When thousands of Indians were stuck in Kuwait during Gulf war, the Indian government executed the world’s largest air evacuation mission ever. The operation continued for almost two months and managed to airlift over 1,70,000 Indians. Here is all you need to know about the amazing effort!
Air India might be largely known today for delayed flights and poor service. But did you know that the largest air evacuation in the history of mankind was executed by the much aligned national airline of India? In 1990, the Indian government airlifted over 1,70,000 Indians from Kuwait with help of 488 flights in just 59 days. Air India entered into Guinness Book of World Records for the civil airline that had evacuated the most people till date.
Why the evacuation?
During the Gulf war in 1990, when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, the Iraqis took over the city in a few hours leaving the entire country in a state of terror. This included the fairly significant Indian community there as well. While the Kuwaiti royal family escaped to Saudi Arabia, the general population suffered great tragedies and loss. The responsibility came on the Indian government to safely evacuate the Indian community from Kuwait and hence, the largest air evacuation mission took shape.
“We did not use the word ‘condemn’ in our statement [about the Iraqi attack], for two reasons: one, we were concerned about our nationals there; second, we still believed that there was some scope for a negotiated solution to the problem. We were keen to play a role. If we condemned the development openly, it would have been difficult for us to deal with Iraq,” said K.P. Fabian, former Ambassador of India who was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs during the First Gulf War.
What made it difficult?
Evacuating the Indian community from Kuwait was not an easy task. People were not ready to leave behind everything they had spent their entire lives earning in Kuwait. They underestimated the gravity of the situation and were reluctant to leave their well-settled lives.
Also, many people living there did not have valid travel papers as they had handed them over to their employers who were either missing or dead.
“Meanwhile, another problem was brewing. One set of Air India crew was stranded in Kuwait, having flown in a flight earlier. The Air India pilots and staff threatened that unless we got this crew out, they would ground the flights. The threat was indeed serious. As per Ministry of Overseas Indians (MOIA) annual report 2012-13, there are over 25 million overseas Indians across the globe and whenever need arises, it is the government’s responsibility to bring back the country’s citizens safely. Not only just the evacuation during Gulf war, Indian government has successfully executed many such missions. It was decided that the Foreign Minister should go to Baghdad and Kuwaitand urgently arrange repatriation of our nationals” said Fabian.
Also, Indian people took shelter in various schools and other buildings in various parts of Amman. They had to travel from various places to the Amman airport. It could not be predicted when these people would arrive and due to this, flights got delayed a lot. The crew had to stay on duty for a much longer time than the stipulated duty hours which created a lot of tiffs.
How did they do it?
Indian government officials went to Kuwait to meet Saddam Hussain and get him on board the arranged repatriation of Indian nationals.
“We conveyed our official viewpoint and also our plans to evacuate our nationals. He listened to our views and repeated his known position, and agreed to facilitate the repatriation of our nationals,” said Fabian.
As the help reached on August 14 (12 days after the invasion had taken place), Indian citizens were angry as they were expecting a quicker intervention by the Indian government. But, the then Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral quickly brought the crowd under control and in no time had them shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
Initially, a few military aircrafts were arranged to evacuate the elderly, women and children. But due to a lengthy air space clearance procedure, this did not seem like a feasible solution. So the government turned to Air India for assistance.
“You should have seen us. We were operating out of a hotel room in Amman with very little space and carrying out all our operations from there,” MP Mascarenhas, who organised the operation as the airline’s regional director in the Gulf & Middle East, told Scroll.
The Indian Air Force deployed its IL 76 aircraft for a steady communication link between Kuwait and Delhi government officials. The situation was severe and required immediate help and attention. The Kerala government came forward and dispatched food items for the Indian nationals in Kuwait.
“My suggestion was that we needed to first pick up mothers with babies, other children, women, sick and old people. And also, on the basis of some kind of distributive justice, we needed to select people from every region,” said Fabian.
There were far more people to be evacuated than expected. But, the coordination and team work of the people on the mission managed to evacuate all the Indian nationals out of the country. There was also a Pakistani Airline crew stranded in Kuwait and they wished to be evacuated by Indian aircrafts. On humanitarian grounds, the Indian officials agreed.
The successful operation that started on August 14 1990, continued for almost 2 months and created history, finally coming to an end on October 11.
Other notable achievements
This was not the only successful evacuation and heroic act by the Indian government. “Operation Sukoon” in 2006 by the Indian Navy was another great operation to evacuate Indian, Sri Lankan and Nepalese nationals, as well as Lebanese nationals with Indian spouses, from the conflict zone during the 2006 Lebanon War. Four naval ships – INS Mumbai, INS Betwa and INS Brahmaputra and oil tanker INS Shakti – executed the successful operation.
Another successful evacuation “Operation Blossom” took place in 2011 when mass protests against the military broke out in Libya. Around 8,000 Indians were evacuated with help from Indian Navy’s INS Jalashwa (an amphibious transport dock ship) and a destroyer INS Mysore – both these ships together could carry around 1,200 people at one go – and the fleet tanker the INS Aditya.
The Indian government has time and again proved that it leaves no stone unturned in bringing back its people safely to the country in times of distress anywhere in the world. Kudos to all the heroes who have showed immense courage and humanity in the toughest of times.