Published: 16th March 2022
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar blames war-torn Ukraine for delayed evacuation of Indian students
It is also noteworthy that as tensions were escalating in the early days between Russia and Ukraine (early and mid-Feb), the flight tickets of airlines, including Air India, were exorbitantly priced
Amidst criticism by the opposition over the delayed evacuation of Indian students from war-hit Ukraine, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, on March 15, blamed the country fighting the Russian invasion and said the leadership there made, "confusing political statements".
"Leaders in Ukraine were saying at the time that people leaving would contribute to creating a sense of panic...Sitting here, it is very easy to pass judgements saying: we should have done this earlier or faster, but please understand what was the situation of the students," said Jaishankar in the Rajya Sabha.
As the government could not evacuate students from within Ukraine, several students had to cross over to the neighbouring countries such as Hungary and Romania at their own risk. The government arranged for buses in the last phase of evacuation, under which, students were taken to neighbouring countries from Ukraine's Pisochyn and Poltava. The authorities then brought the students from these neighbouring countries, 22,500 of them, back to India under Operation Ganga — however. not all were back.
Naveen SG, a fourth-year medical student at the Kharkiv National Medical University, was killed in shelling on March 1, after he stepped out of his college bunker to buy food. This incident marked India's first, and as per reports, the only casualty in the war. His body has not yet been brought back to India by the authorities. Jaishankar said in the House that he will ensure that his mortal remains are brought back to the country.
"At this time, there are some processes at play. I do not want to share too many things at the moment until the picture is clear. But I want to make clear to the House that we will make every effort to bring back his remains," Jaishankar said. Indian students were encouraged to leave the country before the Russian invasion began on February 24. The first such official advisory by the Indian authorities was issued on February 15. The Indian Embassy in Kyiv had asked Indian nationals, particularly students, in Ukraine to "consider" leaving the country temporarily. Jaishankar said that the students were discouraged by the Ukrainian universities from leaving the country.
It is also noteworthy that as tensions were escalating in the early days between Russia and Ukraine (early and mid-Feb), the flight tickets of airlines, including Air India, were exorbitantly priced so much so that many students could not afford it. While in the usual days, when the flights tickets to India from Ukraine were available in the range of Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000, as tensions were rising, the flight rates went over and above Rs 60,000. Private carriers were later used by the government to bring back students from neighbouring countries.
However, Jaishankar added that students were misguided by the Ukrainian authorities. He said that Indian students were confused and hence, there was a delay in the evacuation process. He said, "President Zelenskyy was publically saying, 'Please don't be alarmed. What we should prevent at any cost is to prevent the spread of panic.' Now, what was happening to the poor students living in Ukraine was, they were watching Ukrainian television, they were reading Ukrainian newspapers, they were receiving signals from the Ukrainian Government telling them, 'Don't get alarmed, don't leave'. In fact, you heard leaders saying that anybody leaving is contributing to a sense of panic."
Meanwhile, students who spoke to media outlets such as Outlook said that the Indian Embassy did not inform them ahead of time about the impending crisis. They say that the US and other European nations sounded an alarm to their citizens much before the war started and helped them evacuate safely. “Indian Embassy’s advisory, issued on February 15, didn’t reflect the gravity of the situation as it said, 'students may consider leaving temporarily'. It should have rather said, 'students are advised to leave immediately'. The February 15 advisory made many of us think that the situation might not turn so alarming so soon,” a student from Ivano-Frankivsk National Medical University told the Outlook on February 28. At the time, the student was still stuck in Ukraine.
It was on February 20 that Embassy wrote, “In view of the continued high levels of tensions and uncertainties with respect to the situation in Ukraine, all Indian nationals whose stay is not deemed essential and all Indian students, are advised to leave Ukraine temporarily.” Jaishankar maintained in Rajya Sabha that the students were misguided by other factors, he said, "Whom do the students listen to? They listen, first of all, to the university, they listen to the student advisors, they listen to the local government and they listen to other students. They talk to their families and ask them if they should come back or not. Having said all that, let us also recognise that about 4,000 of them actually returned due to our advisories."
As the opposition intensified their criticism over the handling of the crisis, Jaishankar said, "Please think of the students. Don't tell students who are in that situation that at that time their judgement was wrong. I think they did what they thought was right under the circumstances and we should not second guess them at this time. In fact, from our side, we also increased the number of flights at that time to encourage people to come and reduced the cost of flights back home."
During the process of evacuation, Jaishankar stated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself spoke to Presidents of Russia and Ukraine on multiple occasions. "He (PM) specifically took up the issue of safe evacuation of Indian nationals, especially from Kharkiv and Sumy. PM also spoke to the Prime Ministers of Romania, Slovak Republic, Hungary and President of Poland to seek their support for facilitation of entry of Indian nationals to their countries," said the minister and added, "I was in constant touch with my counterparts from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova for similar reasons."
The minister also said that Foreign Secretary maintained contact with the Ambassadors of Ukraine and Russia in New Delhi, while Indian Ambassadors in Kyiv and Moscow followed up in their respective capitals. Prime Minister deputed four Union Ministers as Special Envoys to Romania, Hungary, Slovak Republic and Poland to facilitate Operation Ganga, Jaishankar said. This included Jyotiraditya Scindia to Romania, Kiren Rijiju to the Slovak Republic, Hardeep Singh Puri to Hungary and Gen (Retd) VK Singh to Poland.