The current events in Ukraine have again posed the question of safety of the large Indian diaspora living abroad. However, this is also a case study here about the Indian government’s success in rescuing its citizens in distress. How did India transform itself from a non-aligned balancing power into a nation that is assertive and jumps to rescue its citizens in distress abroad and with full diplomatic might? In order to comprehend the transformation in India’s Foreign Policy we have to understand what changed.
In 2014, the Late Mrs. Sushma Swaraj took oath as External Affairs Minister. Under PM Narendra Modi and her command, India’s Foreign Policy transformation took a more assertive shape. India was no longer a silent power, she became synonymous with the 24/7 availability of India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the common people were able to reach the Government now whenever they were in distress. She used social media to its full potential and turned Twitter into a Helpline to rescue any Indian in distress abroad.
Her famous tweet (above) signaled a change in the power corridors of Delhi, a new approach to governance, a Foreign Policy shift for the greater good of the Indian citizen. Today, the Indian Foreign Service is continuing the legacy of Mrs. Swaraj with good work, and the baton passed to the able leadership of the current External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar. Army of Indian Diplomats are now abreast with the protocols, trying to rescue any stranded Indian abroad under the able guidance of PM Narendra Modi and the External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar.
India’s Success in Rescue Missions since 2014
India’s rescue missions have matured over the years and has found a newfound vigor since the BJP Government took over administration in 2014. Let us review some of these operations and prominent rescue missions.
Operation Rahat | Yemen: In 2015, the conflict between Yemen and Houthis Rebels raged on. The Rebels had occupied large swathes of Yemeni land. The United Arab Emirates came to the rescue of Yemen and declared a military offensive against the rebels. It meant thousands of people from various nationalities were stuck in Yemen with no way out of the conflict zone. Every country was trying to rescue their citizens.
India initially was executing its rescue operations by air, employing Air India Flights and Indian Air Force C-17 Globe Masters. As the operation grew bigger, the rescue operation was extended through the sea route. India deployed multiple vessels for the operation INS Mumbai a missile destroyer, INS Tarkash Talwar-class frigate, INS Sumitra a Sarayu-class patrol vessel, two transport ships of The Shipping Corporation of India – The Kavaratti, and the Coral were also pressed into service for rescue operation.
The World was watching Indians in amazement, at the ease in which we were executing our rescue missions even when the fighting was raging close to the port area.
Soon, India started receiving requests from various countries to rescue their citizens. It was the largest rescue operation from that region, by the end of the ‘Operation Raahat’, Indian Government had evacuated 4640 Indian citizens, 960 foreign nationals of 41 countries from Yemen. Operation Raahat was led from the front by General V K Singh (Retd.) and it was a tremendous success, which displayed the capabilities of Indians in the eyes of World.
Evacuation during Terrorist Attacks in Brussels: In 2016, five Islamic State terrorists attacked Belgium’s Brussels Airport at Zaventem, and an important Metro station in Maalbeek, Central Brussels. It was one the deadliest attacks executed on Belgium that took 32 innocent lives. Victims of the attack were mostly travelers from different countries who found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. The attack had brought a country with 11 million population to a standstill.
At the time, around 242 Indians including flight crew members were stranded in Brussels due to the emergency measures taken by the Belgium Government. The Indian Embassy in Belgium immediately set up helplines for the stranded Indians. The rescue mission was hindered due to the tense situation following the attack and was delayed by two days. The Indian Government through its back channel negotiations was able to get clearance for two flights from Brussels to India. One flight with 155 passengers landed in Delhi and another carrying 70 passengers landed in Mumbai. The operation was executed without any fanfare that most mainstream media articles ignored the fact and efforts of the Indian Embassy Staff, External Affairs Ministry, and Government of India for rescuing and bringing back stranded Indians home.
COVID19 Pandemic: In 2020, at the peak of COVID Pandemic, when the world was under lockdowns. Many Indians were stranded in various countries caught unaware of the magnitude of the Pandemic. The Indian Government launched many missions to bring back Indians home and in certain occasions even helped other nationals stranded.
Some of the successful missions that we can prominently note are:
Evacuation from China and Japan: Government of India undertook evacuation of Indians who were stranded in China during the outbreak of the Pandemic. The Indian Government not only evacuated Indians but also helped people from other nationalities to be rescued.
The Modi Government managed to evacuate 890 individuals including 842 Indian nationals and 48 individuals belonging to different nationalities including Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, the USA, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru.
Rescue Mission | By Air: This mission started in 2020 at the peak of pandemic to help stranded Indians. This was at a time where there were curbs on Commercial flights Worldwide and countries only allowed special flights to repatriate their citizens. It is one of the largest civilian repatriation exercises conducted by any country in recent history! Initially, Air India was leading the operations, but later other private operators joined the mission. Although the Government has not paid any subsidy or grants for this mission, instead the Government has enabled the special flights to be possible in a restricted environment through its diplomacy.
The mission is still operational and in its 16th phase. However, as of 31st October 2021, 2.17 lakh flights have been flown that have benefited 1.83 crore passengers. (Stats based on Business Standard article dated 28, February 2022)
Rescue Mission | By Sea: The mission ‘Operation Samudra Setu’ became possible due to the efforts of the Indian Navy, which deployed many of its battle ships to resolve the humanitarian crisis. The Operation lasted for 55 days and covered over 23,000 km by sea, and ended up rescuing 3,992 Indian Citizens and bringing them back to home.
Operation Devi Shakti | Afghan Crisis: In August 2021, the sudden withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan created a power vacuum in Afghanistan. Soon chaos followed, and every nation was scrambling to safeguard their citizens stranded in Kabul and elsewhere within Afghanistan. The Indian Government launched Operation Devi Shakti and rescued 669 people from certain death in Afghanistan, as the situation was dire with militants taking over the country in a short time. Out of 669 people rescued, 448 were Indians and 206 were Afghan nationals.
The Indian Government not only rescued stranded citizens in this crisis, it also contributed towards humanitarian assistance to people of Afghanistan. The humanitarian assistance consisted of medical supplies that were handed over to the representatives of World Health Organization (WHO), and the medicine will be used and administered at Indira Gandhi Children Hospital in Kabul. This hospital was set up with assistance from India in 1970’s. Hospital has been upgraded constantly with active support of the Indian Government; today it has 400 beds, with recently adding 41 beds to operationalize new diagnostic capabilities.
Russia – Ukraine Conflict: The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been brewing for a long time. To understand this conflict a little better, we have to analyze all the forces involved. NATO; the amalgamation of the military power of European countries. It came into existence post World War II primarily to safeguard the European countries. The USA leads NATO. The Russian Federation and Ukraine that were formed post disintegration of Soviet Union or the USSR are the parties for this conflict.
Fast-forward to the 1990’s, post the reunification of West and East Germany in 1989 and based on the deal struck between the USA and the Soviet Union, the Cold War had ended. During the negotiations between the USA, NATO, and the Soviet Union, one of the points that the Soviet Union insisted was that NATO will not expand eastward. However, as per the Russians, the Western World with America as its leader has broken this promise that was agreed in “Warsaw Pact”. Further, the policies of the West and Ukraine’s behavior with the Russian Federation has pushed Ukraine directly in conflict with the Russian Federation.
With respect to India, we have always been a non-aligned state maintaining a neutral stand and keeping our national interests above all else. That means India is able to maintain good relations with various countries including the United States of America, the European Union / NATO, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. At the same time, India has retained her bargaining power with these World Powers. India’s amazing “Diplomatic Prowess” to evacuate approximately 20,000 of its citizens from the Conflict Zone in a matter of weeks is nothing but a miracle. India has accomplished something that even powerful countries like The United States were unable to do so during this conflict.
The Indian Government, through the efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was in continuous discussions with the Russian President, Ukraine President, and his counterparts in Ukraine’s neighborhood – Poland, Slovak Republic, and Romania. During the discussion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sought assistance and continued support from these countries to evacuate Indians safely out of Ukraine. At the peak of the War, at the behest of PM Modi’s request, The Russian Federation halted the assault and War for 8 hours giving a safe passage for Indians to evacuate. This is again a diplomatic victory that no other country was able to achieve and is not a small feat.
- There were many challenges faced by the Indian Embassy with the available staff at its disposal to attend to such a large-scale conflict zone and with the responsibility of 20,000 citizens’ lives at stake. The consulate staff’s primary responsibility was to ensure
- Evacuation of Indians out of the conflict zone safely, this also meant arranging for a safe passage from within the conflict zones,
- Facilitating easy border transfers into European Union countries as Ukraine is not part The EU, and those Indians who did not already have an EU Visa / Schengen Visa had to be fast tracked for exit from Ukraine and entry into EU countries to meet the departure schedules of repatriation flights organized by Indian Government.
- Organizing and preparing the ground for a smooth transit and exit from Ukraine saw its share of hurdles.
All these hurdles were tackled and overcome by the Indian Government Machinery from the highest level. On the ground, the Indian Foreign Services (IFS) and the External Affairs Ministry worked with impunity to execute the strategies of the Indian Government. It shows how Indian foreign policy has changed over the years.
The Indian Government managed to evacuate its citizens in two phases – Operation Vande Bharat, and Operation Ganga.
Operation Vande Bharat: Before the Russia-Ukraine conflict could turn dangerous, the Indian Government pressed the Air India flights into action to bring back as many Indians as possible in the short time frame available. Air India scheduled flights on 22nd, 24th and 26th February 2022, and was able to bring 240 Indians back home. However, Russia declared War on 24th February, and Ukrainian airspace was closed for commercial flights and all the Air India flights had to return to India mid-flight. This meant a large number of Indians were still stuck in the conflict zone.
Operation Ganga: The Power of Indian Republic and its Diplomacy was on full display when Citizens of other Countries like Pakistan, Turkey, and many other nationalities flaunted Indian Flag on their vehicles to escape the conflict zone without being hurt. To ensure smooth transit of the large Indian student contingent, the Indian Government deployed four Senior Ministers to facilitate the easy border crossing of Indians who were stuck in the conflict zone. Apart from Air India, the Indian Air force ‘C17-Globe Master’ was also pressed into service to bring back Indian students to safety.
Conclusion, India has turned a leaf and has become more assertive in the International arena and does not shy away to show its might from time-to-time. The new India will do all in its power to rescue its compatriots in distress and also take steps to safeguard its interests abroad as well as at home.
Welcome to the New India that is Bharat!
India’s Foreign Policy since Independence https://www.drishtiias.com/to-the-points/Paper2/phases-of-indian-foreign-policy
Legacy of Late Mrs. Sushma Swaraj as EAM https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/sushma-swaraj-the-external-affairs-minister-who-never-slept-1578202-2019-08-07
Operation Raahat | Yemen https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=118176 & https://www.firstpost.com/india/1000-nationals-41-countries-indias-yemen-evacuation-finally-ends-world-floored-2192271.html
Operation Samudra Setu https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/content/indian-navy-completes-%E2%80%9Coperation-samudra-setu%E2%80%9D
Afghan Crisis: Operation Devi Shakti https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34643/Evacuation+of+Indians+and+Afghans+under+Operation+Devi+Shakti+and+shipment+of+humanitarian+assistance+for+the+people+of+Afghanistan & https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/topic/operation-devi-shakti
Operation Ganga: https://mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/34916/transcript+of+special+briefing+on+operation+ganga+march+01+2022
Operation Vande Bharat: https://www.business-standard.com/podcast/current-affairs/what-is-vande-bharat-mission-122022800037_1.html
Evacuation from China during COVID19 https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=200052
Terrorist Attacks in Brussels, Belgium https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35869985,
(The author is an entrepreneur and Secretary, BJP Mahila Morcha, Bengaluru North District. Views and opinions expressed are author’s own)