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Airlift portrays the Indian government and bureaucracy in a poor light

Airlift portrays the Indian government and bureaucracy in a poor light

Airlift portrays the Indian government and bureaucracy in a poor light.

By Veenu Sandhu, Source:BS, February 7, 2016 Last Updated at 06:13 PM IST.

In telling its version of one of the biggest air evacuation exercises ever undertaken in the world, Airlift portrays the Indian government and bureaucracy in a poor light and chooses to ignore the crucial behind-the-scenes negotiations that made the feat possible. The author contrasts the first-hand account of the actual narrative as it unfolded with the plot in the movie

“Where is India?”
“Must be watching the tamasha.”

A few minutes into Airlift, the film on the largest human evacuation by air in world history by India during the Iraq-Kuwait war, this is the conversation you hear between some Indian businessmen in Kuwait. Among them is Ranjit Katyal (played by Akshay Kumar) who sees himself as more Kuwaiti than Indian and is openly contemptuous of India.

It is August 1990. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, has attacked Kuwait. And over 170,000 Indians (an actual figure) are stuck. The film then goes on to show a deserted Indian embassy in Kuwait. All officials have fled, leaving Indian nationals in Kuwait to their own devices.

Desperate to help himself, his family and the over one lakh fellow Indians, Katyal dials the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi. The phone keeps ringing; no one bothers to respond. Finally, a tired looking joint secretary, Sanjeev Kohli, answers the call but tells Katyal that he is not in the West Asian division, so he cannot help.

After several phone calls and much begging from Katyal, he reluctantly agrees to take the plight of the Indians in Kuwait to the external affairs minister who tells Kohli that West Asia is not priority.

It is a sorry portrayal of Indian diplomats, bureaucracy and the government. So there is a good reason that the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the scores of officials associated with that phenomenal evacuation, which could be pulled off only after tremendous coordination between the MEA, civil aviation ministry, Air India and the governments of Iraq and Jordan, are upset.

K P Fabian, then the joint secretary in charge of MEA’s West Asia division, remembers the morning of August 2, 1990, when Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait, as though it happened yesterday. He got a call from a friend whose husband was a UN official to say she could see the soldiers on the streets from her apartment. In less than an hour, India’s ambassador in Kuwait confirmed the news to him.

“We had two concerns: to urge Iraq to withdraw peacefully and the safety of our people in Kuwait, Iraq and in the larger region because once something like this starts, you don’t know where it will stop,” says Fabian. “We recognised that the Iraqi army in Kuwait was not harming Indians in any way. So if Iraq pulled back, there would be no need for an evacuation.”

First moves
To seek a peaceful resolution, (then) foreign minister Inder Kumar Gujral went to the United States to meet his counterpart, UN secretary general and others. (In the film, the minister is shown as dismissive of the crises.) “It soon became clear that the US was keen on having a war, so the evacuation was necessary,” says Fabian.

For that to happen, Iraq’s cooperation was critical, so Gujral now flew to Baghdad where he met Hussein who offered all facilitation. Meanwhile, the Indians stranded in Kuwait were getting restless. Gujral then went to Kuwait.

“We got a call asking us to come to the Indian embassy in Kuwait,” recalls Anil Wadhwa, who, then 40, was on deputation with Petroleum India International in Kuwait. “The embassy was packed with people who had come with their luggage,” he says. “Gujral was there and he said, ‘You all can write down any number of letters you want to send to your families back home and I will personally have them delivered’.”

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Wadhwa’s family – father, mother, sister, wife and two small children – were in Delhi. “We all wrote three-four letters each. And they reached our homes with this note, ‘With compliments from I K Gujral’,” Wadhwa recounts.

When Gujral flew out of Kuwait, he brought home with him some Indians who could be accommodated in his aircraft. This was not the time to waste resources.

This was the time before mobile phones and the internet. “There was no way of calling home for those 20 days,” says Wadhwa. So he dialled the Indian embassy in Kuwait. “One chap picked up and I asked him if he could send a message, a one-line telegram to the chairman of the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) saying that all engineers of Petroleum India International were safe.” That message reached the IOC chairman and through him to the families, says Wadhwa. “I never felt India did not do enough; I think it did a lot.”

In the film, Kohli, a key character, has been portrayed as a helpless bureaucrat in Delhi. The real Kohli was, in fact, then a young third secretary in the Indian mission in Kuwait. “We had orders from Delhi not to leave till the last Indian had left, and we did it despite limited resources,” he recently told NewsMobile.

Back in India, MEA had a mammoth task at hand – safely bringing back 170,000 Indians. A Cabinet sub-committee, headed by Gujral, was set up with civil aviation, finance and home ministers as its members. It was decided that Air India would be pressed into service for the evacuation.

Bring the aircraft
Air India was running commercial services. “So we had to plan which flights to divert without drastically disturbing the regular flight schedule,” says Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India who was one year and two months old in the airline then. The flights could not be taken to Kuwait or Baghdad. The airlift, it was decided, would happen from Amman in Jordan to Mumbai. Indian Airlines and Indian Air Force too pitched in.

“Amman was an offline station – Air India did not operate flights there. So airport staff had to be posted there,” says Bhargava.

Subhash Raghunath Gupte had taken over as managing director and acting chairman of Air India for barely a fortnight when Iraq attacked Kuwait. He was suddenly expected to meet a massive challenge. “We knew the Jordanian Airlines managing director and were able to get two slots for our planes,” he recalls. “We started mounting two flights every day.”

Instead of the usual paraphernalia of cheese, the flights to Amman carried Indian food like biryani, sweets and a lot of water. “We knew people were extremely hungry and this would give them relief,” he says. Over the next 59 days, starting August 13, 488 flights ferried back and forth bringing back about 120,000 people. Some others came by ship.

It wasn’t all smooth though. Initially, Air India pilots were reluctant to risk flying over Dubai to Amman. This bit is shown in the movie. What isn’t depicted is what it took to convince the pilots to fly. “Some aircraft – not ours – had faced problem over Dubai and the pilots felt it was dangerous,” says Gupte. So he, along with Bhargava and operations manager D S Mathur, flew to Dubai on a “proving flight”.

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“We were there for about two-and-half hours, addressed a press conference and flew back,” says Bhargava. “We did this to give confidence to the pilots and also assure the Indian nationals that Air India was lining up aircraft to bring them back.”

Another problem arose in Amman. People were travelling long distances through several checkpoints to reach the airport, so the flight crew would sometimes have to wait for hours and put in longer than permitted duty hours. “One morning in Amman, the Air India manager came to me,” says Fabian. “He said the crew was unwilling to fly because of passenger delays.” Instead of taking the matter up with the crew, Fabian telephoned Firdaus Khergamwala, a former diplomat who had joined The Hindu as its special correspondent at Bahrain. Fabian asked him to carry a news report lauding the remarkable work being done by Air India and its crew in the evacuation.

“I asked Khergamwala to quote me verbatim,” says Fabian. “He asked me if this was true and I told him, ‘Publish the story and tomorrow it will be true’.” Sure enough, he says, the Air India manager came to him the next day and said the crew was raring to go the extra mile.

The other help
Many Indians did not have their passports. Those were quickly arranged. Many had no money, so they flew home for free. Those who could afford it paid for the journey home.

“Initially, we were not even sure if Air India would be reimbursed but we decided to take it as a national duty and carry on doing it,” says Gupte. “Later on, of course, I must say that MEA and civil aviation ministry reimbursed us.”

The 1,200-km road journey people had to make from Kuwait to Amman was also assisted by Indian officials, says MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup. In the film, the character of Katyal, who safely leads all Indians to the Amman airport, is inspired by two community leaders from Kuwait back then – Mathunny Mathews and H S Vedi.

Wadhwa does not recall any individual playing such a crucial role in the rescue. Neither does Bhargava. Swarup, who was in the frontline at the Turkey-Syria border helping Indians coming from Kuwait via Syria, too questions it.

The film’s writer-director Raja Krishna Menon does not agree. “I take umbrage that people are making a counterpoint into a fact. I don’t think anyone has celebrated the Indian bureaucracy the way Airlift has,” he says. That, however, is not what comes through in the movie, the success of which has earned Akshay Kumar the credit of being called Bollywood’s most bankable actor.

Menon says he spoke to hundreds of people who were stuck in Kuwait and were evacuated, and to the pilots and the air staff that carried out the rescue. Ask him if, while researching the film, he got in touch with the MEA, civil aviation ministry, Air India or any of the diplomats who spearheaded the rescue and he says, “Not with the officials because it was just too hard to find them.” That too is not the case. The officials are all just a phone call away and eager to tell the story as it really happened.

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