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Putin is Forcing Indian Workers to Fight His War – Why is PM Modi Silent?

And I wonder, why are our Opposition parties giving the prime minister a free pass on this?

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A recent propaganda video for Narendra Modi purports to show a young student returning to the arms of her tearful parents, saying that he “stopped the war” in a foreign land (Ukraine is implied) to allow Indians to pass to safety. Anurag Thakur, a minister in his cabinet shared the video with the slogan, Jo raksha kare saat samundar paar voh hai hamara parivar (He who protects us across seven seas, is a member of our family).

Who do the prime minister and his ministers consider “family” – Vladimir Putin or Indian workers forced by the latter to fight and die for his war? That’s a question too few of us are asking.

On 21 February this year, Hemil Ashvinbhai Mangukiya, a young man from Surat in Gujarat, was killed in occupied Ukraine while fighting in Russia’s army. On 2 February Hemil’s father had, through an agent, sent a desperate plea to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, telling them his son, hired as a non-combatant helper, was being forced by the Russian Army to fight as a soldier in Ukraine. The Ministry did not reply. And Hemil was killed within weeks.

Soon after, another worker Mohammed Afsan from Hyderabad was killed.

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Others said, “Despite repeated pleas and requests, the government is not doing anything to rescue us.”

Prime Minister Modi wasted no time in personally congratulating Putin when his rule was reconfirmed in a ritual voting exercise. But he hasn’t spared a moment to condole the deaths of Indians killed as captive cannon fodder for Putin’s army, or to confront Putin.

Reading accounts of Indian workers still captive in Russia, their names are a rebuke to him and us, their fellow citizens. The two killed in Russia were Hemil from Gujarat, and Afsan from Telangana. Hemil’s fellow worker Sameer Ahmad from Karnataka, saw the missile kill him.

Before the Russian army treated it like trash, it was Sameer who paid a tribute of grief and humanity to Hemil’s lifeless body as he carried it in his arms. Other workers in captivity include Urgen Tamang from Kalimpong, Azad Yusuf Kumar from Kashmir, Harsh Kumar from Haryana, Gagandeep Singh from Punjab…From diverse regions and religions, these men are each others’ family saat samundar paar. This is a solidarity utterly foreign to the prime minister and his party.

We can only hope that if we wake up and make enough noise about the captive workers, the PM will get them back if only to stage a photo-op ahead of the election.

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Russian Authorities Hand in Glove With Traffickers

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has claimed to have exposed a human trafficking network that lured young men through social media channels and agents with the promise of highly paid jobs in Russia. But this network is clearly only the supply end of this human trafficking scam. Why isn’t the Government of India investigating the demand-end of it, which according to testimonies of its victims, directly involves Russian authorities who are forcing them to fight on the war fronts against their will?

Some workers said, “The police caught us and handed us over to the Russian army,” and the Army authorities then told them they could “either serve a 10-year prison term in Russia or join the army as a ‘helper’ on a one-year contract.” They opted for the latter but then found that they were being sent to the frontlines to fight. They were terrified: “We don't even know how to hold guns.” Shockingly, as of 24 March when this article is being written, these seven men have not yet been freed and rescued by the Government of India.

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The MEA Blames Workers and Covers Up Russia’s Crimes

In the 26 February statement where the MEA first addressed the issue, its sole concern was to deny “inaccurate reports in the media regarding Indians with the Russian army seeking help for discharge.”

On 29 February a spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs admitted that “20-odd people are stuck” and “We are trying our level best for their early discharge.” He added, “We’ve told (Indian) people not to venture into the war zone or get caught into situations which are difficult.”

On 8 March, Jaiswal claimed the CBI had “busted” the trafficking ring and arrested culprits. “Several Indian nationals have been duped to work with the Russian Army,” he said, “We have strongly taken up the matter with the Russian government for early discharge of such Indian nationals.”

Each of these statements is evasive and fudges the facts. The Modi government has not even once admitted that the workers have been forced by Russia against their will to fight as armed combatants.

  • The GoI says that Indians have been “duped to work with the Russian Army” – but this is a half-truth. Many of these Indians intended to “work with the Russian Army” as ‘helpers’ – the nature of the “duping” was that they were press-ganged into combat

  • The GoI is asking the Russian army for a favour: the “early discharge” of Indian nationals. However, persons being held captive do not require the Russian Army to “grant” a discharge. They’re asking for freedom from captivity, which the GoI won’t demand because it won’t admit that they are being held captive

  • The prize for sheer gall is taken of course by the MEA telling Indians they should not “venture in the war zone” or “get caught into difficult situations”. Indians aren’t wandering off to the war front for fun, the Russians are taking them by force. They didn’t “get caught in a situation”; they were caught by Russian authorities

Being forcibly detained by a foreign state, locked up and threatened with 10 years in prison if they refuse to fight isn’t a mere “difficult situation”: it’s a war crime and a heinous violation of international law. This ought to be the single biggest and most urgent diplomatic issue between India and Russia.

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Why is the GoI Covering for Russia?

The other day, the MEA summoned the German Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi and “conveyed India’s strong protest.” Why? The GoI took offence at Germany saying it was sure that “basic democratic principles” would apply to Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest.

Why hasn’t the MEA, at the very least, “summoned” the Russian Ambassador and “conveyed India’s strong protest” for refusing to free the Indians it is holding captive to fight its war?

The GoI says Germany is interfering in India’s internal affairs merely by “assuming and expecting” that an Opposition leader like Kejriwal would get a fair trial in India. But it is quite happy to allow Russian political interference in favour of the prime minister's party, government, and ideology.

Take Russia’s state-owned news agency Sputnik India: on Kejriwal’s arrest, it prints BJP statements as fact, accusing “Western” media of anti-BJP bias and suggesting that Opposition leaders are playing a “dictatorship card”.

On the Ram Temple, Sputnik India published a report claiming to “debunk” the Western media’s “anti-Hindu” bias. The editorial introduction to this report: “A nearly five-century wait ended with the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on 22 January. However, this historic event has been surrounded with a barrage of anti-Hindu criticism in the West.” RT Hindi, a Russian state-owned media platform, also carried similar propaganda for the Ayodhya event.

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Driven By Unemployment and Desperation

Why do Indians risk their lives going to find work in conflict zones like Israel and Russia? The Modi government has contributed to the conditions that force them to do so. Military veterans had warned against his “Agnipath” scheme for enrolment in the armed forces would rob young people of one of the few opportunities for secure employment. As one put it, “Being an 'Agniveer' is a dead-end street.” That’s proving to be true.

A young worker who tried and failed to get jobs in the armed forces said that despite the war, “pressing circumstances of unemployment and family responsibilities have forced me to take the risk and seek employment in Israel”.

The men we see heading to Israel or Russia are from the same type of migrant workers that we saw on the roads in thousands, walking home during the COVID-19 lockdown. For them, the lockdown led to increases in trafficked and coerced labour, and the collapse of “the thin margin between paid and unpaid labour, and free and unfree labour.” The Modi government has since brutally slashed labour law and social security protections for workers, making “distress migration ..a Hobson’s choice for millions.”

For Indian workers in the US, the Gulf countries and many others, trafficking, forced labour, recruitment fraud, withholding passports and wages as a means of coercion are the norm rather than the exception. What does it say about India, that our workers see work conditions in literal war zones as no different from or even preferable to workplaces in India? Forced labour by private employers is bad enough, but it’s way worse when it’s forced military service by a state.

But I wonder, why are our Opposition parties giving the prime minister a free pass on this?

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Why Are the Opposition and Left Parties Silent?

Left parties and trade unions have protested at the government’s decision to send Indians to work in Israel during its assault on Gaza. Why are they silent when Indians are press-ganged by Russia into its army without protest by the GoI?

For instance, Communist Party of India MP Binoy Viswam wrote a letter to external affairs minister S Jaishankar saying “sending Indian citizens to the war zone is not justifiable”, and “is telling of the complete failure in generating meaningful employment in the country”; and “ordinary people who are desperate with unemployment and poverty will pay a heavy price for Prime Minster Modi's apparent bonhomie with Israel.” The exact same words would apply to Russia, but no one is saying them.

Why do India’s Left parties look the other way? Is it because this is one crime by Russia that they can’t blame on the US and NATO?

Because it would embarrass them to admit that Putin’s piratical oligarchy and his shameless contempt for democracy is a danger to the world’s working class, not a bogeyman unjustly vilified by “western elites”? Because they don’t want to admit they were wrong to insist that Russia’s war is a non-issue in Indian politics, and acknowledge that along with Modi’s alliance with Putin, the war is in fact a life-and-death issue for Indian workers?

Who will speak for the Indian workers in Russia’s captivity, and pressure the prime minister to rescue them, if Opposition parties and trade unions won’t?

(Kavita Krishnan is a women's rights activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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