When thousands of Indians were stuck in Kuwait during Gulf war, the Indian government executed the world’s largest air evacuation mission ever. The operation continued for almost two months and managed to airlift over 1,70,000 Indians.
Initial efforts were made by the government of India to evacuate nationals by military aircraft. However, due to difficulties in air-space clearances the switch was made to civilian aircraft. Groundwork for the evacuation was laid during a visit by Minister of External Affairs IK Gujral soon after the invasion. As a result of this visit, Iraq agreed to tacitly permit the Indian evacuation efforts.
Indian government airlifted over 1,70,000 Indians from Kuwait with help of 488 flights in just 59 days.
“We did not use the word ‘condemn’ in our statement [about the Iraqi attack], for two reasons: one, we were concerned about our nationals there; second, we still believed that there was some scope for a negotiated solution to the problem. We were keen to play a role. If we condemned the development openly, it would have been difficult for us to deal with Iraq,” said K.P. Fabian, former Ambassador of India who was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs during the First Gulf War.
Indian government officials went to Kuwait to meet Saddam Hussain and get him on board the arranged repatriation of Indian nationals.
“We conveyed our official viewpoint and also our plans to evacuate our nationals. He listened to our views and repeated his known position, and agreed to facilitate the repatriation of our nationals,” said Fabian.
Initially, a few military aircrafts were arranged to evacuate the elderly, women and children. But due to a lengthy air space clearance procedure, this did not seem like a feasible solution. So the government turned to Air India for assistance.
There was also a Pakistani Airline crew stranded in Kuwait and they wished to be evacuated by Indian aircrafts. On humanitarian grounds, the Indian officials agreed.
There is upcoming movie based on the rescue mission starring Ashkay Kumar called “Airlift”.
This was the largest and most successful evacuation attempted by any country in the world. Airlift is an edge-of-the-seat-thriller and is the story of this heroic evacuation that for India that also won a Guinness World Record for India.