The Debate | Opinion

If Pakistan Won’t Evacuate Its Citizens From Wuhan, India Should

India should make a formal offer to evacuate Pakistani students stranded in Wuhan amid the coronavirus quarantine.

By Shairee Malhotra for
If Pakistan Won’t Evacuate Its Citizens From Wuhan, India Should
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ MitRebuad

India has efficiently and swiftly evacuated hundreds of its nationals from China due to the coronavirus outbreak that has already killed over 1,100 people there. Two special Air India flights evacuated 640 Indians and seven Maldivian nationals stranded in Wuhan — the epicenter of the coronavirus, now under a strict quarantine. The evacuated Indians have been admitted to two quarantine facilities set up by the Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).

In contrast, the Pakistani government, in the words of Zafar Mirza, special assistant to the prime minister, has refused to evacuate its students “in the larger interest of the country, the region and the world.” Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Naghmana Hashmi, emphasized that China has better medical facilities to handle patients than Pakistan, which does not meet the required standards to treat such cases. Muhammad Munir, a Pakistani virologist at Lancaster University has blamed Pakistan’s poor quarantine infrastructure and the lack of quarantine protocols at entry points into the country.

In defense of his government’s stance, the Pakistani president even quoted an Islamic Hadith, a traditional saying of the Prophet Mohammad, that addresses how Muslims should deal with disease outbreaks: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it, but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”

In a meeting between Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the latter assured the former that Pakistani citizens were a priority for China’s government.

However, none of these statements and words seem to have assured the Pakistani community stranded in Wuhan. Around 800 Pakistani students are based in Wuhan — the capital city of Hubei province in Central China with a population of 11 million people, now under complete lockdown by the Chinese authorities. The Chinese government has offered many scholarships to expand its influence in the region, making China a major education destination for students from South Asia. And Wuhan is home to some of China’s top universities, including Wuhan University and Huazhong University.

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But students are now quarantined in their dormitories in Wuhan, which is currently a ghost town, with a dire shortage of supplies and no way to replenish them since grocery stores are naturally closed and all forms of transportation suspended. At least four Pakistani students have already been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Given the dire circumstances they are in, several Pakistani students watching their Indian counterparts being quickly evacuated have expressed their frustration through social media videos and written letters, pleading with their government to rescue them. Among them is a student explicitly stating, “Shame on you Pakistan government, learn something from the Indians.” Another video consists of three Pakistani women wearing masks and waiting for their government to undertake an evacuation plan. Another student, named Muhammad Rauf, asked, “How long will the lockdown be?… What will we do? Just count down our days?” Another Pakistani student said, “Other countries have evacuated. We are thankful to the Chinese government … but we are not the responsibility of the Chinese government. We are the responsibility of our government.” Another student, named Shanzay Cheema, complained of insomnia amid fear and uncertainty.

According to Reuters, in addition to India, Brazil, Canada, France, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, the United States, United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan – among others — have arranged for the evacuation of their nationals from Hubei province.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs, through its efficient and swift evacuation of hundreds of Indians, has exhibited extraordinary commitment to the well-being of Indian nationals abroad. It acted very much in tandem with late former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s famously reassuring statement, “Even if you are stuck on the Mars, Indian Embassy there will help you.”

India’s eloquent current External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who has admirably taken this legacy forward, most recently stated that India’s offer to evacuate people from Wuhan was extended to all neighboring countries, but only seven Maldivian nationals chose to take India up on the offer. Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar of India’s MEA, in his latest weekly media briefing, stated that “India hadn’t received any request for evacuating its students from the Pakistan government, but if such a situation were to emerge, India would definitely consider this.”

It is time for India to go beyond ambiguities and make a formal emphatic offer to empathize with these cries for help and evacuate Pakistani students from Wuhan.

Of course, the 96-hour long operation wasn’t easy, and the Indian government had to pursue deft diplomacy with the Chinese government to allow the evacuation process — permission was granted only after four days. And the process for evacuating Pakistani nationals would naturally be much more difficult, especially when Pakistan states that it will stand with its all-weather ally during this global health emergency.

Yet, apart from being the moral thing to do, an emphatic offer to evacuate Pakistani students would be a good strategic calculation and foreign policy masterstroke on India’s part. India’s rescue of Maldivian nationals is a great example of its “Neighborhood First” policy in practice and must be lauded. Amid the recent negative international press India has generated on account of its decision to revoke Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the domestic protests surrounding the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), offering to evacuate Pakistani students is a golden opportunity for India to display its continuous moral high ground vis-a-vis Pakistan and, by extension, its positive leadership role in South Asia as well as to re-position itself as a force for good in the world. Through this dynamic gesture, India would thus kill three birds with one stone in pursuit of its ambitions to become a great power.

In recent times, India-Pakistan relations have reached new lows after a deadly Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack in Pulwama in Kashmir in February 2019 and the aerial dogfight between the two nations that followed. In the aftermath of India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan’s anti-India rhetoric became shriller and shriller. Long-term watchers of the enduring rivalry, increasingly marked by intense suspicion and hostility, see no prospects for a thaw or hope for better relations in the near future. Michael Kugelman, the Wilson Center’s Asia Program deputy director and a senior associate for South Asia, stated, “The doomsday clock for the next India-Pakistan war is at a minute to midnight.”

The Pakistani government will in all likelihood reject India’s offer of help in the first place. It would never be able to save face with its own population, who will know that their archenemy helped out Pakistani students in great distress when their own government looked the other way. If the government does agree, the complex logistics of evacuating the students and sending them to Pakistan can be worked out.

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But the gesture alone would garner immense goodwill among the people of Pakistan and the wider international community. It would display that despite the relentless propaganda of the Pakistan Army and government against India, India continues to possess magnanimity as well as a large heart. Crucially, this gesture would also exhibit that India’s problem is not with the people of Pakistan but only with the Pakistani state, which has indulged in a deadly proxy war against India spanning decades and sponsored serious terrorism there.

However, the over-usage of anti-Pakistan rhetoric by India’s ruling party, the BJP, to elevate hyper-nationalist sentiment and garner support at home is at odds with such a generous gesture of compassion and that is a problem. As Kugelman again tellingly states, “Ever since its resounding reelection victory last spring, India’s ruling party has pursued its Hindu nationalist agenda in increasingly aggressive fashion — which gives it no incentive to go easy on Islamabad.” In fact, Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath mentioned Pakistan eight times in 48 seconds at a BJP rally for the Delhi elections. Mohamed Zeeshan, a policy analyst and editor-in-chief of the Freedom Gazette, has detailed how this muscular rhetoric at home is at odds with India’s foreign policy interests in South Asia.  But after all this rhetoric, even a gesture of goodwill would in all likelihood be attacked by the Indian opposition for going soft on Pakistan.

For the Pakistani people, their government’s feeble responses and lack of responsibility towards the cries of stranded students must serve as a wake-up call to pressure the state to invest in the business of healthcare rather than the business of cross-border terrorism.

Shairee Malhotra is a widely published international relations professional with several years of experience working in the global think tank sphere in India and Europe. She an MA International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. Follow her on Twitter: @MalhotraShairee.