Missing in Action: Indian Diplomats in Ukraine

Indian Ambassador to Ukraine was transferred in Nov to Hungary and following the Russian invasion, the Indian embassy shifted from Kyiv to Lyiv on the western border, leaving Indian students stranded

Indian students prepare food around a campfire near Hrebenne, Poland on March 1
Indian students prepare food around a campfire near Hrebenne, Poland on March 1

Nilova Roychaudhury

The devastated father of Naveen KG, a 21-year-old medical student who, on March 1, sadly became the first Indian to be killed in the Russian military offensive on Ukraine, said no one from the Indian Embassy had reached out to Indian students stranded in Kharkiv, where thousands of Indian students study and which Russian troops specially targeted.

This is a shocking reflection on the Indian diplomatic mission in Ukraine, which has now wound up its operations in Kyiv and relocated to Lyiv, near Ukraine’s western border, “to facilitate border crossings.”

The Embassy has done little except issuing advisories. They have not physically reached out to anyone and even appear unaware of how many Indians have left that country since February 15.

Waking up late to the escalating tension between Ukraine and Russia, despite weeks of Western intelligence reports suggesting an imminent attack on Ukraine, India’s outgoing Ambassador in Ukraine, Partha Satpathy, and diplomatic staff are missing in action.

Major western countries evacuated their citizens weeks ahead of the actual conflict. Curiously, the Indian embassy issued an advisory only on February 20, urging students and others to move out ‘temporarily’ from Ukraine, four days before the invasion. Seven days into the war, thousands of Indian, mostly medical, students remain in Kharkiv, and their safe evacuation is now the focus of Indian efforts. Beyond issuing advisories asking students to move to railway stations and other borders, Satpathy and his mission staff shockingly have not been visible anywhere in Ukraine.

Three ‘urgent’ advisories this week urged those in Kharkiv to reach three places, 11, 12 and 15 kms from the local railway station. “For their safety and security, they must leave Kharkiv immediately repeat immediately in the light of the deteriorating (sic) situation. They should proceed to Pesochin, Babaye and Bezlyudovka as soon as possible for their safety," the embassy said, absolving itself of responsibility. How they were expected to reach there was left to them.

Satpathy possibly ceased taking interest after he was transferred in November as India’s envoy to Hungary. While it was a routine, annual transfer and successors generally join in February, tension was already rising. It does not reflect well on the MEA and the External Affairs Minister the manner in which the Indian mission was left to drift.

Satpathy, quipped a retired diplomat, has not quite performed ‘Operation Ganga’ like the legendary king Bhagirath. Unlike the ancient king, who brought Ganga down to earth to release his people from the curse of Kapil ‘muni’ (sage), Satpathy has been MIA (Missing in Action).

Missing in Action: Indian Diplomats in Ukraine

It is also incomprehensible why a mission to evacuate stranded Indians out of a war zone is named ‘Operation Ganga.’ Perhaps the PM was motivated by his constituency and the auspicious occasion of ‘Shivratri,’ when he decided to dispatch four of his ministers to Europe. However, the ‘special envoy’ ministers would not enter but have reached their assigned countries neighbouring Ukraine.

Jyotiraditya Scindia is coordinating evacuation operations in Romania and Moldova, Kiren Rijiju in Slovakia, former diplomat and now Minister Hardeep Puri is in Hungary and Gen. V.K. Singh (retd) has reached Poland. It is unclear what role they will play, besides handing out tricolours and getting themselves photographed.

It is also unclear why the expertise of four ministers in the MEA was not utilised. While EAM S Jaishankar is probably working the phones, diplomats were not clear what the three Ministers of State were doing. At least one of them, Meenakshi Lekhi, called on ‘Sadhguru’ Jaggi Vasudev and apparently learnt about soil conservation.

For Indians stranded, the problems are inside Ukraine. Indians trying to leave are facing acute hardship, discrimination and violence. The violence probably has more to do with positions India adopted on the conflict because of which Indians are being seen as fair-weather friends.

India abstained from voting on a resolution to censure Russia at the UN Security Council. It abstained again from a procedural vote seeking a rare emergency session of the UN General Assembly. At the UNGA, too, India abstained from voting this week when a Ukrainian resolution condemning the Russian invasion was adopted by 141 to 5 votes with 35 abstentions.

Ronen Sen, formerly Indian Ambassador to Russia (twice) and Indian Ambassador to the USA, Germany and High Commissioner to Britain, said India chose to do what would serve it best, that every country is guided by its own interests.

India’s inability to censure Russia for its “blatant act of aggression” however has not been received well in Ukraine. That India chose to abstain and not criticise Russia, despite the threat of using nuclear power by President Putin, disappointed Ukrainians. It’s also unclear if Ukraine was taken into confidence by India before the voting.

Russia (from the Soviet era) has been a partner without parallel.

India’s dependencies on Russia in strategic and core sectors of the military, security, energy, science and technology and space are also considerable. In recent decades, India’s relations with the US have also risen exponentially. India has deep strategic partnerships with France, Germany, Britain, the EU and Japan too, all of whom strongly oppose Russia’s actions. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk.

Worryingly, more than 600 Indian students remain stranded in Sumy, a city in north-eastern Ukraine, hoping to be evacuated. Not a single Indian student from Sumy State University, near the Russian border, had been evacuated, Viraj Walde from Nagpur told PTI late Wednesday. “The students are terrified. Food and drinking water supplies are depleting. The banks and ATMs are running out of cash,” he informed.

The Indian embassy issues advisories, students said, but no personnel are on the ground to help them either en route to border areas or at exit points. Students walking and waiting for days in bitter cold, pushed around and deboarded from trains have found little assistance even as the four ministers and MEA officials wait with flowers to greet them.

The disappointing performance of the Indian mission in Ukraine sharply contrasts with earlier evacuations, particularly those before 2014. Even six months ago, when the Taliban captured Kabul, Ambassador Rudrendra Tandon and his team brought back every Indian stranded there.

Ambassador M. Manimekalai, as India’s Ambassador to Libya in 2011, travelled to Sirte in the war zone, to evacuate Indians stranded there amid European airstrikes. She personally supervised clearance of over 10,000 travel documents and ensured that 16,000 Indians were evacuated safely. Ambassador Ausaf Sayeed in Yemen and earlier, Ambassador Nengcha Louvhum Mukhopadhyay in Lebanon and Ambassador Suresh Reddy in Iraq, are all stellar examples to emulate.

Around 170,000 Indians were evacuated from Kuwait in 1990, with minimal fuss, no cell phones and Air India doing the heavy lifting. All those operations were not publicised PR events. No roses were offered to those returning nor were photo-ops with ministers available on arrival! Most importantly, no Indian died during these huge evacuation operations.

All of which could further complicate an already fraught situation. It is unlikely that hostilities between the western democracies and Russia will go away soon, which will continue to test India’s diplomatic abilities.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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