More batches of Indian students enter Hungary from Ukrainian side at Zahony crossing, travelling onward to Budapest for return to India by AI flight. (PTI)
New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a high-level meeting on the Ukraine crisis here late on Sunday night, when the evacuation mission of Indian citizens was discussed at length, as many distress messages from Indians stranded there, particularly students, started pouring in. With around 15,000 Indians still in the war zone, India is racing against time to pull out its citizens as Ukraine’s borders remained clogged and at one Poland border Indian students were reportedly flogged.
As flights started landing in Indian airports with hundreds of students who were lucky to escape in time, the Indian government assured those still in the conflict zone not to lose hope and that each and every one of them would be brought back.
Commerce minister Piyush Goyal told the Indian students who landed in Mumbai that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar were actively engaged with the leaders of various countries, including Russia and Ukraine, to allow safe passage to Indian citizens. Other ministers, including civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and urban development minister Hardeep Singh Puri, went to Delhi airport to receive the Indian students and give them a pep talk.
"Every student is being brought back. Mr Modi is himself monitoring the situation and we have sent teams to neighbouring nations of Ukraine. The MEA has also set up a control room," Mr Puri said. The Indian government made it clear this evacuation mission, termed "Operation Ganga", is free of cost and fleeing Indian citizens do not have to pay as the government is meeting their flight and other expenses. Several state governments have said they are making arrangements to bring back their people from New Delhi and Mumbai, where they are landing. So far Air India was pressed into service but now SpiceJet and IndiGo too will operate evacuation flights from Budapest and Bucharest.
On Saturday, India’s ambassador in Romania Rahul Srivastawa told the returning students that in their worst time they must always remember this day, when they faced a war and escaped safe. "Remember this date, 26 February. Whenever in life you feel things are becoming difficult, remember this day and everything will be fine," he told the students on board an Air India flight to Mumbai.
Indians fleeing the war zone have been asked to prominently display the tricolour on their buses to escape amid confusion as the Russian war machines moved menacingly in Ukrainian cities. While many Indians have managed to reach "safe zones" or border areas, some still remain stuck inside Ukrainian cities and are unable to move out due to the precarious situation.
It was reported that at the Poland border, many Indian students were stopped by the Ukrainian border security guards after India abstained in the vote on the UN resolution against the Russian military action on Ukraine. "When your government has not cooperated with us, why should we cooperate with you?" they said, the Indian students claimed on the social media. Many of the Indian students are travelling without passports or other travel documents due to the rush to leave the country. There were unconfirmed videos circulating on social media of Ukrainian border police beating Indian students and preventing them crossing over to Poland.
This comes after Ukrainian ambassador to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya issued a diplomatic threat to India, saying the countries which abstained from voting should have thought before taking the decision. "It is exactly (for) the safety of your nationals in Ukraine that you should be the first to vote to stop the war to save your nationals in Ukraine, and not to think that you should vote or not vote," he said.
However, Poland’s ambassador to India Adam Burakowski said that his country was allowing Indian students to enter without visas.
Foreign secretary Harsh V. Shringla said he was coordinating with both Ukraine and Russia on the safety of Indian citizens. "I called in both ambassadors of Russia and Ukraine separately, conveyed my concerns on the safety of Indian citizens. I have shared the locations where Indian citizens are concentrated. Both ambassadors took note of our concerns and assured us of the safety of Indian citizens," Mr Shringla said.
"The Government of India has launched multi-pronged Operation Ganga to evacuate our citizens stranded in Ukraine. This evacuation process will be at government cost," the FS said. He said so far under Operation Ganga, thousands of Indian nationals have been flown out of Romania and Hungary and another thousand have been evacuated from Ukraine through land routes. He added that the border crossing to Hungary and Romania was functioning, but the exit point to Poland was clogged due to lakhs of foreign nationals trying to escape from that point.
"Those who judge that the situation is not conducive for travel, or are unable to leave due to any reason, may wait until further developments," the Embassy of India in Kyiv said in an advisory.
"Those who are near the borders of Hungary and Romania are guided towards their border points in phases," he informed. The FS said the Indian government had given adequate warning to people and asked them to leave the country as the war clouds started gathering. "Our embassy in Kyiv and our ministry had issued a number of advisories prior to the situation developing. 4,000 of our nationals left before the conflict, pursuant to these advisories. We estimated that about 15,000 citizens are left in Ukraine," Mr Shringla said.
Students who landed in Delhi said people from neighbouring countries are doing their bit. "We came through Romania and people there prepared home-cooked meals for us," said the students who came back from Ukraine. Countries like Austria and Germany allowed refugees and fleeing people to travel on their trains without tickets.
While Ukraine and Russia have agreed to hold talks, the United Nations Security Council will vote to convene a rare emergency session of the 193-member General Assembly on the Russian military action. This will be only the 11th Emergency Special Session of the UNGA since 1950.