On February 24, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion, breaching Ukraine’s borders from three sides. Subsequently, the airspace above the capital city of Kyiv was shut for commercial aircraft, effectively stopping civilians from flying out of the country. Russian attacks have continued for a second week, with the situation rapidly deteriorating.
Shelling and missile strikes in Ukraine’s civilian areas have displaced more than a million people, who are now seeking asylum in neighbouring countries. Most foreign governments started issuing advisories from February 15, requesting their citizens to leave Ukraine as speculative reports of Russia’s invasion started surfacing.
There were approximately 20,000 Indian nationals in Ukraine, out of which, only 8,000 left the country when the first advisory was issued by the government. As the conflict escalated, Indian citizens, many of whom were students, were forced to walk miles on foot in sub-zero temperatures, with very little food or water, towards Ukraine’s western borders for evacuation.
The Indian government had already been in conversation with countries that share a border with Ukraine – Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Slovak Republic – to evacuate their citizens. However, efforts were promptly accelerated on February 27, after several disturbing reports and accounts surfaced that Indian students were reportedly being beaten up and manhandled by the Ukrainian military personnel, and were not allowed to leave the country. The incidents, reportedly, took place at the Ukraine-Poland border, which led to the Indian government speeding up the rescue process under Operation Ganga. Before that, six flights had already been sent to Bucharest, which arrived in Mumbai on February 25, evacuating over 200 people.
On February 28, PM Narendra Modi chaired a meeting with high-level officials to discuss evacuation plans for Indian citizens in Ukraine. He selected four cabinet ministers to act as “Special Envoys of the Indian government”, to coordinate the evacuation. Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Hardeep Singh Puri was sent to Hungary, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia to Romania and Moldova, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju to Slovakia, and VK Singh, the Minister of State (MoS) for Road Transport and Highways, to Poland.
A statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) reassured, “Entire government machinery is working round-the-clock to ensure that all Indian nationals there are safe and secure.” The PMO also announced the dispatch of the first consignment of relief supplies to Ukraine.
The next day, on March 1, Russian missiles attacked Freedom Square, damaging a government building, opera house, and concert hall in Kharkiv. According to local authorities, at least 10 people were killed and over 35 people were injured in the attack. Among the reported casualties was Naveen Shekharappa, a 21-year-old Indian student, hailing from Karnataka’s Haveri. He was a fourth-year medical student, who had reportedly left the bunker to get food.
Shekharappa’s death prompted Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to contact Ukrainian and Russian ambassadors to reiterate the demand for safe passage for Indian nationals. As of March 1, 15 evacuation flights had been deployed and 26 more were planned for the upcoming days, till March 8. According to a statement issued by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, a few hundred Indian nationals still remain in Ukraine.
The ongoing Operation Ganga has been a joint effort of several departments and ministries such as External Affairs, Civil Aviation, the Indian Air Force (IAF), the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), and commercial flight operators namely Air India, IndiGo, SpiceJet, Air India Express and Go First (formally known as Go Air).
The NDRF became a part of the efforts to provide relief to Indian students and assist with the humanitarian and medical aid to be sent to Ukraine as promised by the Indian government. According to news agency ANI, “NDRF provided relief material including blankets, sleeping mats, solar study lamps etc for people of Ukraine.” The relief material was sent via an IAF flight that left for Poland on Wednesday morning, and another flight that left for Romania the same afternoon. The NDRF prepared to send 100 tents and 2,500 blankets to the IAF base in Hindon from which it will be sent to Romania. Foreign chapters of several Indian organisations such as the Art of Living Foundation and BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha are also part of the relief effort to evacuate Indian and Ukrainian nationals, along with citizens of other countries.
As of March 2, 60 percent of Indian nationals had crossed over Ukraine’s borders to the neighbouring countries. An advisory was issued on the same day, urging all Indian nationals in Kharkiv to leave immediately and proceed to Pesochin, Babaye, or Bezlyudokva, as the situation in the city deteriorates further.
On March 3, the IAF deployed an American origin C-17 Globemaster for evacuation to Romania at 4 am. However, government sources have told ANI that they are switching from C-17 to the Russian-origin Ilyushin-76 heavy-lift transport aircraft, adding that many Indian students are being allowed into the Russian territory for evacuation. So far, C-17 and commercial planes were the only ones deployed for the rescue ops.
“A total of 18,000 Indian nationals have left Ukraine since our first advisory was released. 30 flights under Operation Ganga have brought back 6,400 Indians from Ukraine so far. In the next 24 hours, 18 flights have been scheduled,” MEA spokesperson Bagchi said in a statement, on Thursday. On the same day, an Indian student was shot at Kyiv, and was subsequently hospitalised. MoS VK Singh confirmed the news and told ANI that the student was trying to escape from the Ukrainian capital, and was wounded in the firing. On March 4, the MEA announced that they are sending two more consignments of humanitarian aid with medicines, medical equipment and so on, via an IAF flight to Romania and Slovakia.
Operation Ganga is still underway. As of this morning, over 11,000 Indian nationals have been evacuated from Ukraine, as informed by MoS External Affairs V Muraleedharan. According to reports, by March 10, a total of 80 flights would have been deployed as part of the effort to evacuate Indians from a conflict-torn Ukraine.