A a few days before an evacuation drive rescued 694 Indian students from Sumy, a city in the Northeastern part of Ukraine, Radhika Sangwan wrote a thread on Twitter. "To all the people who criticise us for not leaving Ukraine after the advisories given out by the embassy, I would like to tell you that the advisories given out stated that Indian nationals whose stay is not essential, they can leave the country. We are students of 6th year," read the first tweet.
The following ones detailed the many reasons why Indian students couldn't leave Ukraine before the full-fledged invasion by Russian troops on February 24.
When Radhika tweeted in defence of the thousands of Indian medical students stranded in Ukraine, she was herself stuck in a war zone. Just three days before, she had pleaded to the Twitter handles of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, MEA and Indian Embassy in Ukraine for help. "I am a student in Sumy, Ukraine. YES WE EXIST!!! There are 700-800 students in Sumy. It's the 7th day of attack and there is no confirmed news on our evacuation. Stress , fear and anxiety are getting to us. Hope is lost. Pls help," he tweet read.
That a 23-year-old year old medical student, stranded in a war zone, thousands of miles away from her home country, needed to put out a clarification thread among calls for rescue, is telling.
The day the Russian forces began attacking Ukraine, Indian students stranded there started receiving messages of hate and abomination— they were relentless trolled on social media platforms, through WhatsApp forwards, in the comment sections of news reports, and more.
When Aousaf Hussain, a fourth-year student of Kharkiv National Medical University, put out a video of him getting food for his friends who were staying in a bunker, one of the brutal comments said he should be "killed in the battlefield".
A little before news publications started digging into why Ukraine is a hub for medical aspirants from India, Twitter timelines were flooded with apathy. The questions across all platforms questioned the students, who were struggling to get out of the war-torn country: "Why did you leave the country to study? Why did you not leave before the attacks? Why should the Indian embassy evacuate you who you travelled on your own will?"
Amid living in bunkers for a week and trying to get to the borders in freezing weathers, the Indian government announced Operation Ganga, an evacuation operation from Ukraine. The same day a 21-year-old Naveen Gyanagoudar was killed in the intense shelling between Russian and Ukranian forces. Naveen, a medical student in Ukraine had left his bunker in Kharkiv to get food for his friends.
Naveen's death became another reason for the trolls to start blaming the students, once again.
Students BOOM spoke to said they were "hurt" with the online attacks that forced them to explain their side of things in the middle of a crisis.
On a phone call from his hometown in Haryana, Deepak Goyat, a medical student who recently returned from Ukraine via the Romanian border said, "India doesn't have enough seats for medical students in government colleges and private colleges are unaffordable."
"Contrary to popular opinion, it is not the rich kids who go to Ukraine for a medical degree but the ones who can't afford private Indian colleges. Several of them are on education loans there," he said referring to the WhatsApp messages that have inundated many groups.
One such WhatsApp message is a long post that is signed off by a Ruchika Shukla, who, in the message says, she has resided in Ukraine for 30 years. "These Indian students who go there to do ashes in the name of medical studies, they are all shocking grades… who do not get admission anywhere in India… Agents by pretending to have a medical degree from Ukraine for 30-40 lakhs they are taken there… Most of the children are either from the landlords of Haryana or Punjab… or of the bribery government officials… whose parents have to show that their children are foreigners due to the concern of the status in the society," the post reads.
The message further denigrates both Ukrainian and Indian students, alleging that medical degrees are easy to come by, and bribery and corruption rampant. The students told BOOM they believe Ruchika Shukla is a 'fictional character'.
Another viral post showed a photo of a young Indian student who was stuck in Ukraine- it was shared with a fake quote falsely claiming that she reached India then complained that she was dropped at the Mumbai airport and had to spend Rs 234 to get back home by taxi. "Ungrateful students," one of the tweets read, commenting on the viral post.
BOOM identified the student in the viral photo - Jnanashree Singh from Mysore, Karnataka and contacted her father Ganesh Singh who told us that the statement attributed to her is untrue as she only landed in India at the Delhi airport and had not even reached home when the false post became viral.
Dealing With The Trolls
"It's not just the social media trolls, but a few news channels have been running such distasteful stories, too. And the prime minister's address that questioned why Indian students needed to go to smaller countries abroad for medical education, gave them a certain validation," said Goyat adding that no students are admitted into colleges without an eligibility certificate that is issued by the Government of India.
"If they don't want students going abroad, why do they grant us permission?"
Without making any direct mention of the situation of Indian students in Ukraine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address on February 26, said that Indian students going abroad for study, especially in medical education, results in hundreds of billions of rupees exiting the country.
"Our children today are going to small countries for study, especially in medical education. Language is a problem there. They are still going…Can our private sector not enter this field in a big way? Can our state governments not frame good policies for land allotment regarding this," the PM asked.
Naushad Khan, a medical student from Odessa, now back in India, spent the first few days responding to the trolls, in the comments sections on YouTube and Facebook. "I shared videos, went live a few times and explained clearly why Indian students couldn't leave before the attacks. After a while, it seemed like a pointless exercise and I wanted to just focus on getting out of there (Ukraine)," he said.
A similar story was narrated by Abhinav Kumar, a medical student from Ternopil, Ukraine, who has now returned home to Patna, Bihar. His tweets urging the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) and the GoI for evacuation and days of waiting at the Romanian border, were met with trolls demanding explanation.
Initially, Abhinav and his friends engages with the 'trolls' explaining the confusing advisory from the Indian Embassy and comparing it with the more conclusive and urgent one issued by the American embassy. However, he soon realised "they are not there to listen". "Eventually, we would just responded with we are back now, and everything is in the past".
On looking at these 'troll' profiles, Abhinav realised that many of these accounts are new and didn't have any bio or photo. "There was one guy who would not comment on my tweet but quote tweet it with his own comments. He didn't seem to want to have a conversation at all," Abhinav said.
Dealing with the trolls, for many of these students meant simply ignoring them. But the constant back and forth of accusations and clarifications while they were desperately trying to get home has left a toll on them.
"We were stuck there and all they were bothered about was trolling, from the comfort of their homes," Abhinav said.
"There Is A Risk Of PTSD"
Asees Kaur Chadha, a Gurgaon-based psychotherapist, was appalled to hear these stories. "Coming out of a situation like that takes a toll on your mental health. There is already a risk of PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). And to think they must deal with trolling over all that," she said.
Chadha explained that the outcomes of having dealt with such trauma can be many. "Trauma has a spectrum and even if the personal is not clinically diagnosed with it, it can have a lasting impact. Evacuation in a war situation triggers your fight or flight mechanism. It can be overwhelming and present itself later as trauma response. Then, for medical students, there is also uncertainty about the future, which can cause anxiety," she said adding that trolling someone stuck in a war is also a form of victim blaming.
Nazish Esteshan, a student from Ternopil, now in Madhubani, Bihar, was deeply affected by the comment sections of news channel reports including one that alleges that medical degrees in exchange for money are common in Ukraine.
"We were there, working hard to complete our studies. How can we be responsible for war?" he said.
Chadha believes that trolls commenting in situations like this lack empathy. The psychotherapist said it is a case of extreme nationalism being used against vulnerable students. "If you had a family member in jeopardy, how would you feel? Would you spend time blaming them for their actions," she asked?
She believes ignoring the trolls, as counterintuitive it may be to psychotherapy otherwise, is the best solution in the situation. "I am not a fan of ignoring things but at this time, students should block out trolls that are bothering them. It is important to understand that these are not facts and other people's opinions. The trolls have already made up their mind and do not understand anything about the experience these young adults have undergone," she said.
To the students grappling with online trolls while they process the happenings of the past two weeks, she suggests staying connected with friends and family. "It is always good to monitor the information you are taking in.
Among her tips are: Delete apps from your phone, stay off the news and take some time to validate your experience before you engage online again.
As much as the students feel bothered by the comments and questions they have had to endure since the war broke out, their focus now, Abhinav says, is to complete their education and form a part of India's public healthcare system.
"My father sold his land to send me to Ukraine. All I want to do now is finish my study and become a doctor," he said.
iCALL in association with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has launched an emotional support helpline for Indian students in Ukraine and their parents. It is available Monday to Saturday between 10 am to 8 pm on 9152987823.
Updated On: 2022-04-01T11:37:50+05:30