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Operation Dost: India’s Benevolent Humanitarian Assistance – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Operation Dost: India’s Benevolent Humanitarian Assistance - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Anil Trigunayat

This is not a eulogy for self but a reiteration of Indian ethos and value systems. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam  ( World is one family and our family) is not a mere high-sounding philosophy but has been an anchor and DNA of the Indian foreign policy. Wherever there is a natural disaster or serious disruption of human lives, India is ever so present to render a professional and benevolent helping hand in the water crisis in the Maldives, devastating earthquakes in Nepal, Financial meltdown and humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, floods in Bangladesh, or for that matter humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.

Even evacuations from conflict zones and Vande Bharat flights during the pandemic let alone the medicine and vaccine supplies have all crafted the sharpness of the operational capabilities of the Indian HADR and the political intent of the Indian leadership. At times like these political considerations are overcome by HADR and humanitarian considerations. The most recent Indian largesse was and is being witnessed in Indian response to the devastating earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria. Human lives do matter.

Within 24 hours of the high-intensity earthquake that literally shook the foundations of Turkey and Syria with over 40000 deaths and counting with unprecedented destruction, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered his colleagues to render all possible assistance. ‘Operation Dost’ was underway with exceptional professionalism of the Indian military and disaster response teams becoming one of the first to be on the spot.

Being the first responder in such dire situations, despite ground challenges, matters a great deal for the country that suffers the onslaught and wrath of nature or even manmade disasters. Turkish and Syrian people have acknowledged Indian benevolence but the tragedy of these proportions and scale requires a significant and unbiased international effort.

No doubt the aid and assistance and rescue and relief teams have been pouring in from the region and beyond into Turkiye. But Indian Operation Dost was launched to provide necessary support in terms of search and rescue (SAR) efforts as well as medical assistance. This has involved a whole-of-government approach with coordination among various agencies.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) this swift response led to the first C-17 IAF aircraft with a specialized SAR team leaving for Türkiye within hours of a request of assistance being received. Since then, India has been able to send more than 250 personnel, specialized equipment and other relief material amounting to more than 135 tons to Türkiye on 5 C-17 IAF aircrafts.

These included three self sustained teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) numbering more than 150 specially trained personnel, along with dog squads, specialized equipment, vehicles and supplies. Their equipment allows for detection, location, access and extrication of people trapped under collapsed structures.

In addition, personnel and equipment have been sent to set up a 30-bed self-sustained field hospital of the Indian Army. This includes a team of 99 specially trained personnel, with essential medicines, advanced equipment, vehicles and ambulances. The hospital will provide for a fully functional Operation Theatre and facilities such as X-ray, ventilators, etc as per the press release of MEA .As of now the operation continues and 7th flight has already reached with more relief supplies.

Occasional media clips make the task worthwhile when a life saved or a smile or hug is received by the tireless teams from the suffering hosts. Leave the soft power and diplomatic leverages aside.

New Delhi through its prompt and continued assistance has also shown that political differences must be overridden in times of crisis. Turkiye has often supported India’s arch rival Pakistan and raised the J&K issue and bogey of falsetto to please its friend at the OIC or at the UNGA and in turn Rawalpindi got away with its terror-ridden foreign policy against India and elsewhere. While championing the cause of Muslims and Islam, Ankara often overlooked the fact that India is the 2nd or the 3rd largest Muslim nation in the world. However, of late one can witness a mellowing down of its rhetoric.

Historically India and Turkey have had a good and congenial relationship. Support by Gandhiji to the Khilafat movement is just one such case.  Even though politically we might be on a different pedestal the economic and cultural engagement continues apace.

Both are strategic countries and G20 partners and can do much more together for mutual benefit as is being done by the GCC countries and India, who were also afflicted by the Pak factor for quite some time but today are strategic partners.  Many of my Turkish friends and scholars propagate and argue the idea of moving on a bilateral track leaving aside the Turkey –Pakistan matrix. But at the end of the day mutual sensitivities and mutual respect will only sub-serve the mutual interests.

As for the highly sanctioned Syria, New Delhi was again one of the first responder which does not discriminate on the basis of geo politics. Immediate relief supplies were sent by special planes and over 20 tonnes have already reached and more is on the way.

Syria under President Assad has been the special recipient of western wrath as it was able to survive the Arab Spring designs to dislodge and regime change agendas with the help of the Russians who had learnt a hard lesson in Libya and put their best foot forward. But poor Syrians and the millions of refugees continue to suffer the indignities. India as a matter of principle does not endorse unilateral sanctions by countries especially super powers reeking of presumed hegemony over international discourse.

Again the MEA statement avers that India over the years has been extending humanitarian, technical and developmental assistance to Syria through bilateral and multilateral channels. Consignments of food and medicines have been supplied to Syria from time to time, including during the pandemic. Two Artificial Limb Fitment Camps (Jaipur Foot) have been organized in Syria in December 2020 and recently in October-November 2022. A Next-Gen Centre for Information Technology was set up in Damascus in October 2021. About 1500 scholarships have been provided to Syrian students to study in India in diverse streams.

 Some Arab countries like the UAE and Egypt would like to see Syria back in the Arab fold and without bothering much about the US ‘Caesar’s Act’ and sanctions have moved ahead to normalize ties. In the first in a decade Saudi Arabia sent a plane load of relief supplies and the Jordanian Foreign Minister travelled to Damascus. 

The tragedy may help break Assad’s isolation. But during these trying times, when Russia is engaged in a disastrous war with west-backed Ukraine the western nations remain moribund in their prejudices. Although it started sending some relief supplies, the United Nations acknowledged the failure of the international agency to help northwest Syria following a series of earthquakes. It called for an immediate ceasefire to allow aid to be delivered to the region.  Martin Griffiths, the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief, said that people in areas held by rebels rightly feel abandoned. As usual, the US called upon Assad to allow humanitarian assistance to the affected people. Twists and tales of geopolitics have their own logic.

Indian Minister of State V Muraleedharan visited the Turkish and Syrian embassies to express India’s condolences, sympathies and support . The Turkish Ambassador expressed his government’s gratitude by stating that “a friend in need is a friend indeed’. Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr S Jaishankar reiterated” In geopolitical situations, ups and downs happen every day, however, India’s relations with the countries have been stable in difficult times.”

Both Turkiye and Syria will have reconstruction and rehabilitation challenges. Ankara has significant resources despite ongoing economic challenges and commitments to international assistance and should be able to move forward in a comparatively shorter span of time especially as President Erdogan faces the elections this year.

On the other hand, Syria will take much longer as the civil war and geopolitical contestations will defeat any efforts in the short term. Meanwhile, the Indian hand of friendship and ‘Dosti’ will always be there to reassure and help humanity as it embarks on depoliticizing the vital needs of food and fuel and medicines from the purview of sanctions and weaponization under her G20 Presidency.

This article was first published as Dost Kahan koi tumsa – India’s Humanitarian Assistance on February 16, 2023.

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