How The Largest Air Evacuation in History Unfolded

On 2nd August 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein decided to have a ‘picnic’ in Kuwait by sending in his army across the border. He had massed troops at the border for weeks, and on 25th July 1990, the US Ambassador April Glaspie encouraged him to have the picnic, wittingly or unwittingly, by declaring that her instructions were to strengthen relations with Iraq; the US did not want to take any side in ‘intra-Arab’ disputes, a clear reference to the mounting tension between Iraq and Kuwait. Saddam Hussein foolishly concluded that he could invade Kuwait and get away with it. Little did he know that the US wanted him to invade Kuwait so that the Pentagon could have a permanent presence in the region.

I was then Joint Secretary (Gulf) in the Ministry of External Affairs. The first phone call I got, around 6 AM on 2nd August, was from a friend in Kuwait city who said that she could see Iraqi tanks on the road. Later, our ambassador in Kuwait, AK Budhiraja called.

In the Ministry, we had two concerns. One, the safety of our people, numbering about 176,000 and two, to make Iraq withdraw through negotiations. If Iraq withdrew, there was no danger to our people.

Foreign Minister I K Gujral went to Washington – and it became clear that the US wanted war, primarily because the military-industrial-Congressional complex wanted to prevent a reduction in Pentagon’s budget as detente between US and USSR under Gorbachev had gathered momentum.

We decided to evacuate our nationals, and we needed cooperation from Saddam Hussein. I accompanied Foreign Minister Gujral to Iraq and Kuwait. We met Saddam Hussein, and Gujral was unjustly criticised by the mainstream media – eager to follow the American lead for permitting Hussein to hug him. Hussein promised cooperation, and Air India flights to Amman, Jordan, started.

We had the best of synergy among the various ministries in the Union Government, state governments, and civil society. I used to get a call in the morning from Air India Manager Manuel in Amman:

Morning, Sir, 1200.

We had to keep conversation brief as we were all short of time. He was telling me that 1200 passengers were ready to leave. I will use the RAX (the internal telephone system) and say to Civil Aviation Secretary AV Ganesan:

Morning, Sir! Fabian, 1200.

I did not have to worry more about it as I was sure that the required number of aircraft would be dispatched to Amman.

As Kuwait under Iraq came to face UN sanction, we got permission from the UN Security Council to send a shipload of food to our people. I was given only 48 hours by the Shipping Corporation of India to load the ship in Kochi port. I rang up the Chief Secretary in Thiruvananthapuram. Without asking me about payment, he agreed to load the ship. He only wanted a list of food items. I parried the question by saying that we should bear in mind that half the people were from Kerala and hence take into account the needs of Keralites and others. It was only after the ship left that I found time to send a telex to say that my Ministry would reimburse the cost. To my memory, the Kerala Government did not ask for money.

The air evacuation ran into problems. I had gone to Amman and was at breakfast when a grim looking Manuel, the Air India manager, came and sat next to me. He refused to take even coffee. With emotion, he told me that the crew had ‘walked out on him’ the previous night. The passengers came hours late, and the crew said that after having waited for so many hours, if they were to fly, they would be on continuous duty beyond the stipulated time limit. Manuel had to find accommodation for the night for many, not to speak of the mess made by babies and the elderly in the airport lounge. He wanted me to talk to the crew staying in the same hotel. I responded that I would think it over.

I figured out that it was beyond my ability to persuade the crew to change their mind. Nor was there any point in talking to Delhi, my Ministry, or Civil Aviation. As a matter of fact, a Union Minister whom I had accompanied was staying in the hotel. I decided not to bother him.

I called Firdous Khergamwala, a former Foreign Service officer, who was the correspondent of The Hinduin the Gulf. He was with The Hindu before joining the IFS, got disenchanted with the Service, and went back to journalism. I told him to carry a story about Air India: When the nation is facing an emergency, Air India has risen up to the challenge; the passengers may come one hour or seven hours late, but the crew receives them with a graceful smile; the crew may have to put in 16 or 19 hours at a stretch, but they were more than willing… All of us, those in the government and the civil society, have to learn from Air India.

Firdouz laughed and asked whether I was telling the truth. I replied that if he carried the story what I said today would be tomorrow’s truth. He hesitated. I insisted that he could quote me verbatim and nobody would fault him for believing a senior Joint Secretary to the Government of India. He agreed!

The next morning, Manuel came to my breakfast table with a big smile and ordered a two-egg omelette. The crew had told him that they would never again walk out on him. There was high praise for Air India in the media and after a meeting of the crew, and another of pilots, it was decided not to insist on the time limit for continuous duty.

I did not tell Manuel of my conversation with Firdous. The air evacuation proceeded smoothly. It found a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest in history.

Editor’s Note: The above article was initially published on Eurasia Review news portal:  It also appeared on October 28, 2018 on Ambassador Fabian: Reflections on International Policies, Books & Lives, a website featuring commentary by Ambassador KP Fabian.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Ambassador Fabian.

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