Indian embassy’s failure to issue proper advisories sealed fate of thousands of students stranded in Ukraine

The Indian embassy issued advisories which failed to give a clear indication of escalation of violence. It also put the onus on the students to leave Ukraine by making their own arrangements

File Photo
File Photo

Neeta Kolhatkar

On March 1, after Russia began a severe assault on Kharkiv in Ukraine, all hell broke loose in India. Thousands of Indian students were still stuck in their campuses, unable to travel to the borders. Last minute appeals and emotional messages were circulated by the stranded students.

When this reporter spoke with some parents and spouses, they were worried for the safety of their children and relatives. All students were ordered to head to the nearest railway stations, where more drama was in store. Thousands of students of all nationalities were jostling to get in. Female students from India were being allowed to board even as males were told to stay put.

The students’ confusion and disappointment was shared on various social media groups like TeamSOSIndia on Telegram, WhatsApp on so on. Buses, trains were crowded and foreign students were not being given priority. Many Indians had left on foot, some were stuck in the bunkers and many others simply stranded. 1200 students left on foot from Kharkiv and many more later, after one Indian student was shot in Kharkiv on March 1.

Another student died on March 2.

It was only on Thursday evening that the Indian Prime Minister finally intervened and asked for some time for evacuation of Indian students that the Russian authorities gave them time to leave Kharkiv by 18:00 hours (Ukraine time).

The Indian embassy had asked Indian students to leave Ukraine only on February 22, by which time the flight fares went beyond Rs 1 lakh.

A second advisory was issued by the Indian embassy on March 2, asking Indian students in Kharkiv to leave by any means of transport or on foot to Pisochyn which is 11 kilometres away or Babai 12 kilometres away. A three-hour safe passage offer was made by Russia for Indian students to let them reach the borders.

At the last minute, students were trying to connect with siblings and friends who they could not communicate with. Panicky messages of lost members were being circulated on all groups.

Just looking at the advisories tells any person with basic education that the typical bureaucratic language fails to give a clear indication of escalation of violence. Instead, the Indian government put the onus on the students to leave Ukraine and that too after innumerable unanswered calls and email messages by families of stranded students.

Compare this attitude to that of the American government which on January 23 elevated Travel Advisory to Level Four – Do Not Travel – due to the increased threat of Russian military action.

“We authorise the departure of US government employees and order the departure of all family members of US government employees at our

embassy in Kyiv. Our recommendation to US citizens currently in Ukraine is that they should consider departing now using commercial or privately available transportation options. To be clear, President Biden has said military action by Russia could come at any time. The United States will not be in a position to evacuate US citizens in such a contingency. SS citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly…” it said.

But only a handful of Indian students and staff left from college campuses. Afsha Khan, an Indian medical student, said the US advisory made her uneasy. She and some other Indian students in Zaporizhzhye State Medical University then asked the authorities for advise on further course of action, in response to which they told that they needed clear cut instructions from the Indian embassy.

Repeated calls and emails to the officials at the Indian embassy, however, went unanswered. It was only on February 15 that the embassy issued an advisory saying, “In view of the uncertainties of the current situation in Ukraine, particularly students whose stay is not essential, may consider leaving temporarily. Indian nationals are also advised to avoid all non-essential travel to Ukraine. Indian nationals are requested to keep the embassy to reach them where required. The Embassy continues to function normally to provide all services to Indan nationals in Ukraine.”

English grammar apart, the language used in this advisory was confusing and gave no clear directions to Indian students and citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Had they done so, only then embassy officials could have held the students responsible.

“The students were pushed to the wall with this advisory as college officials made it clear that students must give 100% attendance. If they had left, it was equivalent to work off, which is in simple language ATKT. It is extremely tough for students to pass that ATKT and they would have lost one year. Education is essential and we parents told them to focus on their studies,” said Ujwala Bhogle, whose daughter boarded a train from Kharkiv on March 2 after being forced to walk for a few hours.

Khan, who reached Mumbai after a three-day ordeal and using multiple modes of transport said, “All the chaos and terrible plight of students could have been avoided had the Indian embassy given us clear directions to leave. Which student would feel education is not essential? In addition, our university officials too made it clear that if we left ‘temporarily’ as the Indian government said, we had to return within two weeks to resume classes or else face expulsion.”

Parents lament that the real picture has been not been presented to people in India. The mishandling of the situation by the Indian government is evident and now parents have begun sharing it despite fear of reprisals.

“We felt our children suffered because the government failed to be pro-active. Nobody thought there would be a war, but the Indian embassy should have given clear directions because 20,000 Indian students can’t be evacuated in an emergency in three flights. Now nobody is there from the embassy while our students are stuck in metro stations even as Russian attacks have intensified,” said Dr. Satish Nalawade, a worried parent.

Thousands of families across India are worried as they are not sure of the safety of their loved ones. Abhishek Navratna, who graduated from Ukraine, is worried for his wife who has still not returned. He said the pressure on them is to not say anything negative against the government.

“The embassy questioned and pulled up some students who went up to the doors of the Indian embassy. The harried students told them of their desperation and these students were then put up in a school temporarily. We families are not being allowed to speak up, all television channels only want good stories and praises lavished on the government,” laments Navratna.

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Published: 03 Mar 2022, 5:33 PM