create a homely environment, the family played Indian music. They even offered to cook Indian cuisine.
A successfully conducted Operation Ganga indicates that it is not military or economic power which determines global acceptability but adherence to a rule based global order, supporting nations in need, non-interference and being neutral in conflicts, despite pressures from multiple directions. Though India is not a power to influence global events, yet it is recognized as a responsible nation which cares for its diaspora, unlike most developed nations. However, its citizens also need to respond to Government advisories rather than scream for assistance once the situation becomes dangerous.
(The author is Major General (Retd)