Another war, another successful Indian evacuation

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Another war, another successful Indian evacuation

Sunday, 15 October 2023 | Rajeev Agarwal

Another war, another successful Indian evacuation

India’s steadfast commitment to the safety of its citizens, both at home and abroad, is exemplified through a series of daring rescue operations. From evacuating citizens in conflict zones like Yemen and Afghanistan, to aiding nations in distress after disasters, India’s ‘Indians First’ policy remains unwavering.

The sudden and audacious attack by Hamas in the early hours of October 7, 2023, took Israel by complete surprise and shocked the world. With more than 1,300 killed by Hamas on the first day, including infants, women, and the elderly, it marked the single bloodiest day in Israel’s history. After the initial setback, Israeli forces quickly regrouped to take back control of the military situation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first world leaders to condemn the terror attack and extend support to its strategic ally, Israel. On October 13, as it prepared for a massive counterattack, Israel gave a final warning to citizens in Gaza to evacuate 1.1 million civilians as it finalises plans to punish Hamas for the dastardly terror attack.

Terror attacks are an absolute redline for India and having its voice heard against any form of terror is important. It was highlighted during PM Modi’s speech during the P20 Summit in Delhi on October 13, where he stated: “Wherever terrorism happens, for whatever reason, in whatever form, it is against humanity”.

Another very important foreign policy priority of India is to evacuate its trapped citizens in any war-torn area. In recent years, wherever there has been conflict or war, India has been among the first to launch operations to evacuate its citizens. Living up to it, India launched “Operation Ajay” on October 12, 2023. With an estimated 18,000 citizens, including students and tourists, trapped in the war zone in Israel and only air route available to evacuate, it is going to be a long haul. Already, by October 14, two Indian air Force planes have landed back carrying more than 200 passengers each. The stories of these people evacuated from the war zone are heart rendering as they describe the destruction caused by war and their immeasurable gratitude that the Indian Government has been able to pull them out safely.

It is, however, not the first time that such dare devil rescue operations have been undertaken by India. Only last year, when the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, India made its first priority to get its people out. Despite pressure from the western world, India made it clear that among its national interests and priority, topmost was to get its people out. “Operation Ganga” launched therein evacuated almost 20,000 Indians, mostly students.  It was an operation of mammoth proportions as it entailed not only a combined civilian and military air coordination but it tested India’s deft diplomacy skills to the fullest as the citizens had to be moved by road to different border points and then brought back home from Romania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova.

Over a period of over 15 days from February 22, 2022 to March 10, 2022, more than 80 military and civilian flights were operated to rescue stranded Indians. It may be recalled that Russia and Ukraine, despite being engaged in a bloody war, agreed to stop firing whenever and wherever Indians were being evacuated from. Also, multiple stories from evacuees of how well they were treated and cleared promptly at border points in Poland, Hungary, etc, whenever they were seen with the Indian flag, is a testimony of India’s goodwill and global standing.

Just a few months earlier this year, in April 2023, when a civil war broke out in South Sudan, India was again quick to evacuate its citizens. In a well-coordinated operation and in close consultation with Saudi Arabia, India launched “Operation Kaveri” and brought back over 2,000 citizens. It arranged to transport its citizens in buses from the conflict zones of Khartoum to Port Sudan, from where they were taken to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in Indian Air Force heavy-lift transport aircraft and Indian Navy ships. From Jeddah, Indians were subsequently brought back on commercial flights and Air Force aircraft. Earlier, in 2016, India evacuated its citizens from South Sudan in “Operation Sankat Mochan”, carried out by the Indian Air Force to evacuate Indian and other foreign nationals amid the ongoing civil war.

In 2020, when Covid-19 pandemic broke out, once again India was among the frontrunners to get its citizens back through sea corridors created across the globe as a part of “Operation Samudra Setu”, launched in May 2020. The operation successfully brought back almost 4,000 Indian citizens by sea. The Indian Naval Ships Jalashwa, Airavat, Shardul, and Magar participated in this operation, which lasted for over 55 days.

In August 2021, who can forget the absolutely shocking and disturbing images beaming on TV of Taliban taking over Kabul, US forces leaving Kabul airbase amid total chaos and Afghan civilians trying to flee Afghanistan, hanging onto wheels of aircraft and falling to their death. Once again, amid total anarchy and conflict, India managed to evacuate 669 people from Afghanistan, including 448 Indians and 206 Afghans, which include members of the Afghan Hindu/Sikh minority community. Later too, when Taliban was in full control of Kabul, India operated a special flight in December 2021 and brought 10 Indians and 94 Afghans, including members of Afghan minority community which carried with them 2 Swaroopas of Guru Granth Sahib and some ancient Hindu manuscripts.

While discussing rescue operations, we can’t forget “Operation Raahat” conducted in Yemen in March 2015 in which India safely evacuated almost 6,700 people through air and sea. It included 4,741 Indians and 1,947 foreign nationals from 48 countries. Why foreigners? Because India was the only country trusted and permitted by the warring parties to evacuate people! The no-fly zone imposed on the Yemeni airspace and blockade of sea route by the coalition forces made the evacuation exercise a complex and very difficult task.

Once again, the warring parties agreed to provide a safe corridor while Indians were being evacuated, no mean feat considering that the mighty US and other western nations could not even land a plane or ship in the war zone.

During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, almost 1,75,000 Indians were evacuated. Air India operated 488 flights between August and October to airlift Indians stranded in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion. The 63-day operation is still called the largest air evacuation and found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records.

In March 2011, after the outbreak of the “Arab Spring,” almost 15,000 of the total 18,000 Indians were evacuated from Libya through a combination of navy and charter ships operating from Tripoli and Benghazi to Alexandria, Egypt. From there, Air India aircraft flew the passengers to India. There have been a few more too, like “Operation Sukoon” launched in 2006 to evacuate Indians from Lebanon.

However, the Indian rescue story does not end with Indians only. Even in global disasters, India has been at the forefront in rendering assistance to nations in need. “Operation Maitri” launched after massive earthquakes in Nepal in 2015 and “Operation Dost” launched in February 2023 in support of people in Syria and Turkey devastated by Earthquake are prime examples where India was the first global responder in aid of grief-struck people.

India has proved time and again that “Indians First” is its primary focus. As the world recognises India as a Vishwa Guru, India is ready to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. Indians anywhere in the world obviously come first. In PM Modi’s own words, India is presenting itself as a Vishwa Mitra, which can be trusted and depended upon no matter what the circumstances and no matter where in the world. As the unfortunate war unfolds in Gaza, Indians can feel safe that Bharat is to their rescue.

(The writer, a retired Colonel, is Assistant Director at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He has served as Director Military Intelligence and as Director in the Ministry of External Affairs)

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