Mumbai: As images from war-hit Ukraine streamed onto Indian screens, they carried concerns about the well-being of more than 20,000 Indians who studied or lived—or are still stuck—there: Over 18,000 were students, many of them studying medicine.
Ashwini Manjrekar is one of them. A 21-year-old MBBS student of Kyiv Medical University, Manjrekar had been stuck in Ukraine’s capital city, desperate to leave.
In her third year, she has done everything the Indian government asked her to: get in touch with the embassy, lie low, not panic, look for tickets to fly back, go to train stations in the hope of boarding a train to the country’s borders. Nothing worked.
While she was in transit, trying to get to safety, her Mumbai-based brother Aditya said his sister was not contacted even once by the embassy. “Most of the helpline numbers don’t work and if they do, the official only says that they will get in touch with us,” he said.
But the family’s constant anxiety turned into anger on 1 March 2022, when they heard Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s statement, declaring that all Indians had been evacuated from Kyiv. When Shringla made the statement on 1 March, she was still in Kyiv. On 2 March, Manjrekar fled in a private car, with no help from the embassy.
“It is an absolute lie. My sister is on her own, even today,” said Aditya. “There are so many other Indian students still stuck in Kyiv. The government should not lie.”
Even as Indian students stranded in Ukraine and their families fight anxious moments till they reach a point of safety, a silently orchestrated disinformation campaign has been taking shape across digital platforms, in groups and forums that sympathise with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The campaign amplifies disinformation around the Indian government’s efforts, exaggerates success, spreads fake news, falsely blames students stuck inside the east European country for their fate, stokes hyper-nationalism and even fans anger against Ukraine for “speaking the language of Pakistan” in the past.
From calling students “snakelings” who will criticise Modi once they return to India to implying they were entitled and privileged, to falsely claiming that Ukraine and Russia seek India’s help to resolve the war, the campaign changed shape as the narrative around the evacuation attempts changed.
Article 14 found evidence of such a campaign largely across WhatsApp groups run by BJP sympathisers and workers and on Facebook groups and pages promoting the BJP and its leaders. The campaign was also evident on YouTube channels that do not necessarily reveal political leanings but disseminate propaganda similar to pro-BJP fora.
Experts who study disinformation said that such a campaign helps “manage the narrative”, as, contrary to its claims, the government is called out for failing to act swiftly in evacuating Indian citizens to safety while tensions between Russia and Ukraine worsened over January and February.
“This propaganda campaign is an issue of managing a case of misgovernance and setting a narrative,” said Pratik Sinha, co-founder of the fact-checking platform, Alt News. The website detected at least four instances where false, unverified information was shared by multiple users on social media platforms, depicting the Indian government’s rescue efforts in an exaggeratedly successful light.
In one case, also detected by Article 14, a graphic claimed that the Russian Defence minister Sergey Shoigu had promised his country’s forces would not harm Indian civilians in Ukraine and would evacuate such civilians to safer locations.
“Kuch toh dum hoga chai wale mein. There’s definitely something about this tea-seller,” the graphic read, referring to Modi.
In the other instance, an obviously doctored screenshot, shared by multiple users across platforms, ostensibly showed an Air India evacuation flight flying in a no-fly zone, the lone aircraft in that airspace as tens of other planes skirted the area. This, the graphic said, was evidence of India’s geopolitical importance.
Such fabrication, Sinha argued, was required to counter the criticism the Modi government was facing for its delayed response to the situation. “The government came under attack because its rescue efforts were not up to the mark,” said Sinha. “Such a narrative helps counter that.”
A Fumbling Response
In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as tensions rose, there were warnings that the situation could deteriorate into a military conflict.
On 3 December, the Washington Post quoted US intelligence sources as saying that a “massive military offensive” against Ukraine was imminent. On 7 December, Time magazine reported that the administration of US President Joe Biden was planning evacuation strategies for its citizens if war broke out.
On 24 January, Australia asked its citizens to leave Ukraine “immediately”. Two days later, the US asked its citizens to “consider departing now”, since the situation could worsen “with little notice.” Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany announced they were withdrawing embassy staff and families from Ukraine, as an invasion appeared imminent.
Around the same time, the Indian embassy in Ukraine was advertising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Pariksha Pe Charcha’—an annual pre-exam event where Modi speaks to students, teachers and parents—and put out a post on its website, advertising an “opportunity to interact” with Modi on that show, with the deadline for applications being 27 January.
That week, the embassy posted a registration form on its website, asking Indians living in Ukraine to fill it up so that the embassy could “coordinate with Indians effectively and disseminate information in a swift manner”. It offered no advice to its citizens, at a time other countries were asking them to leave.
On 15 February, three weeks after the Australian government’s advisory asking citizens to leave “immediately”, the Indian embassy posted an advisory with markedly less urgency.
“In view of the uncertainties of the current situation in Ukraine, Indian nationals in Ukraine…may consider leaving temporarily,” said the Indian embassy statement, adding that Indians were advised “to avoid non-essential travel to Ukraine”. The advisory did not offer an emergency helpline or any contact numbers.
A day later, the embassy posted a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document, where it asked those who could not get a flight back home since they were already booked to “maintain calm and not give rise to panic”.
“Those desirous of travelling back to India are advised to book available commercial flights,” said the FAQ, adding that the Indian government was discussing options for increasing flights between Ukraine and India.
On 18 February, the embassy announced that Air India would operate three flights between Kyiv and New Delhi on 22, 24 and 26 February. On 21 February, it announced four additional flights on 25, 27 and 6 March.
While the first flight brought back 241 students, all the others were cancelled after war broke out on 24 February. Commercial flights were suspended, special flights were cancelled and thousands of Indians found themselves stranded in the country.
Living Off Chips, Being Mocked
So, students like Manjrekar were caught in a war zone, with deadly results.
Russian shelling killed a student from Karnataka called Naveen Shekharappa on 1 March, as he waited in line to buy groceries in Kharkiv. Others have been assaulted by Ukrainian guards, many have complained of discrimination against them by Ukrainian authorities, as they tried to cross the border into Poland.
“My sister gets one meal a day, while her friends in the university bunkers have been living off only chips and instant noodles,” said Aditya.
Despite these struggles, the students have been mocked inside the online right-wing ecosystem and outside it.
Some of the disparaging comments come from the top.
Without directly referring to the current crisis, Modi, on 26 February, speaking at a webinar, said that Indian students were going to “small countries for study, especially in medical education”. On the day Naveen died, Modi’s colleague, union parliamentary affairs minister Prahlad Joshi said “90% of Indians” who study medicine abroad are those who “fail to clear qualifying exams in India”.
Naveen had scored 97% in his pre-university course, his father Shekharappa Gyanagoudar told the media. Aditya, Manjrekar’s brother, pointed out, as many did, that medical education was expensive in India.
In India, said Aditya, the family would have to pay Rs 1 crore a year for private medical education. “But in Ukraine, we were spending only Rs 25 lakh annually,” he said. “Why else would we send our children to distant, alien lands where even our language isn’t common?”
On 2 March, former Maharashtra chief minister of the BJP, Devendra Fadnavis, said that stranded students “may have miscalculated the gravity of the situation”.
On 2 March, Alt News reported how pro-BJP accounts on social media alleged that the daughter of a Samajwadi Party leader, one of those who had put out a video from Ukraine, was only pretending to be in the war-hit country. The claim was false: she was indeed stranded and had managed to reach Romania, which neighbours Ukraine.
Hyper Nationalism As Damage Control
Across the WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages that Article 14 monitored, it was apparent that a concerted effort was being made to blame stranded Indian students for their situation.
Article 14 accessed social media content on Facebook through CrowdTangle, a free tool developed by Meta (formerly Facebook) to monitor popular content on its platform.
On Facebook alone, we found there were 5,960 posts with the keywords ‘Modi’ and ‘Ukraine’ together, between 23 February and 2 March, with over 4.77 million ‘interactions’.
Most of the popular posts had similar undertones—they were in favour of the BJP and Modi and talked up rescue efforts.
One of the most popular posts appears on by a page called ‘Saffron Tigers’, which has a photo of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath as its display picture and a photo of Modi, Yogi and union home minister Amit Shah as its cover photo. The page describes itself as a “digital platform about ideas and news of the world”, but its content and presentation indicate clear pro-BJP leanings.
The post featured the same viral image that fact-checkers like Alt News had debunked—of a lone Air India flight entering the no-fly zone of Ukraine while war raged. “The single picture tells the whole story,” said the post. “This is New India under the able leadership of PM Narendra Modi ji.”
Sinha of Alt News said that such a message worked for the BJP on two-fronts. “One was to convey that only Modi can get a flight to fly into a no-fly zone,” he said, “and the other was to show how far India can go to rescue its students.”
On both counts, the post appeared to have done its job. The post received 55,000 likes, over 14,000 shares and more than 3,600 comments, most of them effusive in their praise for Modi.
“Great India, great Indian and great India government…specially…Modi ji”, read one comment under it.
“He can do anything he’s Modi and this is new India under his leadership”, said one user.
“This is only beginning, for sure India will become superpower competing all countries in coming day's (sic),” read another comment.
Some of the comments recognised that the image was “fake”, but that did not make much of a difference.
“Though this pic is fake but there are lot of things has changed and India has become more powerful today because of our PM.. our country is being consider now one of the great Nation (sic),” said one user.
The Man With The Tricolour & The 'New India'
Across the Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups that we trawled, one video was commonly viral—a video of an Indian student walking in a group with other students, holding the tricolour.
The student in the video says he was allowed to cross three different regions in Ukraine safely because he had the tricolour on his flag. “All the people here are giving Indian people a different level of respect and honour,” the student, whose name was not mentioned in the video, said. “This shows the respect that India has today, in the world.”
On WhatsApp groups, this video was accompanied with text in praise of Modi.
“Yeh aaj ka aapka Bharat hai, Modi ka Bharat hai.” This is your India today, this is Modi’s India, it said on a WhatsApp group named after Modi.
“Yeh Naya Bharat hai, Shaktishaali Bharat Hai, Yeh Modi ka Bharat Hai,” said another on a group called ‘Mission BJP-RSS’. This is a new India, a strong India, this is Modi’s India.
That this one video, of a single student, praising the Modi government’s efforts, had gone viral on multiple platforms indicated the effort behind it, said Sinha. “The BJP network has the advantage of numbers on its side,” he added, referring to the party’s formidable social-media workers, now thought to number in the millions.
In September 2018, then-BJP chief Amit Shah, addressing the party’s social media volunteers, said the party’ social-media machinery was “capable of delivering any message we want to, whether sweet or sour, true or fake.”
Even as reports pour in of Indians stranded in the war-torn country, pages and accounts associated with the BJP try to ignore their situation, claiming instead that rescue efforts were smooth, “most active” and timely.
Many of these pages started drawing comparisons between the fate of Indian and Pakistani students.
The Facebook page ‘Nation With NaMo’, with over 1.7 million followers, posted a video of a stranded Pakistani student critical of her government’s efforts, alongside the testimony of an Indian student praising the Modi government’s evacuation efforts.
“The power of Modiplomacy,” the post said.
Along with these posts came a similar strand of posts, exaggerating, based on lies and half-truths, the Modi government as well as Modi’s role, in “resolving” the war crisis. Such claims were bolstered by Modi, himself. On 2 March he said evacuations from Ukraine were possible “because of India’s rising power”.
The World Seeks Modi—So The Claim Goes
On WhatsApp, posts with claims that Ukraine had called Modi “the world’s most powerful leader” and that the “world was asking for India’s intervention” in the war went viral. Some of this was driven and amplified by disinformation from little-known online ‘news’ outlets.
For instance, through Crowd Tangle, Article 14 found that one of the most popular posts on Facebook last week—with 42,000 likes, 759 comments and over 2 million views—was a video from a page called ‘The News’.
“Modi ke faisle se Putin jhoom utha, Modi ne Ukraine ke Rashtrapati se ki baat PM Modi ne achanak Ukraine kiya call," the video said.
Putin is overjoyed at Modi’s decision, Modi speaks to the Ukraine President, Modi makes a surprise call to Ukraine, read the title of the post, with a thumbnail depicting an applauding Putin, an animated Modi delivering a speech and a pensive Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, holding the phone receiver to his ear.
The video has a presenter who goes on to make several unsubstantiated claims. “Both, Russia and Ukraine are looking to India for a solution to the issue,” the presenter says, adding that the Ukrainian ambassador to India had said that “perhaps Modi was the only courageous and powerful leader Putin might listen to”, a distortion of what the envoy said.
After Russia invaded the country, the ambassador Igor Polikha said he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s position on the issue.
“I don’t know how many world leaders (Russian President Vladimir) Putin may listen to but the status of (Prime Minister Narendra) Modiji makes me hopeful,” said Polikha.
Students Demonised, Suffering Mocked
As criticism of Modi’s government grew on social media and by opposition parties, a new strand of disinformation emerged on WhatsApp groups—that the students had been negligent in refusing to pay heed to the government’s “warnings”.
One message, found in various pro-BJP WhatsApp groups said: “You spend 1 crore in donations, but you quibble over a 50-60,000 rupee-ticket.” It referred to complaints by students about expensive airfares, after the Indian government issued its advisory.
“You want to get out of the war-zone safely and then come and cry in front of TV cameras that you were not given 5-star facilities,” the message said, before going on to mock the tribulations of these students.
Calling them “snakelings”, the message said that once back in India, these students would complain about the rescue. “They will say how the sandwich they ate during the evacuation had less salt, and how, despite the biting cold, the Modi government did not give us a moisturiser.”
Another such message, posted repeatedly in at least three pro-BJP WhatsApp groups, had a similar, sarcastic take on the students’ plight.
“The students should have been dropped by a helicopter till their doorsteps. The government should have paid for a porter to carry their luggage. Modi should have carried them on his head and dropped them home, isn’t it?,” it read.
Such demonisation of the students had some official sanction. India’s foreign secretary Shringla, defending the government’s actions on 25 February, said the Indian government “gave a lot of advance notice” to students, in order for them to leave Ukraine.
For families of those still stranded, such as the Manjrekars, the shifting of blame only made a bad situation worse.
On 2 March, a day after Shringla’s claim, Manjrekar managed a private car to take her to Lviv, a city closer to Ukraine’s western border with Poland than Kyiv. The 600-km journey takes nearly 12 hours and was fraught with danger, as reports spoke of indiscriminate shelling by the Russia army in some parts of Ukraine.
Manjrekar has had no assistance from the embassy, and her brother, Aditya, said her journey was a “desperate, last-ditch attempt” to get out of Kyiv before it fell to the Russians. As the family watched union ministers welcoming evacuated students, their anxiety was tinged with anger.
“People who don’t know anything about the situation will feel better seeing all this,” said Aditya, adding that his family wasn’t convinced by the optics.
“We saw the ground realities through my sister,” Aditya said, “and we know how fake the whole thing is.”
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)