Operation Ganga: Unprecedented saga of grit, compassion and PM Modi's diplomatic heft

Even as the Russia-Ukraine war rages on, a large diaspora of Indian nationals (mainly students) found themselves in a Catch-22 situation ami...

Even as the Russia-Ukraine war rages on, a large diaspora of Indian nationals (mainly students) found themselves in a Catch-22 situation amidst the political turmoil in Ukraine. Direct evacuation of these stranded Indians from Ukraine, through flights could not be carried out in view of the Notice to Airmen or Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) issued by Ukraine, hours after the war began. Accordingly, Indian embassies thereafter, in neighbouring countries like Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary, made arrangements on a war-footing to get Indian nationals from Ukraine and fly them out of these aforesaid countries under Operation Ganga.

As on 3 March 2022, over 18,000 Indians came back safely since the first advisory on 15 February 2022, with 6,400 Indians evacuated under the massive Operation Ganga in the last 48 hours. Another 7,400 Indians are slated to be evacuated in the next 48 hours. Thanks to the alacrity and dynamism showcased by the Modi government, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally supervising every single detail, to hasten the evacuation process, Operation Ganga is a resounding success.

The evacuation process has involved many steps — first, getting students from Ukraine to the land border of a neighbouring country; second, helping the students to cross the land border; third, helping them clear immigration or other formalities at border check-posts; fourth, helping these students travel to the embarkation site; and, last but not the least, ensuring the students board their relevant flights en route to India from the embarkation site.

In the midst of a raging war, with airspace closed and land borders rapidly getting sealed, evacuation is not merely about logistics, but becomes a far more complicated exercise that entails diplomatic heft, persuasion, patience and above all, an unflappable attitude. Needless to add, the speed with which four senior ministers of the Modi government were personally deputed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to each of Ukraine's neighbouring countries reflects how he wanted to leave nothing to chance. It is this willingness to go the extra mile that has made all the difference in ensuring the stellar success of Operation Ganga.

Air India, Air India Express, IndiGo and SpiceJet also joined the Operation Ganga mission, operating multiple flights from Ukraine's neighbouring countries to Delhi and Mumbai. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) too joined the efforts being undertaken by the Modi government to evacuate Indian students from Ukraine. The NDRF provided relief material including blankets, sleeping mats, and solar study lamps, etc, to Indian students. The Indian Air Force also got the C-17 Globemasters to participate in this evacuation. It is incredible that in just the last 48 hours, over 30 flights fanned out across seven countries and brought back over 6,400 students home.

The jaded Congress and its equally jaded scion, Rahul Gandhi, have left no stone unturned to take unwanted potshots at the Modi government. A constructive Opposition, one would have imagined, would have and should have stood in solidarity with the Central government. Alas! Driven by visceral hatred for the ruling Modi government, the Congress started circulating fake videos of how students had been left high and dry, whereas in reality, the Modi government not only ensured seamless evacuation but also bore the entire flight and related travel costs of the students being evacuated.

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A Shiv Sena leader had to be publicly rebuked by a senior Polish diplomat for spreading fake news pertaining to the evacuation of Indians. A Samajwadi Party leader who has been a block pramukh went to the extent of asking his daughter to post a fake video narrating ordeals of Indian students, which was completely bereft of facts. Evacuation during a war is as tough as it gets, no matter who and what political might one enjoys as a nation. Notwithstanding this and notwithstanding desperate attempts by India's beleaguered Opposition to malign the Modi government's outstanding efforts, PM Modi went about the whole thing with precision and compassion.

Operation Ganga is unique as it has entailed going into an active war zone and evacuating people, despite air space being closed. Land borders between Ukraine and neighbouring countries like Romania, Hungary, Poland, Moldova and Slovakia are increasingly being sealed. The world is still not out of the Covid pandemic induced stress, with 1.5 million cases being reported globally. It is another matter that only a tiny 0.7 per cent of the total global Covid cases now come from India. That apart, it is sub-zero temperatures in Russia, Ukraine and most parts of Eastern Europe, making the evacuation even more challenging.

Despite the said deterrents, Prime Minister Modi remains undeterred as he and his team continue to navigate through the Herculean challenges to ensure safe evacuation of Indians from Ukraine. Is it the duty of a democratically elected government to evacuate its citizens? Yes, of course. But is it the norm? Certainly not. Look at America, where the Biden regime clearly asked its citizens in Ukraine to fend for themselves. China did pretty much the same, asking its citizens to explore options privately.

The Indian government under Prime Minister Modi is a rare example of how a government went out of way to ensure the safety of its own. And this despite the fact that repeated advisories on 15-16 February 2022 were ignored by most students. To say in hindsight that no one expected Russia and Ukraine to go into a war and hence students cannot be blamed for not taking advisories seriously is not the point.

The simple point is this: Students were given ample time to depart from Ukraine and the government sent Air India flights too but some of these flights returned with barely 40 per cent seats filled, just a few days before a full-fledged war started. Once the situation escalated post 24 February 2022, there was suddenly a scramble by students for government intervention, but by then airspace had already been closed. Thousands of refugees from Ukraine had already started moving towards Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia in search of safe havens. In the midst of so much turbulence, students waving Indian flags or showcasing their Indian identity were given a free pass by these aforesaid countries surrounding Ukraine. Even Pakistani and Turkish students waving Indian flags were given a free pass. That shows both the soft power and the muscularity of PM Modi's diplomatic outreach, which is both humanitarian and resolute at the same time and rises to the occasion every time.

On 2 March 2022, President Putin and Prime Minister Modi spoke to each other for the second time in six days, after which Russia gave India a safe "humanitarian corridor" to evacuate its students from Kharkiv. Russia halted its military operations in Kharkiv for six hours, only to facilitate safe passage of Indian students and this happened only at the behest of Prime Minister Modi. That should tell the world a lot about Modi's tall standing in the echelon of global leaders. The Indian embassy in Kiev also commenced temporary operations in Lviv to facilitate quicker evacuation of Indians.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with US President Joe Biden.Inage courtesy Twitter@PMOIndia

Not just Operation Ganga, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, the Modi government launched the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back Indian citizens stranded in foreign countries. In the multiple phases of this operation, over 63 lakh Indians were brought back between May 2020 and April 2021, from over 150 countries, making it one of the biggest civilian evacuations in the world. According to the Central government, as part of the Vande Bharat Mission, 18,79,968 Indians flew back in Air India and Air India Express flights and another 36,92,216 took chartered flights. Naval ships helped 3,987 Indians return home and 5,02,151 were repatriated via land border crossings, as part of Vande Bharat Mission and Operation Samudra Setu. Indian Naval ships Jalashwa (Landing Platform Dock), and Airavat, Shardul and Magar (Landing Ship Tanks) participated in Operation Samudra Setu, which lasted over 55 days and involved traversing more than 23,000 km by sea.

In 1990, when 100,000 Iraqi soldiers armed with 700 tanks marched into Kuwait, the royals and VIPs fled to Saudi Arabia. The general public was left behind to fend for themselves. Over 170,000 of those stranded in Kuwait were Indians. On 13 August 1990, 11 days after the invasion took place, India kicked off the evacuation process after diplomatic negotiations. Air India flights brought the first batch of Indians home.

Over the next two months, more than 170,000 Indians were airlifted and repatriated to India. While Gulf war evacuation (between 13 August 1990 and 20 October 1990) was a successful mission, it was undertaken when VP Singh was in power and the Congress had absolutely nothing to do with this rescue mission. By the time PV Narasimha Rao of the Congress took charge as PM in June 1991, the Gulf war was long over. Also, the Gulf War rescue mission took over two months whereas the Modi government under Operation Ganga, has evacuated the largest number in the shortest possible time, in barely a few days.

If the Gulf War mission had to navigate tricky terrain, Operation Ganga has had to navigate through an active war zone, with bombs and missiles blasting away, anti-tank weapons moving back and forth and all this, with very little prior warning. Things escalated within a matter of a few hours, with reaction time reduced to nothing. During the Gulf War which was very lengthy and protracted and lasted for over six months, there was ample time to strategise, think through and react. Operation Ganga is unique as with virtually zero reaction time, the Modi government showcased to the world how diplomatic heft, a humanitarian approach and adept crisis management can save the day.

The Modi government's track record in both military and civil evacuations has been exemplary, to say the least. In 2015, a conflict raged between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. As the country was torn in conflict, the Indian government found itself in a tight spot. Thousands of Indians were stranded and Yemen was not accessible by air due to a no-fly zone announced by Saudi Arabia. India decided to carry out an initial evacuation by sea. Over the next few weeks, India rescued about 4,640 Indians stranded in Yemen, along with 960 foreign nationals from more than 41 countries. The Indian government ended Operation Raahat after evacuating over 5,600 people from Yemen.

Operation Maitri in 2015 was the joint relief and rescue operation by the Modi government and the Indian armed forces, in the aftershock of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. India, under Prime Minister Modi, was quick to respond and the operation started within 15 minutes of the quake. India was the first country to launch a full-fledged rescue and relief operation. The joint Army-Air Force operation brought over 5,000 Indians back from Nepal by Air Force and civilian planes. The Indian Army successfully evacuated 170 foreign nationals from the US, the UK, Russia and Germany. Don't forget, the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 was the worst ever after 1934 but the Modi government's alacrity saved thousands of lives.

In March 2016, Belgium was hit by terrorist strikes at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one at Maalbeek Metro station in central Brussels. At least 32 civilians and three terrorists were killed, and more than 300 people were injured. A total of 242 Indians, including 28 crew members were safely brought back to India within a few hours of the dastardly attacks, while most big nations left their citizens to fend for themselves.

Time and again, the sensitivity, compassion, steely resolve and diplomatic heft of Prime Minister Modi is evident — be it evacuating 46 nurses (45 were from Kerala alone) from Islamic State captivity in 2014, or rescuing Father Tom from ISIS captivity in 2016. Remember, in 2014, Oomen Chandy of Congress initially tried to rescue these nurses but could not do so and publicly declared how helpless he was as Chief Minister. He thanked Prime Minister Modi profusely and declared had it not been for Modi, these nurses would never have come back safely to India.

In 2016, 7000 civilians were rescued from Sudan and 3000 from Syria. In 2019, about 500 Indians were evacuated from Libya and 15 CRPF personnel from Tunisia due to internal strife in these regions.

As recently as 2021, post the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, over 900 civilians including foreigners, Hindus, Sikhs, Afghans, Nepalese were rescued under extremely difficult conditions by the Modi government, under Operation Devi Shakti. After Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Modi government had to evacuate civilians via Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and had to even rope in help from Turkmenistan and Iran.

Evacuation is not just a logistical exercise, involving transportation. An evacuation is about strategic resolve, humanitarian perspective, quick response and above all, it is about a multilateral and multi-pronged diplomatic outreach, that only an able and astute leadership can provide. That leadership, without any doubt, has been repeatedly provided by Prime Minister Modi. This government cares, is of the people, by the people and for the people. What a shame that the Congress today is politicising the evacuation process by casting aspersions at the Modi government.

The author is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP and the bestselling author of ‘The Modi Gambit'. Views expressed are personal.

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