Indians Abroad

The Berlin airlift was remarkable, but the largest civilian evacuation in history is by India

As India prepares to get its citizens out of strife-torn Iraq, it can bank on its experience in 1990, when it airlifted more than one lakh people from the region in two months. In comparison, 48,000 people were flown out of Berlin over two years during the Cold War.

With Islamic militants continuing to rampage through Iraq’s countryside, the Indian government has begun looking at options to evacuate all of its citizens from the West Asian nation. The ministry of external affairs had insisted for some days that an evacuation would not be necessary, but preparations are now being made to transport anyone who would like to return home.

Fortunately, Indian authorities have a fair bit of experience in this matter. Over the past decade it has withdrawn citizens from Iraq just before the American invasion, then again in 2006 in Lebanon, and 2011 in Libya, when ministry officials worked with the Indian Navy to put up sea bridges that evacuated Indians from both war-torn nations. But its greatest achievement in safeguarding Indian citizens stuck in a war zone just happened to take place in the same country that is once again gripped with violence, Iraq.

In two months in 1990, India managed to evacuate more than 110,000 citizens from Iraq and Kuwait via an airlift that included nearly 500 flights. The operation is the largest civilian evacuation in history.

“Whenever we talk of airlifts, the only thing that people talk of is the Berlin Airlift [during the Cold War],” said Retired Air Vice Marshall Manmohan Bahadur. “Of course, the aircraft were primitive and the situation was different back then, yet airlifting one lakh people, as we did in Iraq, is unheard of.”

It began with then-external affairs minister IK Gujral’s infamous visit to Baghdad, soon after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The central thrust of Gujral’s visit was to ensure that Iraq would help facilitate the evacuation of Indian citizens from the country, although there were also discussions on trade relations between the two despite the blockade by Western countries.

Gujral’s visit included a famous embrace by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which earned him a lot of flak from the media. KP Fabian, then joint secretary, Gulf, at the external affairs ministry, said that there is no merit in the criticism.

“One cannot 'duck' an embrace from a head of state; it is a question of courtesy and manners,” Fabian told the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal. Whether the embrace was right or wrong, Iraq ended up facilitating the evacuation.

The Indian embassy began reaching out to the thousands of Indians who were living primarily in Kuwait, which was then under Iraqi occupation. A few military flights were arranged at first, with leaders in the Indian community working with the embassy to pick out the infirm, elderly, women and children to fly back. But once they had all returned to India, the government realised that military transport – which is much more cumbersome because of air space clearances – would not do the job.

So they settled on an airlift using civilian aircraft. Which meant turning to Air India. “You should have seen us,” said MP Mascarenhas, who organised the operation, as the airline’s regional director in the Gulf & Middle East. “We were operating out of a hotel room in Amman with very little space and carrying out all our operations from there.” He would later become Air India's managing director. “We had very little assistance from the embassy, other than issuing passports, but we had very good relations with the local authorities, who helped us.”

And they needed all the help they could get. Initially just a few flights were being flown and many thought that the situation might not require everyone to be evacuated. But Indians remaining behind in Kuwait City were beginning to have a difficult time because of the occupation. “The Iraqis had a soft corner for us, so we were spared the worst, but there were others – like the Palestinian expatriates – who started to loot and steal,” said Agnel Rebello, who works as a regional finance manager for a multinational company and has been in Kuwait since 1980. “At one point, I had a person hold a gun to me, telling me to give him my car. Luckily, I had removed some parts so he couldn’t start it.”

Buses organised by those in the Indian community, with the tacit agreement of the Iraqi government, started shepherding those who wanted to leave through Basra, Baghdad and eventually the Jordanian border. From there, they poured into Amman, where the planes were set to take off. “We were quite demoralised initially,” said Mascarenhas. “We started to see the refugees pouring in. Some managed to stay at hotels, but others were even camping at the airport. When we landed in Amman, there were already 5,000 to 7,000 Indians there and the numbers started swelling immediately.” Eventually, Air India would fly 488 flights over 59 days, carrying 111,711 passengers. Western historians write eloquently and in great detail of the Berlin airlift, which took nearly two years to pull out about 48,000 people, but Mascarenhas says the Indian operation also deserves to be noted.

The current situation is more manageable. There is more information on the ground and the numbers are tiny in comparison: only about 10,000 Indians, not all of whom want to leave. The 1990 operation was ten times that size. “It’s not like we didn’t make mistakes," said Mascarenhas. “We misjudged numbers a lot and, remember, we didn’t have mobile phones there. When people ask me how we did it, I say, I looked up at heaven and said, god help me.”

 

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Five memes that explain why you need a toothpaste for your payday

That payday smile won’t shine itself.

At the end of the month, every salaried professional experiences a wide range of feelings. First, there’s extreme possessiveness - after spending several days trying to live off whatever little is left from paying bills and all those shopping binges, you’re understandably cranky and unwilling to part with the cash you have.

Giphy
Giphy

Then the week of payday arrives and you can finally breathe a sigh of relief again. As the glorious day comes closer, you can’t contain your excitement.

Giphy
Giphy

And then payday dawns and the world gets to behold an interesting phenomenon - your payday-wala smile. It is instantly recognizable as something different and special - it stretches across your face, from ear to ear and is mirrored on the faces of your colleagues. Soon the excitement wears off and you are at complete peace. You have worked hard, you’ve earned your keep, you are in Zen mode.

Giphy
Giphy

But is there a way to make payday even happier? And make your payday smile last even longer? You may be astonished to learn there is. A way that will make you so much happier – your smile will gradually consume most of your face and need extra grooming. In fact, you might have to consider getting a special toothpaste, the Happier Toothpaste to care for the smile you have on that happier payday.

So how can you get more salary in-hand on your payday? Simple – invest in Equity Linked Savings Schemes or ELSS. These are open-ended equity Mutual Funds, with a 3 year lock-in period, that not only help you save tax but also have potential for wealth creation.

Giphy
Giphy

The icing on the cake is that the dividends from these funds are also tax free. So ELSS means more salary in-hand for you today, more potential growth for you tomorrow! To know more about ELSS and to get your own Happier Toothpaste, click here.

Statutory Details: Axis Mutual Fund has been established as a Trust under the Indian Trusts Act, 1882, sponsored by Axis Bank Ltd. (liability restricted to Rs. 1 Lakh). Trustee: Axis Mutual Fund Trustee Ltd. Investment Manager: Axis Asset Management Co. Ltd. (the AMC). Risk Factors:Axis Bank Ltd. is not liable or responsible for any loss or shortfall resulting from the operation of the scheme.

Mutual Fund Investments are subject to market risks, read all scheme related documents carefully.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Axis Mutual Fund and not by the Scroll editorial team.