NEW DELHI: (Editor’s note: This interview was filmed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and India’s worldwide repatriation of its citizens)
India is in the first week of Mission Vande Bharat and Operation Samudra Setu, with 15,000 people expected to be brought home in the first wave. The second week from May 16 will see bigger and broader operations.
The exercise brings to mind Operation Rahat, which over a week in April 2015, brought home 5,000 Indians and 2,000 foreigners stranded by the civil war in Yemen. The comparison may seem out of place since Rahat involved smaller numbers but as Anil Wadhwa, then Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs tells StratNews Global Associate Editor Amitabh P.Revi, the many lessons learnt means Delhi is confident of repeating such complicated evacuations anytime, anywhere.
Op. Rahat was complicated, no doubt about it. While planning for the evacuation of people from Yemen, India had to negotiate safe air corridors for Air India flights operating in airspace controlled by Saudi Arabia over Yemen. Then there was the need to satisfy the rebel Houthis who controlled a devastated Sana’a airport. There was also the added concern that the Indian Navy’s warships Sumitra, Tarkash and Mumbai would come under fire or small boat attack as they negotiated the Aden and Hodeidah harbours. There was also the logistics involved in flying and sailing evacuees out of Djibouti.
Ambassador Wadhwa details the hands-on role played by the Sushma Swaraj, then external affairs minister, and her MoS Gen. V K Singh who spent a night in war torn Sana’a as he was not given permission to fly out. There was the constant fear of attacks by armed pirates operating small boats, the trauma of civilians who had lost everything and the concern over those missing. Secretary Wadhwa says coordinating among all the stakeholders including several ministries, the armed forces and the railways was critical. At the end of the day, there are hundreds of unsung heroes, Ambassador Wadhwa says in making such a complicated mission so smooth.
And since we are comparing, Mission Vande Bharat is expected to be many times larger than the previous biggest mission in which 170,000 Indians were evacuated after the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait.
Anil Wadhwa joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1979. As Secretary(East) he oversaw relations with ASEAN, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, the GCC and West Asia. He was ambassador to Italy, Thailand, Oman and Poland and also served in Hong Kong and Beijing. He was deputed to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at the Hague. Ambassador Wadhwa also headed the East Europe division in the Ministry of External Affairs.