Russia’s assault on Ukraine has led to a significant logistical and diplomatic challenge for the Modi administration—the evacuation of Indian nationals, particularly students, from the war-torn country. Some 20,000 Indians were in the country at the start of the crisis, most of them studying medicine in different parts of Ukraine.
On January 25, the Indian embassy in Kyiv, in a Facebook post, asked Indian nationals to register themselves online by January 31. Its first advisory, on February 15, asked Indians whose stay “is not essential” to leave the country in view of the “uncertainties” of the situation in Ukraine. On February 16, the Indian government lifted the cap on passengers placed in the wake of Covid-19. On February 18, Air India announced three additional flights for the 22nd, 24th and 26th.
Of the roughly 20,000 Indian nationals in Ukraine before the conflict, 4,000 had left before the war started. As of March 1, the MEA says 8,000 Indians air-lifted by Operation Ganga; 31 evacuation flights from Ukraine’s neighbouring countries planned between March 2 and 8
– Operation Ganga in numbers
On February 20, in its second advisory, the mission suggested that students leave the country “temporarily”. Two more advisories followed on February 22 regarding additional flights and addressing questions about online classes. Most of the students did not leave since the advisories were mildly worded. All hell broke loose on February 24, when Russia announced its military operation in Ukraine. There was chaos and many Indians moved to the western border of Ukraine to cross over to neighbouring countries. At this point, there was a fifth advisory, asking Indians to return to their respective cities in Ukraine until the embassy and the Indian government could arrange their evacuation. In all, some 10 advisories were issued by March 2, including a video message by the Indian envoy to Ukraine, ambassador Partha Satpathy.
On February 26, the Modi government launched a massive evacuation programme to bring back the stranded Indians. As of March 1, officials say around 12,000 Indian nationals have left Ukraine. A 24×7 control centre has been set up to assist in the evacuation through the border crossing points with Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Slovak Republic. A dedicated Twitter handle, ‘OpGanga Helpline’, has also been created to disseminate information. The first batch of evacuees comprising 219 nationals returned to India on a February 26 flight from Bucharest to Mumbai. ‘Welcome back. First step of #OperationGanga,’ tweeted foreign minister Jaishankar. Four senior Union ministers have also been sent as special envoys to the countries bordering western Ukraine to oversee the evacuation.
Meanwhile, tragedy struck on the morning of March 1 with Indian student Naveen Shekharappa, 21, killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, a city bordering the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. The final-year medical student from Karnataka had stepped out from his bunker to get essential supplies. His shattered father recalled receiving the bad news: “Around 10 yesterday (March 1), he called and told us how he had spent the night. He was getting ready so he said he would call after breakfast. But he did not call. The MEA then called at 2 pm and told us the news.”
On March 1, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla summoned the ambassadors of Russia and Ukraine to discuss “safe passage” for Indian nationals. The evening of March 2 brought an ominous new advisory, telling the Indians stranded in Kharkiv to leave immediately ‘under all circumstances’.