Updated: March 3, 2022 11:04:13 am
India’s evacuation exercise faces a challenge after the death of an Indian student during shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city which has been attacked by Russia. The death also complicates New Delhi’s diplomatic hand — it had been projecting itself as a neutral actor, refusing to take sides.
Suddenly, the safety and security of around 8,000 Indian nationals still there has become an issue of urgent concern. Given that half of these students are stuck in the eastern parts of Ukraine where battles are raging, the evacuation faces a logistical challenge.
New Delhi also plans to move all Indian diplomats away from capital Kyiv since all Indians there have left and there’s no saying where the shells will land if the city comes under attack. But that would mean fewer resources on the ground, as well as lack of diplomatic eyes and ears.
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To convey India’s concern, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla called the ambassadors of Russia and Ukraine to reiterate the demand for urgent safe passage of Indian nationals still in Kharkiv and cities in other conflict zones. Similar action is being undertaken by Indian ambassadors in Russia and Ukraine.
“We have reiterated our demand not just in Delhi but also in Moscow and Kiev to diplomatic and military authorities of both countries,” Shringla said.
Sources said the “deteriorating situation in Kharkiv is a matter of grave concern” and “the safety and security of Indian nationals in that city is of utmost priority” for the government.
“We had already taken up with the Russian and Ukrainian embassies the pressing requirement of safe passage for Indian nationals, including students, from Kharkiv and other cities in conflict zones. This demand has been repeatedly made of Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of this conflict on February 24. It has been conveyed to both their ambassadors in New Delhi as well as taken up in their capitals,” sources said.
“From the Indian side, preparations for evacuation have been in place for some time now. An Indian team has been positioned in the Russian city of Belgorod, close to the Ukrainian border. However, the conflict situation in and around Kharkiv and nearby cities has been an obstacle,” the sources said.
Kharkiv is about 40 km from the Ukraine-Russia border. Therefore, sources said, “it is imperative that Russia and Ukraine respond to our need for safe passage urgently”.
This complicates India’s diplomacy since it is caught between warring parties and now expects both sides to cooperate in evacuation of Indian nationals from the conflict zones.
Over the last one month, India has done a tightrope walk — Russia on one side, and Western partners-backed Ukraine on the other side.
The Indian government has made multiple statements at the United Nations Security Council where it abstained (echoing the Russian position), but sharpened its language by flagging concerns on “territorial integrity and sovereignty”, “UN charter” and “international law” — principles seen as siding with Western partners and Ukraine.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been chairing meetings with key ministers and officials on the evacuation process, had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, raising the issue of Indian nationals and their safety. He had also called for “immediate cessation of violence and hostilities”, and for giving diplomacy a chance.
He has been speaking to leaders of neighbouring countries as well, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovak Republic, and has also spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron who met Russian President Vladimir Putin and spoke to him over phone after the war started.
As a fence-sitter at the UNSC, India now has to seek guarantees for the safety of its nationals. “In places where the conflict has not endangered movement, we have been able to evacuate our citizens. Around 12,000 Indian nationals have been brought out of Ukraine while a considerable number are now in safer areas,” a source said. “We will continue to make utmost efforts to ensure the return of our citizens stranded in Ukraine.”
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