February 23, 2017

Rescuing Indian nationals abroad must change from being an ad hoc operation to an established procedure

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

It is so extraordinary that it is too early to arrive at a definitive opinion on it.

An Indian officer aboard a ship in a conflict zone tweets to the External Affairs Minister for urgent help; she chastises him for disregarding the government’s travel advisory before asking the navy if it could help; the navy informs her of the official process and offers an estimate of how long it would take to get to the location; External affairs minister gets in touch with defence minister offline and it appears that the navy has been tasked with the rescue operation.

Meanwhile the external affairs ministry takes up the issue of the shipping company’s violation of the travel advisory with the minister for shipping.

Those seeking a transparent government are probably too shocked to cheer. Others who would like the government to keep its internal deliberations — especially involving defence — behind closed doors are perhaps similarly shocked to silence. The rest were entertained by the real-life drama playing out over twitter.

The rights and the wrongs of the matter can be debated over time, but here are two important observations.

First, the Indian Navy did have a vessel capable of moving in to the theatre at short notice. In the mid-2000s many of us had to make the case for the Indian government to task the navy to engage in patrolling and anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea. For almost a decade now, the Indian Navy has been present in the region, giving New Delhi the capacity to conduct anti-piracy, armed escort, interdiction and search & rescue missions in the Arabian Sea and the Western Indian Ocean.

Second, despite frequent operations involving rescue of Indian nationals from conflicts on land and at sea in the Arabian sea littoral, New Delhi is yet to evolve a policy on how it deals with such contingencies. A few months ago Takshashila published a report detailing the capacities required to handle contingencies required and the diplomatic and inter-ministerial processes required to manage evacuations ranging from emergencies to long-drawn conflicts. Guru Aiyar captures the main conclusions here.

Such matters cannot be left to the nature of the individual ministers and officials concerned. The next foreign minister might not take the same interest and urgency in protecting Indian nationals abroad as Sushma Swaraj does. For that reason, it would be a good thing for her to institutionalise diaspora security policy such that the machinery of the Indian government can swing in to protect citizens in distress in a planned, organised and predictable manner.

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