By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Loudspeakers are managing headlines in their studios as well as those who are copying from the Press Releases of the Ministry rarely bother to search for history and why do they do it when they have cleverly concealed history from us. It is time we learn to question the vocabulary though definitely need to stand with our forces who are engaged in such a mission.
Yesterday, when we saw Air India as well as Indian Navy launched ‘Mission Vande Bharat’ to bring back about 15000 Indians from around 12 countries of middle east and South East Asia in the first phase which started from May 7th and will finish on May 13th.
According to a report in the Hindustan Times,
“All international passengers will have to pay for the journey and fares from Gulf countries to Kerala range from Rs 15,000 to Rs 16,000. Evacuation flights from London will cost about Rs 50,000 and those from the United States an estimated Rs 1,00,000.”
The report also suggest that the government will expand the mission Vande Bharat and has asked the Indian navy too bring expatriates back to India under ‘Operation Samudra Setu’. The same day, TV channel start debating about ‘economy’ and an interview with Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri asking him as when will they ‘sale’ Air India.
Strange, rather than appreciating the airlines for the excellent work during the entire period, the media continued with ranting. At the moment, all the airlines are lossmaking and Air India with its excellent staff and huge infrastructure has no reason to go for loss. It is the airlines which is ‘national’ and need to remain so it can be used in such critical juncture. Which private airlines took such initiative?
Interestingly, the private airlines want the government to save them but it is ‘blasphemous’ for us to ask government to protect Air India.
The loss that Air India is making is not because of its lack of professionalism but because it is used in emergencies and government use its services to the maximum. It is placed to fly in those regions too which are considered not so ‘lucrative’.
While people coming from various countries have been asked to pay their fare which are actually higher than the normal fare and can only be termed as repatriation with government playing the role of a facilitator and that too after nearly two months of lock down though the initial efforts made by Air India in bringing people from Wuhan city and other parts of South East Asia were actually free of cost. Air India’s chief of the mission for Wuhan Captain Amitabh Singh and his 15 crew members need to be acknowledged and appreciated for their commitment and deep sense of duty towards the nation. Captain Singh flew Boeing 747 and evacuated 647 Indian citizens mostly students from Wuhan on January 31st and February 2nd, 2020. Air India conducted 5 special flights from January 31st till March 22nd and brought over one thousand Indians from China, Japan, Italy and Iran. For the mission Wuhan, officially, Air India charged Rs 5,90,90,352 from the government.
The historic rescue mission during Iraq War in 1990
A lot is being said about Vande Bharat mission and touted as the biggest ever ‘rescue’ mission. While we need to compliment the Air India and our armed forces particularly the Navy which has been doing whatever is ordered to them, the same cannot be said about the government which is actually extracting money from the people even in these critical times. A large number of people were stranded at the airports and many lost their livelihood. Those who are citizens of those countries will not come back. It is those who don’t have citizenship or are students, are facing the worst and need to be supported. The government cannot think everything on ‘profit and loss’ basis. When the government announced lock down, it said that it cares for people and not for money but it could not provide services to migrant laborers back home. All of them want to go back home.
After frightening people and creating panic, it is too difficult to bring psychological normalcy in the minds of the people. Activists, social scientists requested government to provide enough economic resource to poor people and allow their free passage to home, of course, keeping in mind, all protocol and precautions that are required, but then nothing happened. A message went on everywhere that government is bringing people from abroad free of cost and asking money from the migrants but it is wrong narrative. Government has failed on both the front. Government need to protect its citizens and provide them support and help whether they are Indians living in India or Indians living abroad.
This is also time to remind government of its duties and media pracharaks of the His Excellency Sarkar, about a much bigger relief and rescue mission carried out by the government headed by a man who has been hated and looked down upon in utter contempt.
Yes, the corrupt savarna media and its ‘experts’ have deliberately kept him as a forgotten man. Many would suggest that he ‘ruined’ our economy but then V P never paid to dalal media to ‘highlight’ his achievements. He was honest enough to depend on the mercenaries for magnifying his image in the media. Let us first look at what happened and then analyse it.
On August 2nd, 1990, Iraq attacked Kuwait and annexed it. United States decided to teach a lesson to Iraq and planned ‘Operation Desert Storm’ to free Kuwait. The war was imminent. There were more than 1,70,000 Indians living in Kuwait. Iraq was a dear friend of India under President Saddam Hussein. India wanted to use the military aircrafts but unfortunately it was rejected by the UN. The then foreign Minister Mr. Inder Kumar Gujaral flew to Baghdad to meet President Saddam Hussein who assured him of full support. Saddam allowed Indians to go to Amman via buses to take special flights for India. Starting from August 13th, 1990 till October 26th, 1990, Air India had 488 flights and as estimated, brought, 1,11,711 Indian nationals from Kuwait. And not a single rupee was charged from anyone. That was the time, when the financial condition of India was worst and the oil prices were highest.
In an interview published in the Hindu, Former Indian diplomat, K. P.Fabian said,
“who was the Joint Secretary of the Gulf Division in the Ministry of External Affairs during the 1990 Gulf War, said this was going to place the expats in a difficult position as many of them were facing financial hardships.“
“In the 1990 we had taken a decision that the Government of India will bear the expenditure for the entire operation. We did not have a contractual arrangement with Air India but it was a smooth tie-up as the Ministries of Civil Aviation, Finance and the MEA coordinated. After the operation, MEA paid Air India for the airlift,” said Mr. Fabian who travelled to Baghdad where he and External Affairs Minister, the late Inder Kumar Gujral, met with Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein to ensure smooth conduct of the mission.
Mr. Fabian also visited Jordan subsequently to work on the logistics of the plan which led to the airlift of around 1,76,000 people by civilian airliners. The operation remains a record till now. He pointed out that there are significant differences between 1990 and the present scenario but the humanitarian angle remains the same which should be prioritised.
Another person who was privy to many such information during that period was veteran journalist Prem Shankar Jha, who was the media advisor to Prime Minister V P Singh writes in The Wire:
The first thing he thought about, before considering even the foreign exchange crisis that Iraq’s invasion would trigger, was the security of the 170,000 Indians who were working in Kuwait at the time. Although Saddam Hussein’s government assured us that it would keep them safe, most of Indians there wanted to come home. So, when ferrying them back directly from Kuwait proved too difficult to arrange, Singh got Saddam Hussein to agree to our transporting them 1120 kms overland via Basra to Amman and flying them home from there.
Not willing to take all of Air India’s handful of Boeing 747s out of commercial service, he turned to Indian Airlines. IA had just obtained its first two Airbus A 320s of which one had crashed five months earlier in Bangalore because of a pilot error caused by a faulty cockpit design. The other had been grounded, so V.P Singh broke all the Indian civil aviation rules and pressed it into service.
That aircraft then flew flawlessly 16 to 18 hours every day for the next two months, till all the 111,000-plus who had wanted to return had been repatriated. All in all, Air India and Indian Airlines flew 488 return flights. Till today, that remains the largest rescue airlift the world has known.
But even though India was sinking steadily into its terminal foreign exchange crisis and the operation was likely to cost close to a billion dollars, I cannot recall a single discussion, whether formal or informal, in which either V.P. Singh, or foreign minister Inder Gujral, even considered charging anything from the evacuees.
The concealment and distortion of history
A film named as Airlift was made in 2016 with its lead as Akshay Kumar. The film was hailed as one of the ‘finest’ by the Akshay Kumar. It is said that the film was inspired by the wonderful work done by businessman Mathunny Mathew, an Indian resident in Kuwait. Mathew belonged to Kumbnad town of Patthnamthitta district of Kerala state and passed away in May 2017. In his tribute to departed soul, Kerala chief minister Pinyari Vijayan said:
“He provided food and drinking water to the stranded Indians and we remember it with gratitude,” Mr. Vijayan said. The V P Singh government had in 1990 carried out the biggest evacuation during the gulf war when over 1.50 lakh standard Indians had been safely brought back by flight. At that time Mr. Mathews had functioned as the Central Government’s “unofficial representative” in Kuwait to coordinate the evacuation process, the Chief Minister said.”
There is no doubt that Mathew provided support to Indian expatriates but cannot termed as hero of our rescue mission as the film Airlift try to project but then our film makers and heroes never ever thought of giving credit to a prime minister for his work though in today’s time they would present Narendra Modi in such a way as if he personally flew the planes to rescue the people. The first-person account of rejection of this false narrative came from a journalist-columnist Viju Charian, in the Hindustan Times:
“The trouble I have with Airlift is not so much that the evacuation story it has told is different from mine, but that in its bending of facts, it is recreating an incident to its convenience. In other words, the filmmakers are ‘creating history’. In its dramatisation of events to suit the grammar of a screenplay certain incidents have been magnified and New Delhi has been unjustly vilified. Airlift cunningly taps into the general resentment towards Indian politicians and bureaucrats. It is dismissive of New Delhi’s efforts to ensure the safe passage of Indians from Kuwait.”
Even if you leave aside the political leadership who have been vilified and I can bet Akshay Kumar can never do it if it were to vilify today’s leadership, one is not amused to see the name of the ‘savior’ in the film, Ravi Katyal when the inspiration is a Malayali Christian businessman who dedicated a lot to bring people together. Of course, his contribution is important but can’t be termed as a person who rescued people to bring back to India.
The concealment of facts and glamorization of some are part of the well-planned agenda of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva narrative. The Savarna media love that and would like to demonise and obliterate anyone who thought different than them and looked better. In today’s time, prime minister is getting credit for every small thing but that time we don’t want to give the prime minister any credit. In fact, most of those who were evacuated would have forgotten that there was a Prime Minister, sensitive enough and could never ever thought of asking for money despite the difficult financial conditions but then he is projected as a person who ruined our economy.
Important for the headline managers to look beyond their press releases and then write. A little bit of research including old clippings, videos and news reports will help them understand the crisis and how governments have handled them and then question them and suggest in the greater interest of public good. Of course, leader like V P Singh who have dedicated their lives for public good honestly have been forgotten after their vilification succeeded as they never had a constituency and support base who could defend them or project their work.