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Amidst the Afghanistan crisis, read how India presided over the world’s largest citizen evacuation operation during Iraq-Kuwait war in 1990

The crisis that unfolded at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul takes one back to the time when lakhs of Indians got stranded in Kuwait after the dictator of neighbouring Iraq, Saddam Hussein announced a war on the country.

Afghanistan is in throes of chaos and anarchy as Taliban terrorists on Sunday stormed the capital Kabul, effectively overthrowing the US-backed government of Afghanistan and touching off a massive humanitarian crisis as people rushed to the Kabul airport to escape the country.

Shocking visuals of panic-stricken people wanting to flee the terrible fate that awaits them under the Talibani rule have surfaced on the internet. Thousands of frantic people, searching for a way out of the country, flocked to the Kabul airport and mobbed the tarmac. Videos that are now doing the rounds on the internet also showed legions of Afghans jostling their way into aeroplanes, with some of them even clinging on the wheels of the planes to fly out of the country with the Taliban poised to return to power.

The crisis that unfolded at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul takes one back to the time when lakhs of Indians got stranded in Kuwait after the dictator of neighbouring Iraq, Saddam Hussein announced a war on the country. Decades later, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the subsequent evacuation of over 1,70,000 Indians were portrayed in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Bollywood movie Airlift (2016).

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces started the invasion of Kuwait. However, within two days of combat, the Kuwaiti forces were either overrun by the Iraqi Republican Guard or retreated to neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The Emirate of Kuwait was annexed, and a few days later, Saddam Hussein announced that it was the 19th province of Iraq.

As 1,00,000 Iraqi soldiers coupled with 700 tanks marched into Kuwait, the royal family of Kuwait fled to Saudi Arabia. But the general population was left to fend for themselves. Amongst those stranded in Kuwait, over 1,70,000 of them were Indians.

The Indian government found itself in a fix. It could not condemn the invasion of Kuwait and risk the wrath of Saddam Hussein when so many of its citizens were stranded in Iraq. With a teetering economy, India was massively dependent on Arab nations, including Iraq, and therefore, it was not a prudent decision, even financially, to tick off Saddam Hussein with an open condemnation. So, India maintained a dignified silence on the issue, shifting her focus on repatriating the stranded nationals.

India’s ambitious evacuation plan to airlift over 1,70,000 stranded expatriates

With thousands of Indians stuck in Kuwait, the Indian government hashed out an ambitious evacuation operation, which was later termed as the largest air evacuation mission ever. The then Foreign Minister IK Gujral sought an audience with Hussein. When the duo met, Hussein pulled Gujral in a bear hug, photos of which went global and irked India’s allies. The officials from the Indian administration that visited along with Gujral, met Saddam Hussein and got him on board to arrange the repatriation of stranded Indian nationals.

According to those involved in the negotiations, Saddam Hussein patiently listened to the official viewpoint of the Indian delegation and the plans to evacuate their nationals. He reportedly iterated his position and agreed to facilitate the return of the Indian nationals.

Initially, the Indian government arranged a few military aircrafts to evacuate the elderly, women and children. However, due to long and interminable air space clearance procedure, this did not seem like a practical solution. So the government turned to Air India for help.

On August 13, 1990, 12 days after the invasion took place, the evacuation process kicked off as Air India flights brought home the first batch of Indians who were stranded in Kuwait. Initially, Indians were angry with the government as they were expecting a quicker intervention by the Indian government. But the then Foreign Minister IK Gujral swiftly brought the crowd under control after which chants of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” were also made.

Indian citizens were transported from Kuwait through Iraq and to the borders of Jordan. The airlift took place from the Amman airport as Baghdad was closed and Iran was out of bounds. Reportedly, Saddam Hussein also helped arrange buses from Baghdad to ferry Indians from Kuwait to Amman.

Over the period of the next 2 months, i.e from August 13 to October 11, 1990, more than 1,70,000 Indians were airlifted and repatriated to India. It was one of the most successful evacuation missions ever in the world, with Air India registering itself in the Guinness World Records for executing the largest-ever air evacuation mission.

Besides, a Pakistani Airline crew stranded in Kuwait had wished to be evacuated by Indian aircraft. So, on humanitarian grounds, the Indians officials obliged and helped them in fleeing Kuwait.

 

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Jinit Jain
Engineer. Writer. Learner.

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