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3 February 2016, Gateway House

Airlift: Not lifted from facts

Recently-released blockbuster Airlift, on the biggest evacuation by air in history conducted by the Government of India during Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990, falls disappointingly short of presenting the true picture of the government’s laudable and timely intervention.

Former Ambassador of the Republic of India to Italy

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The film Airlift is a commercial success.

I was bewildered by its repeated attempts to suppress what is true  and suggest what is false. It seems the director, Raja Krishna Menon, has no idea as to how the Government of India works. There is a deliberate attempt on his part to show the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), Air India, and Indian embassies in Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan as thoroughly incompetent to deal with a national crisis, and the government comes across as not at all concerned about the plight of Indians in Kuwait and Iraq. The film claims that the government was prodded into discharging its responsibilities by Katyal, the hero in the film. It is obvious that, in order to ensure box-office success, director Raja Menon was prepared to forego ethical norms, and even engage in deliberate disinformation. Right at the beginning, we are told Katyal is a creation of the director, based on Mathunny Mathews and H. S. Vedi, who were both based in  Kuwait for many years. As Joint Secretary (Gulf), I have known and worked with them. As a matter of fact, the evacuation of 176,000 Indians from Kuwait is a study in teamwork: the government and Indian community worked together and successfully carried out the biggest evacuation by air in history.

On  2 August 1990, the day of the invasion, Katyal telephones MEA from Kuwait and gets through to Joint Secretary  Kohli who explains that as he is not the joint secretary dealing with the Gulf  he would ask his colleague who deals with Kuwait to call back. Strangely enough, Katyal continues to deal with Kohli till the end.

In reality, many Indians from Kuwait did get in touch with me. What is mysterious is how Katyal, who is supposed to be super smart, failed to get in touch with the correct official. Of course, there is a purpose: Kohli comes across as incompetent; he waits in the office of the minister for hours to meet him though no joint secretary has to wait for hours to see the  minister. Either the director is unfamiliar with the way the government functions or he deliberately wanted to suppress the truth and suggest the opposite.

The portrayal of the minister is an exercise in condemnable disinformation: the minister tells Kohli that his is a weak coalition government and, as such, he does not want to get involved. Kohli should deal directly with Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA).

Let us look at facts. I. K. Gujral as  the Minister of External Affairs (EAM) was  deeply engaged right from the start. EAM had two principal concerns, a peaceful resolution of the crisis with Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, and the safety and welfare of the Indian community in the two countries. The reasoning was that if Iraq withdraws, there will be no need for evacuation. India got in touch with some of the leading NAM countries and EAM went to U.S. to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker and UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar. It soon became clear that U.S. wanted a military solution and it was necessary to evacuate Indians. EAM, accompanied by Additional Secretary I P Khosla, on their way back from US reached Amman in the second week of August. I joined them in Amman. We proceeded to Baghdad and had a meeting with President Saddam Hussein who offered to facilitate the evacuation. Any suggestion that Government of India was forced into arranging for evacuation by pressure put on it by Katyal or anybody else in Kuwait is absurd.

From Baghdad we flew to Kuwait. When we landed,  we were told there was an angry crowd of 3,000-4,000 Indians waiting to see Gujral. We went to them and, within four minutes, Gujral made the crowd repeat “Bharat Mata ki Jai” after him.

Ambassador Kamal Bakshi in Baghdad opened the embassy to the community and fed hundreds.   He was in constant touch with the community and assured them the government was fully seized of the situation. Yet, in the film, Katyal goes to the Indian embassy in Iraq, the ambassador is unable to focus his attention on the issue, and repeatedly insists that Katyal should taste an “Iraqi biscuit”.

It is good to encourage patriotism, but is it necessary to paint the government as disengaged from the people and their problems when, as a matter of fact, the evacuation was carried out with singular success? It is strange that  the director never thought of contacting the MEA. I queried him about all this in a TV discussion and he had no answer; in another discussion, he told me he was all praise for MEA and Air India. Why did the film give a contrary impression, I asked him. He had no answer.

Right at the beginning, the director should have said that his film was a fictionalised account of the evacuation. Instead, he says, but for the character of Katyal, everything else is based on real events. The Censor Board should have consulted MEA before clearing the film.  Raja Krishna Menon cannot take shelter behind patriotism or freedom of expression as he has deliberately misled the public about a matter of national importance. We all know why he did it.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian was Joint Secretary (Gulf) in the Ministry of External Affairs when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990. His last posting was in Rome, as Ambassador to Italy and Permanent Representative to UN Organisations including FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), WFP (World Food Programme), and IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development). 

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