Fortunately, Indian authorities have a fair bit of experience in this matter. Over the past decade, it has rescued citizens from Iraq just before the American invasion in 2003, 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 4,000 Indians. The 1990 operation was much more than 10 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.”