Ukrainian authorities have taken a large number of Indian students hostage, the Russian Defence Ministry said on Wednesday, leading to questions over the commitment of the Ukrainian authorities towards allowing the evacuation of foreigners, especially Indians.
A large number of Indian students are stranded in Kharkiv and Sumy, Ukrainian cities close to the Russian border, which are currently under siege. In fact, reports say that Kharkiv has “virtually” fallen to the Russians with a few enclaves where Indians are still trapped.
India has urged both Ukraine and Russia to help in the evacuation of Indian nationals. On Tuesday, Indian student Naveen Shekharappa was killed in Kharkiv which has been seeing intense fighting. On Wednesday, it was reported that Russia cooperated in helping the evacuation effort and paused the military operations for six hours to allow the exit of Indian students. It is after this that the Russian Defence Ministry made its claims.
In a briefing, the Russian Defence Ministry said that Ukrainian authorities were forcibly keeping the Indians in Kharkiv even though they wanted to move to the Russian city of Belgorod across the border. It alleged that the Ukrainian authorities are asking Indians to move through territory “where active hostilities are taking place.”
“Russian armed forces are ready to take all necessary measures for the safe evacuation of the Indian citizens [and] send them home from the Russian territory with its own military transport planes or Indian planes, as the Indian side proposed to do,” the ministry further said.
India has so far denied the allegation of a “hostage situation”. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that no reports of any hostage situation regarding any student have been received. “Our embassy in Ukraine is in continuous touch with Indian nationals in Ukraine. We note that with the cooperation of the Ukrainian authorities, many students have left Kharkiv yesterday. We have not received any reports of any hostage situation regarding any student,” said the MEA spokesperson. “A large number of Indian nationals have been evacuated from Ukraine in the last few days. We appreciate the help extended by the Ukrainian authorities to make this possible,” he added.
While the Indian External Affairs Ministry has denied the claims, sources have told News18 that while the Russian side is cooperating, Ukraine has not been so “forthcoming” and is not happy with the Indian side due to India’s decision to abstain from voting against Russia in the United Nations proceedings. Sources further claimed that in some cases, Indians appeared to be the last priority for Ukrainian authorities, and the Indian side has even spoken to one of the ministers in Ukraine and “worked a few things out.”
Over 20,000 Indian students were believed to be in Ukraine before the first travel advisory to leave the country was issued on February 15, nine days before Russia’s invasion. While over 8000 students left before the invasion, the remaining bulk of the students began rushing from different parts of Ukraine towards its eastern border to seek a way out. In some cases, Indian students have also been denied permission to board trains. Reports of racial profiling of foreigners emerged at Ukraine’s eastern border checkpoints where Ukrainian border guards were even seen beating up Indian students standing in cues, apart from making Africans and Indians wait for days and nights in sub-zero temperatures, before granting them an exit through the border.