Indian students return to Ukraine despite war escalating

Some of the Indian students who were evacuated with the assistance of Indian authorities from Ukraine and neighbouring countries after the Russian attack in February have returned to Ukraine.

Others are planning to return even though the war has escalated, and India’s Ministry of External Affairs has issued an advisory asking students to leave Ukraine.

Many students feel compelled to return, despite the increasing risks, for the sake of their future as they have been unable to continue their studies in India. In particular students in their clinical years of medical studies are returning to areas of Ukraine where universities are functioning almost normally such as in Western Ukraine, where infrastructure has until now been relatively unaffected.

Some 20,000 Indian students, most of them studying medicine, were brought home earlier this year, many of them after fleeing across the border in harrowing circumstances to escape dire conditions in besieged cities in the east of the country.

After returning to India, students who were studying medicine in different cities of Ukraine called on Indian and state authorities to allow them to be accommodated in Indian medical colleges to continue their clinical training and medical education.

However, the Indian government refused to accede to their demands and most students are managing with online classes from their respective universities in Ukraine, while some have transferred to various universities in other countries.

The National Medical Commission (NMC), the Indian regulatory body which oversees medical education and professionals, has accepted online classes only for theory but not for practicals or clinical training for students in countries such as Ukraine and China.

Anurag Krishn, a fourth-year student at the National Pirogov Memorial Medical University, Vinnytsia, in West Central Ukraine, said he had no plans to return to India in the near future. “We [students] have decided to wait for some time. If conditions deteriorate, then we may think of moving to a safer place.”

“But right now we are concentrating on our studies and plan to complete our degrees. The [Indian] government knows that in reality we have no option left,” he said.

Vinnytsia is now relatively calm despite coming under drone attack on 11 October which knocked out the power station. Drone and rocket attacks have been launched since 10 October against a number of previously safe cities in the West, including Lviv near the border with Poland.

Areas that did not come under bombardment have been affected by electricity and water outages as critical infrastructure has been hit. The situation in the East, particularly Donetsk and Luhansk, is extremely unsafe. The Indian embassy has advised students against returning to institutions in the two areas.

Students ignore embassy advisory

On 25 October the Indian embassy issued its second advisory in a week, asking its citizens to “leave Ukraine by all available means”. It had issued a similar advisory on 19 October.

“In continuation of the advisory issued by the embassy on 19 October 2022, all Indian citizens in Ukraine are advised to immediately leave Ukraine by available means. Some Indian nationals have already left Ukraine pursuant to an earlier advisory,” it said. It had cautioned Indian nationals about the deteriorating security situation in Ukraine.

Students, many of whom arrived to begin the new academic year last month, say that such advisories are not based on reality on the ground and have instead asked the embassy to help them out.

A fifth-year medical student said on condition of anonymity: “Regardless of whatever advisory is issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, we will return to India only after completing the medical course.”

He added: “Our parents have spent so much money on us. We come from middle-class families so the best option for students is to move to Ukraine whatever we have to face.

“Some of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year students who were studying medicine in Ukraine have returned to Ukraine, while many others are preparing to return.”

He said: “We have no future in India. We have also paid the course fees in Ukraine. Our government is not helpful and we are left with no option except to resume our classes in Ukraine despite the risk to our lives.”

Akanksha, using only her first name, was in her sixth year of medical studies at Ukraine’s Uzhhorod National Medical University in Western Ukraine, close to the border with Slovakia and Hungary, when she returned to India with other students in March.

“I am a sixth-year medical student, so it is necessary for me to do practicals. Therefore I was practising in a private hospital [in Delhi] for the last six months. I got a letter from the medical college calling me back to Ukraine,” she said.

Akanksha said she and her family members had been through immense mental hardship when, in common with thousands of other Ukraine-returned students, her education came to a halt. The Indian government was not ready to accommodate them in medical colleges, she said.

“So we have no other option except to return to Ukraine although we are facing pressure from our parents and family members. They are very worried about our safety and the situation is very complicated.”

“Many students are still torn between whether they should return or not,” she added.

Court petitions pending

Another fifth-year medical year student who fled Ukraine and is now in Faridabad in the Northern Indian state of Haryana said they were left with no option to stay in India after the central government told the Indian Supreme Court last month that Indian medical students who had returned from Ukraine could not be accommodated in Indian universities as the National Medical Commission does not allow foreign medical students to be accommodated or transferred to relevant Indian colleges or universities.

The student said: “The government told the court that no such facilitating provisions exist in the Indian Medical Council Act or the National Medical Commission Act. So we have no future here [in India].”

A batch of court petitions have been filed by Indian students who were evacuated from Ukraine seeking permission to continue their medical studies in India. However, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has told the Supreme Court the standards of medical education in India would be seriously impeded if these students were accommodated in Indian institutions.

The ministry noted that the students had gone to foreign countries due to lower marks in the highly competitive medical entrance examinations known as NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) and the affordability of medical education in foreign countries such as Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the students’ petitions are still pending in the Supreme Court. The court has bunched together all the petitions and they will be heard simultaneously.

The next hearing of the case was scheduled for 1 November but was postponed and a new date has yet to be assigned.

Some of the petitioning students said that the case should be heard and decided soon because the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has intensified.