Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift has opened to mixed reviews. The film, which is based on the true story of how India evacuated more than one lakh of its citizens after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, plays with reality and conflates several real people into one heroic fictional businessman played by Akshay Kumar.

The clearest nod the film makes to the hundreds of people both in and out of the government who contributed to the evacuation is in its credits, when it shows black and white images of people at work.

Captain Vijay Nair, one of the three key Air India officials overseeing the evacuation from Amman died some years before the film was made. Nair’s wife, however, still has photos he had gathered from the operation, which remains the largest and quickest civil air evacuation in history – a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records affirming this adorned Nair's office at the Air India office in Sahar airport in the early 2000s.

The invasion

The Iraqi invasion took everyone from civilians to intelligence agencies by surprise. The Emir of Kuwait fled with his family to Saudi Arabia within hours of the Iraqi army’s arrival. Within two days, Iraq declared that Kuwait was its 19th province.

There were 1.7 lakh Indians in Kuwait at the time of the invasion. A small group of around 450 people left the country by ship for Dubai soon after, but the vast majority were stranded.

This was where India used its neutral status to exert diplomatic pressure on Iraq. IK Gujral, then the external affairs minister, met Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad soon after the invasion. Iraq, which did not have enough supplies to feed its own citizens, agreed to grant Indians safe passage out of the country to neighbouring Jordan.

Indian embassy officials negotiated with private buses to take refugees 2,000 kilometres by road via Basra and Baghdad to Amman. Eighty buses left Kuwait each day, with sick, pregnant women and nurses being given priority. Once in Amman, they were established in refugee camps near the city’s Queen Alia International Airport.

That was the point of the next bottleneck. The first few flights out of the country were operated by India’s armed forces. These, however, took very long to get clearances and their scale was limited. That was when the government decided to call in the national carrier Air India.

Enter Air India

Michael Mascarenhas was the airline’s regional director of the Gulf and the Middle East at the time headed that operation with two deputies, Vijay Nair and Charles Manuel.

The refugees did not all reach Amman all at once. The initial trickle of people leaving Kuwait had turned into a flood within a month, forcing Indian officials to improvise. Air India flew over boxes of tickets to Amman with the name field left blank, to be filled in at the gate. The Indian embassy reissued passports for those who had lost or damaged theirs on priority. Air India officials negotiated with Jordanian ones to waive certain levels of security and customs checks to speed the movement of refugees.

Over 59 days, until the middle of October, Air India flew out 111,711 Indians in 488 flights that operated daily from Amman to Mumbai. The fear of disease and starvation was real and Jordan was not equipped to handle so many new residents. Incoming flights from Mumbai brought essential food and living supplies for the refugees while outgoing ones took up to 300 passengers per flight, with around ten flights each day.

The system, Mascarenhas said, was one of first come, first served. Those who got to the head of the line first got the first flights out.

“Since there were no mobile phones, the government could not interfere with constant advice,” Mascarenhas said. “Whenever someone rang for me, I instructed the operators to tell them that I was on the tarmac or talking to officials. That is how we got the job done quickly.”

Here is a sample of images of the operation from Nair's collection: