Its been 12 days since Russia started its invasion on Ukraine. The Russian army has captured the eastern border of Russia Ukrainian border regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and declared them sovereign states.
The Russian army has reached Kyiv, the capital and another important city Kharkiv. These also happen to be cities where thousands of Indians are studying medicine. Being in a war zone, airport is closed and students have no choice but to reach the nearest border by any means possible. Those who travelled for 10-15 hours to reach Kyiv were sent back. It was suggested that they head to Romania and Poland borders and cross the Ukraine border to reach India.
There have been accounts of racism by Ukrainian border forces towards Indian and African students. Many viral videos show only Ukranians allowed to cross the border. With the temperature of 5 degrees and falling to below -5, students are stranded outside with no food, water or toilet facilities.
One student form Karnataka have died due to shelling from the Russian side. A 22-year-old Indian student named Chandan Jindal died on Wednesday in Ukraine after suffering a stroke. Another student from Punjab also got hit and is hospitalised. Several students have also sustained injuries due to attacks by the army and suffering from cold and anxiety attacks. Still they are waiting for help from Indian government but not getting any response from the Indian embassy.
After much hue and cry and death of one student, Indian delegation ramped up its efforts to bring back students but that is also made into a PR drive.
These students, who have been victims of the war, are being punished for none of their wrongdoing. It is not easy to imagine their pains, anxieties and sufferings. We speak to some of the students and their parents who have managed to return to Karnataka to understand their ordeal.
Why do Indian students head to Ukraine for medical education?
“My daughter scored 100 on 100 in Biology in her Pre-University exams. She has scored more than 90 in other subjects including English. However, the NEET exams did not go well for her. All students have to compete for only a few seats which seems like a game of musical chairs where only a few get to win. We belong to the middle class and cannot afford private medical seats. Hence, I decided to send my daughter to Ukraine for medical education” said Shivaraju, a resident of Kanakapura, located outside bangalore, whose daughter is studying at the Bukovinian State Medical University in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.
Further, “the first year of my daughter’s medical education cost Rs. 9 lakhs towards fees, hostel and plane tickets. The second year cost around 3.5 lakhs. Students are divided into batches of 13 and are given individual attention and better quality education. Why is it not possible to provide similar education in India? Why aren’t there more government colleges? Why is the share of private colleges more than 60%?” he asks.
“The Government of Karnataka should reduce the cost of medical education in the long run. Only the wealthy in Karnataka are able to afford medical education. However, middle-class families are unable to afford the heavy costs and hence are forced to send their children to low-cost foreign university to get educated. This is exactly why we had to send our son to Ukraine, ”said Fernandez from Udupi, whose son is studying at the Town National Medical University in Ukraine.
Listening to both of them speak, we understand the harsh truth of how expensive has education become in our state and our country and how it is being privatized and made a commodity to be traded.
Education has become an expensive privatised commodity. The education sector is no longer a service, but a mafia by which big businessmen and politicians make money. Even the middle classes, with some difficulty, take loans and send their wards to countries like Russia and Ukraine that provide low-cost education. But what do the poor, who make up almost 60% of our country’s population do? The question that must be raised is, whether we have assumed that they do not need education.
However, Prime Minister Modi is now appealing for private investors to invest in medical education. Despite education already being unaffordable for the poor, Prime Minister Modi seems too eager to transfer his responsibility (responsibility of the state) of providing education to private entities. We have no idea when the Ukraine war will cease. In this context, what is the future of the students who are now half-educated at Ukraine? The government has no answer as to whether the costs incurred by the students and their families, be returned or compensated.
What did India do to protect students?
More than 80,000 students from across the world are attending medical schools in Ukraine. Data published by the Ministry of Education and Sciences of Ukraine states that about 25% of these students hail from India followed by students from Morocco, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Nigeria.
Russia did not attack on Ukraine all of a sudden. It deployed its troops on the eastern Ukraine border several days ago the attack happened. At a time when US asked its citizens in Ukraine to leave the country, Indian students were only given the the message that they could leave Ukraine if they wanted to. The Government of India informed the students to leave Ukraine only after 20th February. But tickets were not immediately available for students to return back and the costs of travel also had become five to ten times more. Air tickets that were available from Ukraine to many cities in India for Rs. 20,000 to 30,000 earlier, increased to around Rs. 1 to 2 lakhs as the tensions escalated.
Yogita, a student from Mehboobnagar in Telangana who is studying at Zaporizhzia State Medial University in Ukraine cried for help stating that she was unable to comprehend the status quo there and was unable to return to the country as the air ticket prices had risen by more than one lakh rupees and demanded that the Government of India must initiate necessary actions to get back Indian students safely.
On February 26th and 27th , two planes landed in Mumbai. Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia addressed these students inside the plane stating that “We are happy to have you back. I welcome you on behalf of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi” merrily. The minister was celebrating the return of around 400 students when more than 15,000 more students were still stuck back at Europe.
The reality behind #OperationGanga
Indian students fleeing #Ukraine were waiting on Romania border for over 30 hours in heavy snowfall & freezing weather
Amidst tall claims, PR and unleashing troll army upon news tweets/handles, Indian embassy was in shambles
Watch it yourself pic.twitter.com/3hLQLmF5F9
— URScrewed (@URScrewed_) March 6, 2022
Many are complaining that BJP making use of the return of some students to further its electoral campaign and questioning the need to name the rescue operations as Operation Ganga when the Uttar Pradesh polls were underway. Moreover, when civil wars were underway in Libya, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had quietly arranged for the return of more than 15000 people in the name of Operation Safe Homecoming. Many are questioning as to what is the need to be hailed and lauded when the government has only fulfilled its responsibility?
Anger towards the Union Government and Godi media
The union government has taken the Russia Ukraine war and its students coming by themselves also as an opportunity to pat its own back.
When all around there was anger that Indian govt did not do anything to bring back its citizens, Godi Media started its propaganda by saying Indian govt is bringing back its students when even the United States, China and England have not done so.
The students know what is they have gone through and still now their future is uncertain.
“Where are you Modiji? You have been busy in the Uttar Pradesh elections for a month. Today, no American students in Ukraine are in trouble. When Biden was able to understand, why weren’t you able to understand? How many times did we not mail you?” asks a student live broadcast of Aaj Tak. No one came to help us. No representatives have met us. No trains have been arranged for us” responds the student to Aaj Tak reporter.
“When all countries are taking back their students respectfully, why is our government not doing so? It is very cold here. There’s no toilet, no lunch. We have no respect. We are living in constant fear. We had not thought that our own government would cheat us.”, a student expressed his pain.
The students have gone abroad to study because of the bad policies in India. Now, the war has begun. Students are longing to return back but the shameless government has not made a scientifically actionable plan to bring them back. Although only few students have been brought back, it has been made use of, for electoral gains. We have lost one of our Indian students. We do not know what awaits till all Indians return back. Could these painful incidents push the government to act responsibly, to fight against the privatization of education?
Author is a activist and writer. The article has been translated from Kannada to English by Shashank SR