Lessons in the airlift from Kuwait

The evacuation of Indians from Kuwait and Iraq in 1990-91 by India, hailed as the largest evacuation by air in history, bears recounting in the context of the ongoing “Vande Bharat Mission”.

Published : Jun 13, 2020 07:00 IST

At Karipur  airport, Kozhikode. These passengers arrived by a special Air India flight from Riyadh on May 8, 2020 as part of the Vande Bharat mission.

At Karipur airport, Kozhikode. These passengers arrived by a special Air India flight from Riyadh on May 8, 2020 as part of the Vande Bharat mission.

THE 6th century BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus rightly said that no man steps into the same river twice. There are two reasons. Neither the river nor the man is the same.

Therefore, it might not be historically sound to compare and contrast, point by point, the 1990-91 evacuation from Kuwait and Iraq and the ongoing exercise termed “Vande Bharat Mission”. Incidentally, it is noteworthy that although The Guinness Book of Records hailed the 1990-91 evacuation as the largest evacuation by air in history, the government of the day did not think of code-naming it. It is generally the military that resorts to code-naming. We in India speak of conducting a war against COVID-19 with a commander-in-chief leading us. Have we become more militaristic in our thinking? If so, why?

Since the general public, especially the younger generation which was in school then, wants to know of the highlights of the 1990-91 exercise, let us start with a backgrounder.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait

On August 2,1990, Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein decided unwisely to have a picnic in Kuwait. He sent in his army into Kuwait, committing an act of blatant aggression; his hope was that he would get some concession for the Palestinian cause so that he could withdraw from Kuwait and divert attention from the serious economic difficulties the Iraqis were suffering from. He was encouraged by Washington to believe that he could send in his army and get away with it. The United States Ambassador April Glaspie called on Saddam Hussein on July 25 and told him that she had instructions to deepen and broaden relations between her country and Iraq; further, she added pointedly that Washington was not taking any side in “intra-Arab disputes”. This was said when about 30,000 Iraqi troops were at the border with Kuwait.

Little did Saddam Hussein know that in Tampa, Florida, the head of the U.S. Central Command was conducting a simulation of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Tampa had realised when he took over the command in early 1990 that the war doctrine of the Command needed to change from fighting a Soviet invasion of the oil-rich Gulf to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He succeeded in getting the change effected and in early 1990, months before the actual invasion, he went to the Gulf to “sensitise” Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of a likely invasion from Iraq.

Schwarzkopf was looking at two sets of messages on August 2, 1990: one set from the real world and the other from the simulation. To his consternation, he found the two sets of messages to be almost identical. A furious Schwarzkopf ordered his staff to keep the two trays as far away from each other as possible and to write “THE REAL WORLD” and “SIMULATION” in big letters on the trays. In short, Washington wanted Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait and encouraged him to do so. The ulterior motive was that such an invasion would give the Pentagon a chance to have a base in the Gulf, starting with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

There was one more compelling reason. With the Mikhail Gorbachev-inspired detente and the collapse of the ruinous and utterly unnecessary Cold War, the military-industrial complex badly wanted another war. Saddam Hussein unwittingly obliged the Pentagon, uncomfortable with the pressure to cut down on funds allocated to it.

We in the Ministry of External Affairs decided that if our efforts to find a peaceful negotiated resolution did not work, the Indian community in Kuwait/Iraq would need to be evacuated. Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral went to Washington to meet with his U.S. counterpart James Baker to persuade him to seek a negotiated withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Baker was not persuaded and Gujral concluded that there would be a war sooner or later, and hence it was necessary to evacuate the 1,76,000 Indian nationals from Kuwait/Iraq. It is important to emphasise that Gujral’s first preference was to resolve the dispute diplomatically, in which case the Indian community would be safe. The foreign policy was made in the Ministry of External Affairs, with hardly any interference from the Prime Minister’s Office(PMO),which was kept briefed all the time.

Coming to the administrative background, we formed a Cabinet Sub-Committee chaired by Gujral where all the relevant Ministries were represented. Minister of Surface Transport K.P. Unnikrishnan found a brilliant solution so that Air India’s normal operations were not adversely affected. There was a fleet of A-320 aircraft grounded following an accident in Bangalore in the wake of allegations, not supported by evidence, that there was something wrong with the purchase deal. Of course, it was patently absurd to ground a whole fleet. Unnikrishnan took the lead and the Cabinet lifted the ban on using the A-320s.

As for the question of charging fare from the passengers, the Ministry of External Affairs took the position that it was the responsibility of the Indian government to repatriate to India any citizen abroad finding herself or himself in a difficult situation and there was no question of charging. As Joint Secretary (Gulf), I was not even asked to provide an approximate estimate of the expenditure involved. The Sub-Committee approved the proposal of the External Affairs Ministry. There was no need for the Ministry to sign a commercial contract with Air India. After the operation was over, Air India’s bill was paid after due scrutiny. The PMO hardly interfered.

I need to recall the late K.T.B. Menon, the richest Indian in Kuwait, and probably the Gulf, who called me from London on August 2, 1990. He was due to take the flight to Kuwait the previous night but had postponed his return. He told me to arrange for the repatriation of every Indian in Kuwait/Iraq by air, sea, or any other means; he would reimburse to the Indian government the entire amount without asking any question. I thanked him and said that I was recording a note; it was my view that the government should bear the expenditure, but I would not hesitate to avail of his noble offer.

There is a reason for my mentioning all this. The constitution of a Cabinet Sub-Committee chaired by Minister of External Affairs would have been useful.


I am not suggesting that all Indians wanting to come back should not be charged the fare. Those who can afford it should pay. Even there, those who held Air India tickets for cancelled flights should not be charged as a matter of equity. It is reported that Air India would attend to the reimbursement for such tickets later. Incidentally, by charging fare for all passengers, India has failed to recognise an elementary rule in civil aviation. If fare is paid, it is a commercial flight and why should Air India alone operate? In May, Qatar refused permission for an Air India flight on this ground. Permission was restored, but the issue is not yet fully resolved.

There is another matter here the public might be unaware of. About 60,000 foreigners were flown out of India after the lockdown was imposed. The incoming flights were empty. The sending countries asked the Indian government whether they could bring in Indians. Delhi did not agree, saying that during the lockdown not even Indians should come in. This was an unnecessarily rigid stand. India could have told the sending countries that there was need for time to prepare the States to receive the citizens; they would have to be medically screened and quarantined. A schedule could have been worked out so that 60,000 Indians could have come in a time frame convenient to us. As a matter of fact, the foreigners had to pay higher fares as the incoming flights were empty.

Another matter is that at one point of time, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had offered to fly out foreigners, including Indians, at their (Kuwait’s and UAE’s) expense. That offer deserved serious consideration. Kuwait has reportedly renewed the offer.

The key point is that the constitution of a Cabinet Sub-Committee would have facilitated action in such matters. In 1990-91, the whole government worked friction-less. In the morning the Air India Manager, Charles Manuel, would call me and give the number of passengers for the next day. I would make a call to Civil Aviation Secretary A.V. Ganesan, and I never had to check again. It worked like a clock.

Recently, a dead person’s body was sent from the UAE after the Indian Embassy there had complied with the procedure. The New Delhi airport refused, and the body was sent back. Later, it was sent back to New Delhi. Obviously, the Home Ministry and the Civil Aviation Ministry had failed to act. The two Ministries should have put Joint Secretaries on a roster of 24/7 to deal with cases. When the body reached the Delhi airport, a phone call to either of the Joint Secretaries should have settled the matter.

There is an important difference between the 1990-91 operation and the current one. Then we knew the maximum number of people to be brought in. Now, we do not know. Saudi Arabia recently permitted the termination of job contracts and also cutting of salaries by 40 per cent.

The crashing oil prices, partly because of fall in demand owing to COVID-19 and even more importantly because of lack of unity among exporters, will radically change the GCC economies. The need for foreign labour will come down sharply, at least for the time being. Hence, the numbers will go up substantially, with the consequential impact on India’s economy.

Four suggestions are put forward, looking at the evolving situation holistically:

1) India will have to arrange for free evacuation flights and share the commercial traffic with the Gulf airlines. It will be prudent to act before one is compelled.

2) Workers who have not been paid for a few months cannot pay for the fare. There are two ways of finding the money. Let the community raise money from the richer members. The shortfall can be met from the PM Cares Fund.

3)The Embassies in the Gulf do not give a registration number when an application is received for an Air India ticket. This is not in order.

4) In Doha, members of the Indian community are in the team of the Embassy that shortlists passengers. This practice should be adopted in the rest of the GCC and elsewhere too.

There has been much talk of less government and more governance. India sadly lacks good governance. The much bruited-about virtual meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Chief Ministers is good, optically. But it is no substitute for structured interaction between the State Chief Secretary and the Union Cabinet Secretary. Ideally, the State Chief Secretary should send a note and when the virtual meeting takes place, other secretaries should also be present on both sides.

Had a Cabinet note been prepared before the lockdown was abruptly announced in March, we would have been better off. Such a note would have stipulated the notice to be given, actions to be taken before and after the announcement, including how the vulnerable sections such as the inter-State migrant labour would be taken care of. Even the easing of the lockdown by steps would have been thought of and discussed with the stakeholders. The Rules of Business of Government of India require a Cabinet note for major decisions.

The unfolding tragedy, with no end in sight, of the millions of inter-State migrants makes us wonder how the India of Gautama Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa can be so cruel.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian was the focal point for the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait in 1990.

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