No Indian left behind — this has been the unofficial motto of the Narendra Modi government since taking charge in 2014, expanding the meaning of the word “Indian” to “Indian origin” as well as “diaspora” to incredible advantage for both sides. From Madison Square Garden in 2014 to ‘Howdy Modi’ in Texas in 2019, Indians abroad have been a strong, vociferous and loyal constituency of the Prime Minister.
So when China’s Wuhan became the epicentre of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in January, Air India flights took off to bring Indian nationals home – as many as 645 Indian and 7 Maldivian citizens were airlifted in two sorties on 31 January and 1 February.
A third evacuation took place in mid-February, and India brought back nationals from other South Asian countries as well, a gesture of generosity that brought it much international kudos. Only the Pakistanis were left behind. As the Ministry of External Affairs delicately put it, Imran Khan should have made a request and “if such a situation arises and we have (the) resources available, we will surely think about it.”
But now, unofficially, Indian diplomats worldwide are telling Indian nationals: Stay where you are. Don’t come home, not yet.
Truth is, everyone knows that India’s already stretched healthcare system might not sustain additional pressure if more positive coronavirus cases are added.
Worse, many of these people, both entitled and privileged, have refused to subject themselves to airport screenings or follow-up health check-ups or given wrong addresses so that they can’t be found – although it would be unfair to condemn the entire basket because of one bad apple.
The long evacuation drive
Among those joining the Modi government’s coronavirus fight has been the Indian defence medical team, which went to the Maldives to help treat the people there, another team setting up a make-shift laboratory in Iran to treat Indian pilgrims who had fallen sick from the virus, and a third team of medical officers travelling to Italy. External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar even solicitously visited Kashmir to inquire whether Kashmiri students who had returned from Iran had settled down nicely or not.
In all, about 2,000-plus Indian nationals have found their way home over the last six weeks. As the virus has wilfully jumped borders and claimed hundreds of lives in Europe – especially, Italy — and ravaged its way across the Atlantic to the US, the Modi government has sought to redefine the Latin phrase, ‘nemo resideo.’ “Leave no one behind.”
As the government went about its efforts, two things happened. First, those Indians who woke up late to the pandemic story, like several Telangana students in London this weekend who wanted to be brought home and threatened to squat at the mission if they weren’t, have found alternative accommodation.
Second, as the list of travellers from quarantined nations — from China to South Korea to Italy, Spain – grew every day, it seemed that politics was coming into play. For example, Japan protested India’s decision to cancel visa on arrival for Japanese and South Korean nationals in late February. India withdrew its ban.
And on 20 March, India decided to screen visitors from the US, the UK and Australia – only 48 hours before all international flights were banned. (Two special flights carrying stranded Indian nationals, from London and Malaysia, arrived on 23 March evening.)
MEA officials passed the buck to the health ministry officials, saying they were responsible for travel bans and quarantines. Health ministry officials said all decisions were dependent on the situation in those countries.
After domestic, some international politics
None other than US President Donald Trump, in a widely seen video, praised the Indian tradition of ‘Namaste’, when asked what precautions he was taking to combat the virus. “India is ahead of the curve,” Trump said, greeting Indian-origin Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the White House on March 13.
After such high praise, did the MEA take a political decision to put off the screening of visitors from the US until a week later?
From all accounts, the situation in the US was growing worse every day – on 20 March, when the screening finally kicked in, as many as 17,438 people had tested positive for the coronavirus.
India’s lockdown is now fully in place. With all flights banned, the second stage of evacuation is upon Delhi — helping foreign nationals in India return to their respective homes. As many as 25,000 foreigners want to get out, it is believed. Officials say they are ready for this massive exercise. It will be part of reducing the pressure on India’s healthcare system, after all.
Views are personal.