India has been notable for its logistically extraordinary effort to rescue non-resident Indians (NRIs), largely students, from the war zone in Ukraine as part of .
The Russia-Ukraine conflict may well be remembered for India’s formidable logistical capabilities and the political pull to exert influence on events unfolding at a distance. The Russians temporarily halted their assault on a key Ukrainian city, Kharkiv, to enable India to rescue its students from the crisis area. This is quite impressive because it shows Indian diplomatic impact on world events at a very high level.
Contrast this to the comparatively limp efforts of other nations, who made little attempt to evacuate their nationals from the war-torn territories. Indeed, the US evacuated its diplomatic staff from Kyiv weeks before the war began.
The message coming out of India was that its government cares about its citizens abroad and will make extraordinary efforts to rescue them during periods of unrest and crisis.
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Operation Ganga, as the operation to rescue Indian students from Ukraine has been named, was significant in its scope. This was the second operation to be named after a Goddess, with the previous big effort to evacuate Indians from being labelled Operation Devi Shakti.
It entailed roping in both civilian flights and military transport planes to help rescue stranded Indian students. There was some controversy over whether the Indian government acted too late to rescue young Indians stuck in Ukraine. It is debateable whether this is a fair criticism, especially as the students had received repeated warnings beforehand that a Russian invasion could be imminent.
Many countries, including India, had provided clear advisories to their citizens to leave Ukraine before conflict broke out. One criticism I saw on social media was the question of whether India had enough embassy/high commission staff on the ground to prepare for the inevitable once the disaster began to unfold. Perhaps to make up for it, the Indian government sent in senior ministers to neighbouring countries such as Romania and Poland to coordinate rescue efforts effectively.
In any case, Operation Ganga was highly successful in its immediate objective, successfully evacuating over 18,000 from the country with around 80 flights.
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The attempts to rescue Indians from Ukraine were not only from the government. There was considerable endeavour by Indian groups located abroad to contribute to helping Indians leave Ukraine, such as the Art of Living Foundation’s effort to rescue over 1,000 Indian students trapped in the conflict zone. That was an impressive and courageous effort, in view of the many dangers that come with getting involved.
There is no flight path over Ukraine for commercial flights, with missiles and bombs flying and troops on both sides fighting for their lives. It is certainly not the safest place in the world to venture. Non-governmental organisation (NGO) efforts to rescue Indians should therefore also be lauded.
While the Ukrainian, Russian and other regional governments broadly cooperated with India in its efforts to get its students out, the spectre of racism against Indians and other ethnic groups raised its ugly head on the ground. Eyewitness accounts of Indians, Arabs and African students being discriminated against and denied access to public transport for evacuation to Poland, Romania or Moldova were disturbing.
Many Indian students complained of discrimination by Ukrainian local authorities, especially. It is hoped that the Indian government launches a thorough investigation into this unfortunate phenomenon after the war is over, to deter any more incidents of racism against Indians in troubled spots in the future.
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There has also been debate, particularly in the western media, over India’s diplomatic stance of abstaining from the condemning Russia for its actions – both in the United Nations (UN) Security Council as well as the General Assembly. However, India faces a unique set of circumstances which compel it to stay neutral. It is one of Russia’s biggest arms buyers, with some 70 per cent (or more) of India’s legacy defence equipment coming from Russian industry.
While in recent years there has been some effort by India to indigenise defence equipment manufacture, this will take time to bear fruit. Furthermore, India buys billions of dollars of fertiliser, natural gas and oil from Russia. All of these are precious natural commodities and strategic goods, which cannot be easily substituted in less than a decade.
Given some of these historic compulsions, for the time being at least it is in India’s interests to abstain from overt criticism of the Kremlin; even as decreases the extent of its dependence on Moscow for key strategic goods and resources.
Was Russia wrong to invade Ukraine? That is a bigger political and moral question that is way beyond the scope of this Deep Dive. What can, however, be said is that it is clear to those who consider themselves to be realists (seeing the world ‘as it is’) that no great power would accept another foreign power, let alone collection of powers (such as NATO), massing at its borders.
The United States would have responded equally vehemently to hypothetical Russian bases in neighbouring regions of Mexico, Canada, Cuba or Venezuela. In any case the US, UK and to a lesser extent France have themselves launched military interventions on arguable grounds.
Russia has strong emotional ties to Ukraine – it was where Russian civilisation began and where Russia’s Orthodox Church originated. The crucial question is: did Ukraine pose an immediate threat to Moscow?
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The war in could well mark another turning point for India – as a power that can influence events in distant battlegrounds to come to the aid of its nationals in need. It will be interesting to see if Delhi can eventually play the role of intermediary between the warring parties in the near future.
Meanwhile, it has shown willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to rescue its people abroad, a demonstration of sheer political grit and determination.
is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.