With thousands stranded and one killed, Indian students in Ukraine are now the focus of a propaganda tug of war. Both Russia and Ukraine have issued statements promising to protect Indian students and, at the same time, blamed the other side for endangering them.

The situation is playing out domestically too. The Bharatiya Janata Party is using the fact that some students had been rescued from the country by the Indian government as a way to heap credit on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Even as a shooting war plays out in Ukraine, a three-way propaganda war has now broken out over the rescue of the stranded Indian students.

Are students hostage?

On Wednesday, Russia made a significant allegation, claiming that Indian students were being held hostage by the Ukrainian security forces. It said that the Ukrainian security forces “use them as a human shield and in every possible way prevent them from leaving for Russian territory”. On Thursday, Putin repeated the claim, alleging that more than 3,000 Indian students were being kept hostage by Ukrainian armed forces.

Putin claimed that the Russian military, on the other hand, was doing everything possible for the safety of Indian nationals. The Russian defence ministry also said that it has offered to send students back to India from Russian territory in its own military planes.

The Russian embassy in India tweeting that Ukrainians are using Indians as hostages and human shield.

However, Russia’s claim of students being held hostage has been rebutted by both Ukrainian and Indian authorities.

Soon after the Russian statement, Ukraine released a statement rejecting Moscow’s claims. Its contention: it was Russia that was actually endangering Indian students, who have not been able to leave war-torn areas because of “indiscriminate shelling and barbaric missile strikes by the Russian Armed Forces”. Indian students had “become hostages of the Russian armed aggression”, claimed Ukraine.

On Thursday, India also rejected Russia’s claims. It said that it has “not received any reports of any hostage situation regarding any student”.

Savior complex

Even as they blame each other for harming Indians, both Russia and Ukraine have also offered help to bring Indian students back to safety. Russia has said that it is trying to organise an urgent evacuation of Indian students “through the humanitarian corridor along the shortest route to Russia”.

On the basis of information received from Russia, Indian authorities asked students in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv to move to three safe zones. The Russian ambassador-designate to India, Denis Alipov has also promised that Russia would coordinate details with India and keep it informed about developments.

Ukraine has also claimed that is committed to helping Indian students. However, it is using the problem of stranded Indian students to ask Russia to stop its offensive. In its statement on Wednesday, Ukraine said that helping students would not be possible without a Russian ceasefire.

“Attempting to arrange evacuations through cities that are being subjected to Russian bombing and missile strikes is extremely dangerous,” it added.

Meanwhile, Indian students have alleged that the Ukrainian authorities are not being cooperative. Students have, in fact, even said that they were assaulted and not allowed to board trains by Ukrainian armed forces. However, Ukraine has denied allegations of any discrimination.

Wooing India

The aim of this narrative war between Russia and Ukraine is to garner Indian support. Till now, India has abstained from voting on all three resolutions at the United Nations on the Russian invasion. Two of these resolutions criticised Russia’s invasion and one resolution asked for a special United Nations General Assembly session to discuss the crisis. Thus, India’s stance has implicitly tilted towards Russia.

The safety of Indian students has, in turn, become a key issue over which Ukraine and Russia are now fighting over in order to win over New Delhi.

Previously, hinting at India, among other countries, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations had said that countries should have voted against Russia in order to end the war for the safety of their own citizens in Ukraine.

An example of a Russian attempt to curry favour with India

The home front

At the same time, the evacuation of students is also being used as an opportunity by the BJP to pat the Modi-led BJP government on the back. “Operation Ganga”, the Indian government’s mission to rescue students, has even made its way to the Uttar Pradesh election campaign, with Modi raising it during multiple public speeches. On Thursday, the prime minister even met with a group of students as part of a televised interaction.

Several BJP ministers have shared this image showing Modi as the students' savior, even while (incorrectly) claiming that other countries have abandoned their nationals.

On Monday, four Union ministers were sent to countries bordering Ukraine to oversee the evacuation drive. Videos of them taking part in rescue efforts and students being received in India by ministers are being pushed on social media by the BJP.

Visuals of Union ministers in countries neighbouring Ukraine have been pushed hard in the media.

This public relations blitz around rescuing students is not limited to the BJP. On Thursday, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led Tamil Nadu government announced that it will send its own rescue team to countries bordering Ukraine.

However, many students and some opposition members have contested the government’s claim that it has been able to provide adequate help to get students back. Opposition members have shared videos of distressed students in Ukraine who complain that the Indian government has not helped them.

Several students have, in fact, questioned the public-relations drive by the Modi government, especially its claims to have rescued them. “The Indian government is publicising about bringing back 1,000 Indian students,” a student who had left Ukraine right before flights stopped told Scroll.in. “But all their efforts are focused on the western border of the country. What about thousands of students in eastern parts of Ukraine?”

Another student complained to NDTV about the mismatch between the PR and the actual work on the ground: “Officials are giving us roses at the airport. But when we were stranded at the borders, nobody came to help us.”

In a rare move, the Union Ministry of External Affairs even denied claims made by the BJP and media seen to be sympathetic to it, that Russia has stopped the war for six hours on India’s request in order to evacuate students.

The managing Editor of News18 Hindi pushing the incorrect news – now denied by the Indian government – that Russia had paused the war on New Delhi's request.