With a fresh wave of evacuations on Sunday, the number of Indians flown back by the Modi government from coronavirus-ravaged Iran rose to 336. But as many as 850 pilgrims from Kargil and 400 students from Kashmir still remain stranded in the country, phone interviews with some of them suggest.

Iran has seen the third-highest number of deaths in the coronavirus pandemic after China and Italy.

Stranded pilgrims from Ladakh’s Kargil district have been holding protests outside the Indian embassy in Tehran, asking to be evacuated. Families of the pilgrims, who have continually appealed to Indian authorities to bring them back, allege the government is not doing enough.

According to tests conducted by Indian doctors flown into Iran, several are infected by the virus. But no one has been quarantined or hospitalised, the pilgrims allege.

“Some 10 days ago, Indian doctors collected samples of around 250 pilgrims and sent them to India,” said 36-year-old Mohammad Imran, who is stranded in Qom. “The reports of these tests came some four days back and Indian embassy officials informed us that around 40-50 are positive. Yet, they didn’t make any efforts to hospitalise them and allowed them to live with all others.”

According to him, the pilgrims themselves took individuals who tested positive in the tests conducted by Indian doctors to hospitals. “But the Iranian hospitals refused to admit them and told us that none of them have any signs of Covid-19,” he said. “Wasn’t it the responsibility of Indian embassy officials to ensure that they are hospitalised or put in isolation?”


Iran also hosts around 400 Kashmiri students, most of them pursuing courses in medicine and engineering. “Indian doctors have collected samples from these students on Saturday night and they will most likely be evacuated next week,” said Shafiq Ahmad Khan, whose son Abdul Rehman is studying at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, 900 km south of Tehran.

For weeks, Khan and other parents have held public protests and met officials in Kashmir, pleading for their children to be returned home. On March 9, a delegation of parents of Kashmiris students in Iran met Union Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar in Srinagar. They submitted a memorandum asking him to evacuate the students at the earliest.

On March 15, Jaishankar tweeted: “A total of 234 Indians stranded in Iran have arrived in India; including 131 students and 103 pilgrims. Thank you Ambassador Dhamu Gaddam and @India_in_Iran team for your efforts. Thank Iranian authorities.”

Two Air India flights carrying the pilgrims and students landed in Rajasthan. They have been quarantined at the Indian Army Wellness Centre at Jaisalmer.

Said Khan, “Today, they have brought Kashmiri students from Tehran. Hopefully, our kids will be home soon, too. It’s been a tough period.”


Stranded in Qom

The worldwide toll from Covid-19, the disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus, has surged past 5,000, while over 1,40,000 individuals have been infected worldwide. In Iran, the toll had risen to 724 on March 15, and the number of infected people to 13,938. On February 27, India cancelled all flights from Iran.

Many of the pilgrims from Kargil are quartered in hotels in Qom, about 140 kilometres south of the capital of Tehran and one of the worst affected areas in the country.

So far, communication between Indian embassy in Teheran and the pilgrims has yielded only assurances. “They are telling us that we will take you to India in batches and only those who test negative will be taken,” said Imran.

Fifty eight pilgrims from Kargil landed in India on Mach 10 after being evacuated from Iran. “They were from our group,” he added.

He also said that officials from the Indian embassy had approached stranded pilgrims in Qom on March 14 repeating the offer to evacuate those who tested negative for the virus. “But we refused and told them that all of us will go together,” said Imran. “Also, there’s a strong reason to believe that none of our members is coronavirus positive, so why should they wait here then? None of us has been hospitalised.”

Sajjad Kargili, who contested the Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Ladakh in 2019, said there were conflicting reports about whether any of the stranded pilgrims had been infected. “These pilgrims were screened at the Indian embassy in Iran and let go,” he said. “After 10-12 days, the results of their tests came and around 30 of them were found to be positive with Covid-19. During all this time, they were not put in quarantine or isolation.”

But when the same pilgrims were tested by Iranian health officials, Kargili said, none of them was found to be infected, echoing what Imran had said.

Imran added that out of 850 pilgrims, Indian doctors had collected samples from 600 so far.

‘Most of them are old’

Kargili, who has been trying to mobilise support for the immediate evacuation of pilgrims from Kargil, said that they were running short of money and medicines. “Most of them are pilgrims who have travelled outside the country for the first time,” he said. “They are old and don’t know the language.”

Kargili said he had taken up the matter with Opposition leaders as well as Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, member of Parliament from Ladakh. He has been also trying to draw attention to the plight of stranded pilgrims in Iran through social media.

Imran said many of the pilgrims showed signs of depression as money and medicines ran out. “Most of them are diabetic and have hypertension,” he said. “They had brought limited supplies of medicines with them. Now we don’t know what will happen to them.”

With the government slow to act, some are thinking of exploring other options. “We are thinking of filing a writ in the Supreme Court,” said a resident of Kargil who has four relatives stuck in Iran. “Our priority is their evacuation but we also demand that the government provide them some monetary compensation, so that they can buy medicines and pay their hotel bills.”

Bringing back samples

On March 9, the Centre issued a press release saying it had initiated “measures to ensure safety and security of its citizens” in Iran. On March 7, 108 samples from Indian citizens were received from Iran, the statement added.

“Indian nationals in Iran include pilgrims, students and fishermen,” said the statement. “These samples are being tested at the laboratory of AIIMS. Also, six scientists from the Indian Council of Medical Research have been stationed in Iran. Equipment and reagents have also been dispatched to enable them to set up a lab.”

Officials working for the Ladakh administration said that the issue of stranded pilgrims from Kargil had been brought to their notice. “We are in constant touch with the ministry of health, which is the nodal agency which we deal with,” said an official who did not want to be named. “Our concern will start once they enter the borders of the Union Territory of Ladakh.”

Namgyal, the member of Parliament from Ladakh, was not reachable on the phone.