On August 2, 1990, the then Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral was hosting a luncheon in honor of the Philippine Foreign Minister Amarkam Mangaldas. Then Indian Ambassador to Kuwait AK Budhiraja got a call that Iraq had attacked Kuwait.
On the same day, the ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh al-Jaber al-Sabah, fled and took refuge in Saudi Arabia. Immediately a meeting of the Security Council was called where both the US and the Soviet Union unanimously condemned the Iraq attack.
At that time about 2 lakh Indians were living in Kuwait. Since contact with them was lost, his family members living in India became very upset.
Immediately a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs was called where External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral suggested that he immediately visit Moscow, Washington, Amman, and Baghdad.
At that time he had two options. Number one, they should convince the US not to attack Kuwait to get the Iraqi army out of Kuwait so that the Indians living there are safe. The second option was to persuade Iraq to help bring Indians living in Kuwait to India safely.
Gujral’s US mission failed. The Americans refused to accept Gujral’s request.
Gujral reached Baghdad in the early morning of 19 August via Moscow, Washington, and Amman. He first went to the Indian Embassy where about 100 Indians who had fled from Kuwait had arrived.
Gujral meets Saddam Hussein
Inder Kumar Gujral writes in his autobiography ‘Matters of Discretion – An Autobiography’, “Saddam Hussein was wearing a khaki uniform and a pistol was hanging at his waist. He hugged me as soon as he saw me. This picture was in newspapers around the world. It was printed and it made our situation a bit strange because it sent a message that the Foreign Minister of India was embracing Saddam Hussein who was being condemned all over the world.
“During the conversation, Saddam Hussein told me that if he was attacked, he would give a befitting reply. In his view, the Soviet Union was no longer the force it used to be.”
“A short time later I met Tariq Aziz, the foreign minister there, and we finalized plans to bring back Indians from Kuwait and Iraq.” On the morning of 21 August, Gujral received a message from Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein that he would ask him immediately. want to meet.
crisis situation for India
Later, KP Fabian, then Joint Secretary (Gulf Countries) and then Ambassador of India to many countries, defended Gujral by saying in an interview to ‘Foreign Affairs General’ that “If the Head of State of any country wants to hug you, You can’t do ‘duck’ (you can’t deny it). Gujral’s hug to Saddam may be wrong or right, but Saddam agreed to help the Indians trapped there to be sent to their country.”
But India also had to go through a great religious crisis for this. Most of his Arab friends strongly condemned the attack.
At that time, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Chinmay Gharekhan, says, “I also advised the government that like the whole world, we should also condemn this attack of Saddam Hussein. But my advice was not heeded. But expressed grief.”
“I remember when Inder Kumar Gujral, the foreign minister of that time, came to New York, he told the Kuwaiti foreign minister in exile, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, that we are with Kuwait 101%. To this, the Kuwaiti foreign minister taunted, ‘Excellence, Your 100 percent support will also work but we want a great country like India to condemn this attack.
Gujral brought 150 Indians home in his plane
Gujral arrived in Kuwait from Baghdad on the afternoon of 22 August. When he reached the Indian mission, there were already about a thousand Indians gathered there.
There was no high place there, so Gujral addressed them standing on the roof of his car. As soon as people came to know that Gujral was trying to take them back to India, they started raising slogans of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
Gujral left for Delhi on 23 August at 9 pm. About 150 people came with him on his plane, mostly pregnant women and children. Gujral also brought with him a huge bag of letters that Indians living in Kuwait had given to their relatives living in India.
Planes not allowed to fly to Iraq
The cabinet first decided that it would send a ship to Iraq to bring back the Indians, but Iraq did not allow the Indian ship ‘Tipu Sultan’ to go there. When it was decided that Indian Air Force aircraft would be sent to bring Indians, Iraq did not allow that either.
His condition was that Indian planes would be allowed to enter Iraq only when they came to Iraq carrying food items with them. By then the whole world had imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, so the question of taking food items there did not arise.
Initially, it seemed that perhaps people would not need to be driven out of Kuwait. But gradually the situation there started deteriorating. Agnel Rebelo, regional manager of a multinational company living in Kuwait since 1980, said, “Iraqi soldiers were nice to us, but some Palestinians living there started looting people. Once a man shot a pistol at my head. He asked him to give me his car. Luckily I had taken out some parts of the car, due to which he could not even start the car.
Air India planes deployed to bring people
In the end, Air India planes were used to evacuate Indians from Kuwait. But the question arose that from where should the planes be brought to bring so many people?
In February 1990, an A-320 plane crashed, due to which the entire fleet of newly purchased A-320 aircraft was grounded i.e. those aircraft were not allowed to fly. At that time a huge political controversy had also arisen over the purchase of these aircraft.
Air India used these standing planes to get Indians out of Kuwait. The responsibility of coordinating this entire mission was given to KP Fabian, Joint Secretary of the Gulf countries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He later wrote in the Economic Times, “I got a call from London on 2nd August from Kuwait’s richest Indian late KTB Menon. He said that he was ready to pay the cost of getting every Indian out of Kuwait. I thanked him But also said that if it is necessary to evacuate people from there, then the Government of India will bear its expenses. If the situation becomes difficult, then we will consider your offer.”
“Every day the manager of Air India in Amman would call me to tell me how many people were to be evacuated the next day. I would call Civil Aviation Secretary AV Ganesan and Air India planes would be sent to Amman as needed. “
Troubles of Indians trapped in Kuwait increased
Due to the economic sanctions of the United Nations Security Council, no civilian aircraft were allowed to land in Iraq and Kuwait, so people were loaded into buses first to Iraq and then from there to the Jordanian capital Amman. Getting them to Amman was not an easy task.
First of all, people were not ready to leave their lifetime earnings and come back to India. Secondly, many people living there did not have valid travel documents. They had deposited their passports with their owners. Many of them were either missing or had died.
Noted journalist Salil Tripathi wrote in India Today’s issue of September 15, 1990, “Around one lakh sixty-five thousand Indians are still trapped in Kuwait and Iraq, cut off from all over the world. Their lifetime earnings have been siphoned off because Iraq has devalued the Kuwaiti dinar twelve times and made it equal to the Iraqi dinar.
He hasn’t eaten anything for many days. There is dust in his hair. His throat is dry, his voice hoarse. Overnight, the Indian Embassy in Amman on a beautiful hill has become like a railway platform. Arun Goel, First Secretary of the Embassy of India, says, it is like arranging the Kumbh Mela without any resources.
People took refuge in schools in Amman
An Air India crew was stranded in Kuwait. After landing there, they were not allowed to fly back from there. Air India pilots and other employees were insisting on the government that they would not fly the plane if their comrades did not return safely. Many Indians took refuge in many schools and other buildings in Amman.
It was difficult to tell at what time how many of these people would reach the airport, due to which many flights were getting delayed. Employees of Pakistan International Airlines were also stranded in Kuwait.
He requested the Indian government to take him out of the Indian aircraft as a humanitarian. Air India planes also brought them out safely. India was the first country to airlift its citizens from Kuwait, Air India planes had reached there even before Pakistan and Egypt. India’s Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral was the first minister who was allowed to visit Kuwait.
Campaign to bring people started for 63 days
At that time India was ruled by a weak coalition of Janata Dal which was supported by Communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party from outside. The economic condition of India could not be called strong. This operation of Air India started on 14 August 1990 and lasted 63 days till 11 October.
Meanwhile, Air India planes made four flights to Amman daily and brought a total of one lakh seventy thousand Indian people to India, later in 2016 a film ‘Airlift’ was also made on this campaign and it was used to evacuate people safely by air. Recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest campaign.
VP Singh’s government fell within a month of the end of this campaign on 11 October. Today about one million Indians are living in Kuwait, which is 20 percent of the population there.
By Rehan Fazal
Courtesy of BBC