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Operation Ganga to evacuate Indians from Ukraine has had some successes but also exposed several shortcomings.
More than 10,000 Indians have been evacuated and credit for this must go to the four ministers – Gen. VK Singh, Hardeep Singh Puri, Kiren Rejiju and Jytoriaditya Scindia. It must however be said that Scindia seems taken up with the optics. In a video circulated on Twitter, he was upbraided by a Romanian mayor for seeming to be in-charge when he was the one making arrangements.
The evacuation from Kharkiev must be called a major achievement since it is close to the Russian border and the city has seen some of the fiercest fighting. The last of Kharkiev Indians left on cramped trains without food or water on a long journey to Lviv through Kiev. Many would be brought home from Hungary.
Thousands of Indians including Tamils are still stranded inside Ukraine including students at Sumy. They have been advised to stay put by Indian authorities, although, desperate for food and water, they want to leave. The prime minister intervened personally to seek safe passage but that hasn’t happened so far.
As war drags on and puts Ukrainians under greater stress, the safety of Indians may well be in danger. The endgame of Operation Ganga may drag on and now seems inextricably linked to the war itself. India’s calibrated UN strategy may not pay much dividends in Operation Ganga as the belligerents are likely not inclined to prioritize Indian concerns.
A notable feature of Operation Ganga is the hearty participation of volunteers of faith-based groups who boldly ventured into Ukraine to support the Indian government’s initiatives. Sewa International, Swaminarayan Trust, Khalsa Aid, ISKCON and The Art of Living are among those who have pitched in with their networks among the Indian diaspora and natives in neighbouring countries as well as inside Ukraine.
A notable feature of Operation Ganga is the hearty participation of volunteers of faith-based groups who boldly ventured into Ukraine to support the Indian government’s initiatives.
If this was today India’s exercise of soft power, it seems to have worked. But there have been failings too.
Appointments to Ambassador positions have often been driven by ideological considerations and that has not helped. These appointees are often puritanical in their approach, keeping away from meat and Vodka. They may be skillful in business matters, but establishing friendly networks often goes beyond business and requires syncing with local customs.
The two ministers of state, Meenakshi Lekhi and V Muraleedharan, have been non-players in Operation Ganga. They were political appointees and were not suited to the roles they were appointed for.
There are 23,000 Indian students in China, 5,300 in Kazakhstan and 16,500 in Russia. The Ukraine war shows we have not drawn up any plans to quickly evacuate them if there was a conflict
What happened prior to Operation Ganga is an indictment of the foreign service establishment and the lack of policy on a crucial issue. Our embassies just did not have the resources nor the capacity to ensure quick evacuation of our students. Mixed messages were sent. Our call center in Ukraine did not help much. The Congress party has rightly attacked the government for arranging flights before the war with inflated fares that were out of the reach of most students.
A majority of the students in Ukraine and similar countries come from not-so-affluent backgrounds. Many have opted for these countries since they are cheaper than studying in India.
Out of the total Indian student population of 11 lakhs in foreign countries, some 4 lakhs are in the US and Canada. Two lakhs are in the UAE and 1 lakh in Australia. There are 23,000 in China, 5,300 in Kazakhstan and 16,500 in Russia. In case of conflict, the Indian government should be able to evacuate them quickly. The Ukraine war shows we had not drawn up any plans.
A very Indian but ugly controversy has broken out on the sidelines. There have been complaints of bias against students from southern states. UP seems to be getting special attention due to elections there.
The Tamil Nadu government has requested Union government support to its delegation going to the region and help in evacuating Tamil students. While the Tamil Nadu team would be leveraging their contacts in the substantial Tamil diaspora, it raises the question of the Indian diaspora acting unitedly in foreign countries. In recent years, sections of the Indian diaspora in the US, which typically supported the Democrats, have veered towards the Republicans. This has created a division there.
Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh government has also sought to send a delegation.
(Dr J Jeganaathan, is Sr. Assistant Professor of National Security Studies in the School of National Security Studies, Central University of Jammu, J&K-UT. The views expressed here are his personal)
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