Indian nationals being welcomed on their arrival after being evacuated from Ukraine under Operation Ganga at IGI Terminal 3 Airport, in New Delhi Image Credit: ANI

“We can hear the sirens and the air strikes. We have rushed to our bunkers now”, Swathil, a student at Sumy State Medical University told NDTV in a desperate plea for help just days ago. Sumy is only about 50 kilometres from the Russian border but for the 700 odd Indian students who were stuck here, getting out was next to impossible.

“There are buses at the Russian border, an hour and a half away but how do we go from Ukraine till there amid this firing and no directions,” a third year medical student told NDTV.

These were among the most harrowing experiences recounted by Indian students studying in Ukraine. As the world watched the Russian attack unfold, for India, evacuating nearly 20,000 Indian nationals, most of them students, became the big priority. Operation Ganga was launched to bring them back through special flights sent to neighbouring countries.

Indeed, in the fog and chaos of war, any such evacuation plan is not easy. But India has done it in the most difficult of circumstances many times before.

The only difference: there was no chest thumping earlier. Right now ministers are boarding evacuation flights and they land back home, cameras in tow, loudly welcoming the students and profusely thanking the prime minister for making this possible.

Over the top PR

Earlier in the week, BJP leaders and ministers tweeted identical cartoons showing the prime minister as the saviour of stranded Indians. Before that, four union ministers were sent to neighbouring countries to oversee the efforts.

That by itself was a good thing. It shows a proactive government and would hopefully have helped on the ground in coordination efforts.

But was the over the top PR really necessary? Was it necessary for videos to be constantly tweeted patting the government on the back? Was evacuating Indian nationals a favour done by the government of India or a duty?

In the past, diplomats of the ministry of external affairs, along with the Indian armed forces, had rescued our citizens, and done it quietly and effectively.

They didn’t seek the media’s attention. Back in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, India managed to evacuate 1,17000 Indians safely. It was the largest civilian rescue operation conducted with the help of Air India.

There were numerous such evacuations of Indians carried out from conflict zones before 2014 including Libya and elsewhere.

Duty of the government

There was no chest thumping, no demands for citizens to be “grateful” to their government.

In recent days some government’s supporters on social media first vilified the Indian students in Ukraine for even going there to study (never mind that they don’t have enough seats in medical colleges back home and the fees are simply unaffordable), then they insist everyone must be grateful and thankful to the government for the evacuations, and are busy abusing those students who have complained that no one from the embassy picked up their phones or heard their cries for help.

Yes, many thousands have been rescued, thanks to the government and the help they gave but many thousand others had to make treacherous journeys on their own with no help either on foot, or by road or train, facing hostile border guards at many points.

Instead of planting ridiculous WhatsApp forwards in pliant media about India getting Russia to “stop the war for 6 hours” so that we could evacuate our nationals (something flatly denied by the ministry of external affairs), some maturity is called for.

This is a war. Bringing back our citizens is a duty of the government of the day. Reducing it to photo ops does not behove a great nation.