SIX DAYS AFTER RUSSIA'S INVAsion of Ukraine, India's worst fears were realized when a 21-year-old Indian medical student was slain near the Russian border in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Tuesday, marking the country's first war victim.
Naveen SG, a fourth-year MBBS student at Kharkiv National Medical University from Chalageri village in Karnataka's Haveri region, was recognized as the victim by Indian officials. He was alleged to have died as a result of the bombardment. However, a former hostel mate of Naveen's in Kharkiv said that he was shot by the Russian army outside a grocery store, citing other members of the student community there.
The government is now looking at shutting the Indian Embassy in Kyiv and moving its officials to a recently established office in Lviv, about 70 km from the Polish border, to facilitate evacuation efforts. Some Embassy officials have already been moved to the new office, it is learnt. If the security situation in the capital deteriorates, the Embassy, which is located near the Presidential palace and other key buildings in Kyiv, will be fully vacated.
Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi confirmed the student’s death. “With profound sorrow we confirm that an Indian student lost his life in shelling in Kharkiv this morning. The Ministry is in touch with his family. We convey our deepest condolences to the family,” he posted on Twitter.
Addressing a late-evening press conference, Foreign Secretary Shringla said the circumstances in which Naveen was hit was “not absolutely clear”. He said the body has been sent to a university morgue and the Government is making efforts to bring it back in coordination with local authorities. Naveen’s former hostel mate Shridharan Gopalakrishnan said: “(He) was shot dead around 10.30 am Ukrainian time today. He was standing in a queue outside a grocery store when the Russian army fired at people there. He was my hostel mate initially, and later shifted to an apartment outside.” The incident deepened anxieties in New Delhi as thousands of Indians, predominantly students pursuing medical degrees, remain stranded across Ukraine at a time Russia has intensified its offensive in the east. It came hours after the Indian Embassy urged Indian nationals in the capital to leave “urgently today” — and a day after the Government decided to send four Union Ministers to supervise evacuation efforts. Official sources said that on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Naveen’s father Shekharappa Gyanagoudar, who is a retired private firm employee. Apart from Shekharappa, Naveen is survived by his mother Vijayalakshmi and elder brother Harsha who is pursuing a Ph.D. Before the announcement of Naveen’s death, Modi met President Ram Nath Kovind to brief him about the situation in Ukraine, including India’s evacuation efforts. Modi also spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel, Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Poland President Andrzej Duda. Foreign Secretary Shringla said that a team of Indian officials from Moscow is camping in Belgorod, a town adjoining Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, to map possible evacuation routes, and arrange accommodation and transport for Indians stuck in Kharkiv and nearby conflict zones. “We should be prepared either way… Evacuation from Kharkiv is now our top priority,” he said, when asked if the routes will be through Russia or other borders in Ukraine. Shringla also said that IAF transport aircraft, C-17 Globemaster, will leave for Romania at 4 am on Wednesday to repatriate Indians, and that more operations are planned. The aircraft was used for evacuation from Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021. According to the Foreign Secretary, the first tranche of humanitarian assistance from India to Ukraine, including medicines, was sent through Poland on Tuesday, and the next consignment would be sent on Wednesday. On Tuesday morning, the Indian Embassy’s latest advisory indicated that the Russian invasion has entered a critical phase. “All Indian nationals including students are advised to leave Kyiv urgently today. Preferably by available trains or through any other means available,” it said. The dramatic escalation in tone came against the backdrop of reports that a long convoy of Russian tanks and military equipment was headed to the Ukrainian capital. A few hours before the advisory was issued, Union Minister of State for Road Transport & Highways and Civil Aviation Gen (retd) V K Singh tweeted: “Stay where you are, don’t move until you are told, and don’t panic. Your country will safely evacuate you. Jai Hind.” Singh, who is among the four Union ministers who were tasked on Saturday with coordinating the evacuation, tweeted: “My message to all parents, guardians, and family members, your kids will be back with you soon.” Apart from Singh, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju and Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Hardeep Singh Puri are in charge of the evacuation. It was on February 15 that the Government issued its first advisory urging Indian nationals to consider leaving Ukraine temporarily. Since then, around 12,000 of the estimated 20,000 Indians in Ukraine have left that country, including those brought back under the evacuation effort titled Operation Ganga. “Of the remaining 40 per cent, roughly half remain in conflict zones in the Kharkiv, Sumy area and the other half have either reached the western borders of Ukraine or are heading towards the borders. In other words, they are out of harm’s way,” Shringla said. Kharkiv has located barely 40 km from the Russian border and has witnessed intense hostilities over the past few days. It houses one of the largest clusters of Indian students in that country, estimated to be around 5,000, owing to a number of medical colleges in the area.