New Delhi: Bouquets and a welcome party of BJP leaders and supporters with messages about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “commitment to bring back every student” stranded in Ukraine — this is what the first batch of students, evacuated from the east European nation amid a Russian invasion, encountered as they arrived in India over the weekend.
The first Air India flight carrying around 219 Indian students reached Mumbai from Ukraine’s neighbouring nation Romania Saturday night, under the Narendra Modi government’s evacuation mission ‘Operation Ganga’. At the airport, there was a line of BJP supporters, as well as representatives of the Shiv Sena, waiting. Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goel, deputed by the Centre to receive the students, even made a speech inside the aircraft about the PM’s commitment to ensuring that all other students return safely as well.
Welcome back to the motherland!
Glad to see the smiles on the faces of Indians safely evacuated from Ukraine at the Mumbai airport.
— Piyush Goyal (@PiyushGoyal) February 26, 2022
The scenes were similar at the Delhi airport early Sunday, when the second evacuation flight landed from Romania with around 250 students. Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan welcomed the students and handed out bouquets. Scindia too spoke to the students in the aircraft, welcoming them back to “the motherland” on behalf of the PM.
Relieved & delighted to see 250 Indians safely return from Ukraine on the @airindiain flight at the Delhi Airport. Received & interacted with them along with with my colleague Sh @VMBJP Ji. Welcome back! #OperationGanga pic.twitter.com/KQ8tcHSTeo
— Jyotiraditya M. Scindia (@JM_Scindia) February 26, 2022
At Bengaluru airport, 12 evacuated students who arrived from Delhi were greeted by Union Minister Pralhad Joshi and Karnataka Revenue Minister R Ashoka. An ANI report quoted Ashoka as saying that the state revenue department arranged the flight from Delhi to Bengaluru, and their stay at Karnataka Bhawan.
In Uttar Pradesh — where elections are underway — CM Yogi Adityanath has instructed all district magistrates to communicate with parents of the students back from Ukraine, and form teams to arrange their transport from the airport to their homes without any hiccups, said sources, adding that state officials were also deputed at the Delhi airport to receive and facilitate the smooth journey of students to their respective districts.
In Bihar, Deputy CM Tara Kishore Prasad, state ministers Syed Shahnawaz Hussain and Sanjay Jha have been told to be at Patna airport to welcome the students when they arrive.
Meanwhile, social media handles from UP to Gujarat are tweeting about buses arranged for stranded Indian students in Ukraine with the message ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ and even an old tweet of former external affairs minister late Sushma Swaraj which said: “Will bring you back from Mars.”
Imagine middle of a war zone a bus with Indian flag is moving without any tension,both the army leting them through that what India achieved under the leadership of shri @narendramodi ji…🇮🇳#ModiHaiToMumkinHai #Vishwaguru #NarendraModi pic.twitter.com/6ZD0dqRXNC
— Durgesh Kumar 🇮🇳 (@durgeshkumar006) February 26, 2022
The effort by union and state ministers, disaster management as well as district officials comes at a time when the Centre has been heavily criticised by the Opposition, which has accused the Modi government of “failing to act on time” and being busy with elections while Indian students were stuck in a warzone.
A senior BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that these small gestures “help our connection with people and voters”.
“Safety and rescue is the first priority of the government knowing the complexities involved in it. It’s our duty to assure people about the PM’s global standing on rescuing students. Evacuation of Indians stranded in the recent past in Sudan, Wuhan and Kabul happened under PM’s leadership,” he added.
Criticism from Opposition
“In the midst of missiles and bombs, thousands of our students — thirsty and hungry — are counting their breaths in bunkers. But here campaigners are busy with elections. The hunger of power has robbed them of sympathy…,” Congress general secretary Randeep Surjewala tweeted Sunday.
मिसाइलों/बमों के बीच ज़िन्दगी और मौत से जूझ रहे हज़ारों बच्चे भूखे-प्यासे बंकरों में ईंट पत्थरों पर सांसें गिन रहे हैं।
मग़र यहाँ प्रचारजीवी आत्ममुग्धता की सेज पर चुनावी आक्सीजन फूँक रहें हैं।
— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) February 27, 2022
The previous day, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had also posted a video of two students stranded in Ukraine asking for help, and appealed to the Centre to facilitate their immediate evacuation. On Friday, he had tweeted that the government’s “strategic mistakes” will prove to be “very costly”.
Visuals of Indian students in bunkers are disturbing. Many are stuck in eastern Ukraine which is under heavy attack.
My thoughts are with their worried family members. Again, I appeal to GOI to execute urgent evacuation. pic.twitter.com/alem9nYNgr
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) February 26, 2022
According to a 24 February tweet by BJP’s foreign affairs department in-charge Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, the Indian government had issued the first advisory for Indian nationals to leave Ukraine on 15 February, a day before the cap imposed on passengers under the air bubble arrangement as part of Covid protocol was removed. The advisory “strongly urging Indian nationals to leave”, was issued on 22 February, two days before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine.
The Modi government is facing various obstacles in its process of evacuating Indian nationals from Ukraine. With many of them stranded at the Ukraine-Poland border in freezing temperatures, and Russian troops entering Kharkiv, where around 5,000 students are stranded. These students have to reach the border for evacuation, but are unable to due to a breakdown of the transportation system and destruction of key bridges.
‘Visuals of bombs, tanks stays in memory’
Unlike the migrant workers’ exodus during the Covid-19 pandemic — when migrants were charged rail fares for returning to their hometowns during the nationwide lockdown — for which the Centre had been severely criticised, government officials have said that the transportation cost for Indian nationals being evacuated from Ukraine will be borne by the government.
A senior BJP leader quoted earlier said that the two issues were very different. “Nature of the two incidents is different. Visuals of bombs and tanks targeting cities has a long-lasting image in memory. Election is going on, any lack of synergy can cost our effort politically,” he added.
Another senior BJP leader told ThePrint that every state unit has been told to be in touch with family members of students stranded in Ukraine to address their fears and concerns.
He added that party members were instructed to “be there for facilitation when students return to their states and districts”. He further said that they were told that the “message should be amplified that under Modi leadership there is no question of leaving students in Ukraine and the PM is working day night for safe evacuation”.
BJP Rajya Sabha MP from UP Harnath Yadav told ThePrint: “Party organisation has been told to talk to parents, address their concerns and fear about safety and action initiated by government in rescuing them. State government has made arrangements for point to point transfer of students.”
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)