February is when the first report emerged of Indians getting killed while fighting on behalf of Russia in the Ukraine war. The Hindu reported that a 23-year-old man from Gujarat who had been hired as an “army security helper” in Russia had perished in a Ukrainian air strike.

Days later, on March 6, media reports said that a Hyderabad man who was allegedly forced to fight alongside the Russian military was killed in the country.

The Indian government confirmed these deaths and said it was pursuing all “relevant cases of Indian nationals for an early discharge from the Russian army”.

But this seems to have had little impact.

This week, India’s foreign ministry acknowledged that two more Indians recruited by the Russian Army had been killed in Ukraine.

This time, the foreign ministry adopted a more stern tone. In a press note, it claimed India had “demanded that there be a verified stop to any further recruitment of our nationals by the Russian Army” since “such activities would not be in consonance with our partnership.”

Nearly 100 Indians have been recruited by the Russian military over the past year, according to The Hindu. At least 30 Indians have contacted the foreign ministry and the Indian Embassy in Moscow, seeking their help to return home, the newspaper reported on Thursday.

Experts told Scroll that the deaths have brought into focus a dangerous trend of Indians unable to get jobs in the country, becoming victims of labour trafficking rackets, and ending up getting recruited as mercenaries in global conflicts. They argued that the government could have done more to crack down on these rackets.

Going forward, the experts said, the government needs to frame specific policy to ensure that Indians migrating abroad for employment are not exposed to high-risk jobs in war zones.

What has the government done so far?

Two days after the first death in Russia was reported in February, the foreign ministry had issued a press note, advising Indians to exercise caution while seeking employment opportunities in Russia.

It reiterated the same advice in March and June.

In terms of punitive action, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a first information report in March, booking 15 individuals and four companies for their alleged role in the “trafficking of gullible Indian nationals to Russia and duping them for better employment and high-paying jobs”. In May, the investigation agency said that it had made four arrests in the case.

But labour experts say the government should have stepped up monitoring of private agents who facilitate the migration of Indian workers to other countries.

“These workers are not reporting to the government and going on their own, so it is important [for the government] to monitor the agents,” said S Irudaya Rajan, the chairperson of the Kerala-based International Institute of Migration and Development. “I do not think they are monitoring very well.”

Rajan said that Indians losing their lives after going abroad for better-paying opportunities was an example of distress migration. “The agents are selling dreams of high salaried jobs in other countries, but even that is a promised salary, you might not actually get that salary,” Rajan added.

In February, The Hindu had reported that Indians hired in Russia had been promised a monthly salary of Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh and the option of opting for a Russian citizenship after a year.

But what can the government do if Indians willingly take up such offers?

Gautam Mody, the general secretary of the trade union body New Trade Union Initiative, said that the government should have made efforts to create awareness among Indian workers about the jobs they were about to take up. “You cannot expect the workers to know of advisories being issued on the external affairs ministry website,” he told Scroll. “There are multiple checkpoints where the workers could be educated. This could be at the level of police verification of their passports or at the immigration counter at the airport.”

Nearly 100 Indians have been recruited by the Russian military over the past year. Image used for representational purposes. (Photo: Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters)

Dhananjay Tripathi, the chairperson of the International Relations department at Delhi’s South Asian University, said that even after Indians leave the country, the government should use its intelligence agencies more effectively to track where the migrating labourers are ending up.

Rajan of the International Institute of Migration and Development also said that one way to do that could be by keeping records of workers going abroad. “There should be a mechanism to have the correct statistics of how many people are going for such jobs,” he said. “When the Ukraine war broke out the number of students stuck there was much more than what the government said.”

The way forward

India’s response to the problem should be focused not only on the situation in Russia, but needs to be guided by a broad policy framework, experts said.

Harsh V Pant, vice president – studies and foreign policy at the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, said that the government has done a “reasonable job” in dealing with Russia, but going forward it should formulate policy that is not specific to countries.

“All such movement of people to conflict zones on short-term contracts will have to be looked at through a policy lens because now this is likely to happen more and more as conflicts rage around the world and it also becomes a lucrative business,” Pant said.

On what this policy might entail, Pant said that the government should ensure employers are transparent about what jobs Indians are being recruited for. “The fact that they are going to a conflict zone should be explained not only to them, but to the wider spectrum of stakeholders like the family members [of workers].”

Pant said that this becomes even more crucial in countries like Russia that have weak domestic labour laws.

The deaths in Russia should serve as a warning for the government when it comes to Indians going for work in other conflict-torn countries, said Swetasree Ghosh Roy, a professor of political science at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, who studies international conflict processes.

“Labour trafficking is nothing new, but it is now making the headlines because people have died after being recruited in a war zone,” Roy said. “The government should ensure that recruitments take place only through agents or channels authorised by the external affairs ministry.”