The real story behind Airlift

A commentary on the movie Airlift and the Kuwaiti Crisis of 1990

One particular thing I like about documentaries and movies based on true events is how they make me really curious about the subject. Airlift was a recent Bollywood movie on the World’s Largest Civilian Evacuation Undertaking in History by India in Kuwait in 1990. There are very few Bollywood movies that actually dwell on subjects such as these. In fact, serious fictional movies with deep plots and stories are virtually non-existent in this commercially driven industry. That’s why Airlift got me curious.

The movie was not bad. But the fact that the movie oversimplifies this hugely complex operation into a one-man mission leaves glaring holes to the actual story.

Of course, this is not a full-fledged documentary per se, but Airlift still manages to capture the basic tension of the 1991 Kuwaiti Crisis. Based on true events, Airlift managed a well-timed release. On the eve of the 67th Republic Day, the movie does a marvelous job fuelling our patriotic side. I don’t think India was never this high on desh-bhakti on the eve of Republic Day in recent memory.

Now about the ‘true’ part. Airlift was based on true events, but all characters featured in the movie were fictional. So I would love it if people would stop confusing Mr. Ranjit Katyal for a real-life hero. Yes, he is as fictional as Mickey Mouse. Of course, all this confusion can be attributed to all the false PR interviews done by all those involved in the movie. Take the example of the lead, Akshay Kumar in his recent Filmfare interview on the movie:

Your role is based on the life of Ranjit Katyal, who is a businessman in Kuwait. Could you tell us more about that?

That’s true but I cannot talk about him. He’s still alive and a big businessman today, living in Kuwait. But I didn’t meet him. Raja Menon (director) met him and spoke to him over the phone. But my character isn’t completely based on one person. There were three or four people like him, who were involved in the operation. We’ve combined all their stories for the character but Ranjit Katyal was the main guy. We’ve changed his name in the film. I should bring to your notice that in 1990, he was a multimillionaire but he lost everything, got everybody back to India from Kuwait and today, he’s a multimillionaire again. He’s earned back all his money.

Its things like these that get to my head.

So what really happened?

Airlift has heavily dramatized the story, giving very little credit to the other heroes responsible for this massive feat. Each and every individual responsible for this incredible achievement deserves equal mention. On that light, the Indian Government and Air India were given far less credit that what they actually deserve. And in the movie they were showed to be reluctant to even perform their duties and help the refugees whereas in reality, they were the ones mainly responsible for this whole operation. People highlighted in the film definitely deserve praise but it should be noted that they were only helping hands compared to the real heroes. There are several details incorrectly described in the movie. The movie does openly state that it is based on true events and that the characters depicted in the movie are completely fictitious. But that does not mean that the truth has to be obscured for that matter.

A. In the beginning, the narrative describes the ailing situation between the countries of Iraq and Kuwait. It was said that Iraq had requested the neighbouring countries to reduce their oil production to increase demand, whereas enabling Iraq to generate more profit in the international oil market and clear their debt. This is both incomplete and wrong. The main factors responsible for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait were as follows:

  1. Iraq was under heavy debt on account of the heavy investment in its military and many other things.
    The funds that Gulf countries lent Iraq were used to buy high-tech weapons, high tech weapons that made Iraq one of the largest armies in the world and a force to contend with. “Ironically much of the money and weapons came from the countries that united to fight against him. (Saddam Hussain)” The Gulf countries bankrolled him while the Western nations, who had many defense contractors going out of business because of the end of the Cold War, supplied him with the weapons to fight Iran and later Kuwait and the Coalition. With a large army like his, it would be very easy to defeat the far smaller Kuwaiti army compared to his. [1]
FILE–Iraqi President Saddam Hussein waves to supporters in Baghdad, Iraq, October 18, 1995, one day after being sworn in as president for another seven years. Hussein has put two of his half brothers under house arrest a banned them from leaving the country, Iraqi dissidents and an opposition group said Wednesday, July 3, 1996. Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, a former interior minister, and Saba’wi Ibrahim al-Hassan, a former security chief, were ordered to stay at home under tight security after they requested permission to leave Iraq, according to Iraqi dissidents reached by telephone in neighboring Jordan. (AP Photo/INA)
  1. Saddam Hussain was also somewhat jealous of the fact that Kuwait being a very small country compared to Iraq enjoyed the benefits of having about 10% of the world’s total oil resources. In fact, Kuwait had one of the highest per-capita-income in the world. After invading the small country of Kuwait with only a fraction of his forces, Saddam Hussain gained control of over 19% of the world’s total oil resources. [2]
    (And with the USA already poised to take on Iraq, The First of the Gulf Wars was hardly a surprise)
  2. During the Iran-Iraq war, the al-Sabah family, the ruling family of Kuwait, gave some INR 1,147.78 billion to Iraq. It saw the Iranian Shi’a revolution as a threat to itself, and so financed a long-standing Arab-Persian (Iranian) conflict.  But it also had established farms and settlements over the Iraqi border.  Most important, the al-Sabah family was also drilling in the Rumailah oil field.  The Rumailah oil field is 95 percent in Iraq, but the al-Sabah family brought in the most sophisticated American oil-drilling technology to “slant drill” in its 5 percent of Rumailah while the Iraqis were unable to drill during the war.  It sold that oil, at below OPEC prices, to Japan and the US (Kuwait has always played this role:  increasing its sale of oil to the importers in times of crisis).  The al-Sabah family by now was unimaginably rich, with an estimated wealth of some 90 billion dollars.  They had invested about 50 billion dollars in the stocks of US companies. [3]
  3. The al-Sabah family continued to slant-drill and to sell to the West at below OPEC prices, despite Hussein’s actions in the Arab League and protests to OPEC. It continued to deny him access to the Gulf.  By now, Hussein was requesting the use of the unpopulated Bubiyan and Warba islands, to avoid having to use Basra on the Shatt-al-Arab, since he shared that waterway to the Gulf with Iran.  Finally, the al-Sabah family declared that the INR 1,147.78 billion it had given Hussein was not a gift (or an exchange for the Rumailah oil, see paragraph 1.c.), but a loan which must be repaid. [3]
A Kuwaiti M-84” by Tech. Sgt. H. H. Deffner –; Still Asset Details for DF-ST-92-07467. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
  1. Hussein, therefore, began to think about using his armed forces to insist upon resolution of the border and monetary disputes. He threatened to do so about a year before the August 2nd invasion at OPEC and Arab League meetings; hence the now famous meetings with Robert Dole and other *US senators in April 1990 and April Glaspie in July 1990. [3]
    *Also present were Alan Simpson, Howard Metzenbaum, James McClure, and Frank Murkowski, together with US Ambassador April Glaspie.
  2. On 15 July 1990, Saddam’s government laid out its combined objections to the Arab League, including that policy moves were costing Iraq INR 67.52 billion a year, that Kuwait was still using the Rumaila oil field, that loans made by the UAE and Kuwait could not be considered debts to its “Arab brothers”. [4] He threatened force against Kuwait and the UAE saying “The policies of some Arab rulers are American … They are inspired by America to undermine Arab interests and security.” [5] The U.S. sent aerial refueling planes and combat ships to the Persian Gulf in response to these threats. [6] Discussions in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, mediated on the Arab League’s behalf by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were held on 31 July and led Mubarak to believe that a peaceful course could be established. [7]
  3. The result of the Jeddah talks was an Iraqi demand for INR 675.16 billion to cover the lost revenues from Rumaila; the Kuwaiti response was to offer INR 607.65  The Iraqi response was to immediately order the invasion.[8] On 2 August 1990, Iraq launched the invasion by bombing Kuwait’s capital, Kuwait City.
    NOT the Iraqi government asking the neighbouring countries to reduce oil production to increase demand and enable Iraq to earn more profit to clear the debt more easily, like it has been said in the movie.
Kuwait burn oilfield.png
Kuwait burn oilfield” by Jonas Jordan, United States Army Corps of Engineers –
Description & related images. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
Further developments leading to the subsequent Gulf Wars can be found on external links given below.

B. And as mentioned earlier, the movie completely downsides the role of the Indian Embassy and Ministry of External Affairs, whereas it was them, not the local businessmen, who were mainly responsible for the successful operation. It’s alright to bring some fictional elements here but it is completely wrong to erroneously depict people responsible for the achievement.

Madhav Srimohan
Ranjit Katiyal is a fictional character.
Yes, to all your surprise, there was not one person behind this massive evacuation. The real evacuation(airlift) was carried out between Amman, capital of Jordan and Delhi. It was all possible because of heroics of our Ministry of External Affairs.
The MEA officials posted in Kuwait that time, the journalists and the people of Air India deny any Ranjit Katiyal during the whole operation.
As per Ministry of External Affairs, Indian Embassy was behind this operation.
Below are the accounts of four persons related with the evacuation that strengthen my postulation:
  • KP Fabian who was the then head of Gulf Division in Ministry of External Affairs deny presence of any such person during the operation. He says that India had good relations with Saddam Hussein and nobody else was needed. IP Khosla was additional secretary who accompanied Inder Kumar Gujral, the then minister of external affairs, to Kuwait, too endorses KP Fabian.
  • Air India had flown nearly 500 flights from Amman to Delhi between 13th Aug 1990 and 11th Oct 1990. Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India, also has similar views. He says that he had a word with the then AI regional director of the gulf and the middle east region Michael Mascarenhas, who also had denied knowing anyone named Ranjit Katiyal.
  • Javed Ahmed, a journalist, lives in Kuwait for 35 years. He had witnessed the gulf war closely and interacted with many Indians there who were clueless about any such person among them. Upon watching the trailer of the film, he claimed that the film has nothing to with the reality. He says the film talks about Dasman Palace, where actually no one lived that time as rich Kuwaitis had fled. Javed claims he was present there at that time.
  • AK Shrivastava was engineer in one oil project in Iraq. Living in Gurgaon now, he recounts that he had little problem in Baghdad during those 2 months. He says that he didn’t face much trouble as Jordan borders were open and it helped people in reaching Amman without much ado. In an interview to Indian Foreign Affairs journal, he says that after the news of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, minster of external affairs Inder Kumar Gujral, IP Khosla and Shrivastava himself had visited Saddam Hussein. Gujral’s visit included a famous embrace by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which earned him a lot of flak from the media. Iraq agreed to tacitly permit the Indian evacuation efforts, but there was no Ranjit Katiyal
Rationally speaking, any one person who showed such an act of bravery can’t go unnoticed. Akshay Kumar, however, has been seen telling in media umpteen number of times about the research done before conceptualizing the film but as we can see, most of the people who were actually related some or the other way with this evacuation, deny knowing any Ranjit Katiyal, it is highly probable that a fictional story has been woven around a real life incident and film’s cast and crew are trying to sensationalize the issue to gain attention, publicity and viewers. Sounds similar to what was done during release of Ek Tha Tiger, isn’t it?
Rajeev Sadanandan
I was deputed by the Government of Kerala to assist in evacuation of Kuwait along with Shri. Anand Kumar, now Additional Secretary in Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. We were at the border for 45 days along with officials from MEA. The entire operation was managed by the Ministry of External Affairs and Air India. Some amount of mobilisation had been done by a few businessmen in Kuwait who collected money to transport Indians from Kuwait to the Iraqi. Many evacuees told us that they had paid money. What the evacuees were not informed is that the no man’s land between Iraq and Jordan is 60 kms of desert. I do not know if Ranjit Katyal was one of the businessmen involved. We heard many other names. But never this one.
If credit is to be handed out top of the list should Shri. K.P. Fabien, Special Secretary in charge of Middle East. Shri. Gajendra Singh and his small team held up the operations at Amman embassy. Mr. Ratten Sehgal, then Additional Director in RAW also joined the team.
Things were limping along in the initial days as the Delhi did not appreciate the magnitude of the problem. The day we landed in the desert camp (on 26th August, if I remember right) more than 16,000 Indians had been living in makeshift shelters without food and water. Anand, Mr. Kapoor from the Amman Embassy and me were the first Indian officials they had seen. We were taken in captivity and the border police had to use use to rescue us. But inspite of urgent pleas by Embassy very little improved.
The game changer was a visit by Shri K.P. Unnikrishan who was a minister in the union cabinet, accompanied by Shri. Fabien, Shri. G.K. Pillai then Joint Secretary and later Secretary Home Ministry and Shri. Churchill Almayo, then Tourism Minister in Goa. Shri. Unnikrishan was booed, pelted with rotten eggs and raw tomatoes by the Indians at the desert camp. He reached the Embassy badly shaken. Sitting there he spoke to the PM, other ministers to make the arrangements and even to Shri. Chauhan of the Thums Up to airlift the needed Bisleri bottles. The situation changed from there I was a witness to the conversation.
From here the credit goes to Air India. They mobilised the Airbus 320s which had been lying idle after a crash at Bangalore.Drafting officials from the closed down Kuwait office and other middle eastern airports they set up an efficient operation in Amman. At a time we had 12 aircrafts landing in Queen Alia airport, Amman. The camp in the desert was emptied in no time and demolished. We, who had been embarassed at the barbs of the Jordan police, Pakistani and Egyptian officials could hold our heads up again.
Since then many have been claiming credit for an operation that involved so many Indians at all levels working together. Ranjit Katyal might emerge as the most successful of them.

C. The Indian people were never completely ignored by the Indian Government as shown in the movie. As 75% of the refugees hailed from Kerala, the Government of Kerala had a significant role in pushing for the efforts to evacuate the Indians in Kuwait. [9]

D. It would have been better if Air India’s involvement was shown to a greater extent. Not only were the people keen on helping in the operation as otherwise shown in the movie, the airline officials worked under some pretty tight conditions to complete the mission. [10]

But after the incident at Kuwait, India had a very poor response to the Iraqi Invasion. Of course, we were allies then, but the Invasion of Kuwait was completely on them. Even Pakistan was more concerned than us!

Coalition of the Gulf War vs Iraq.png
Coalition of the Gulf War vs Iraq” by Female bodybuilder enthusiast – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Then there was the controversy about the then Foreign Minister, IK Gujral cordially hugging Saddam Hussain on his first visit right after the Kuwaiti invasion. All these go to show how gutless the Indian government really was. [10]

Despite all that, this feat is a great achievement for India and her people. To move forward with such a huge population is not an easy feat. India is doing much better than many other countries but is still far behind several others. But of course, not everyone has over a billion mouths to feed.

As my cousin said,

Here’s to 67 Years of Organized Chaos.
Happy Republic Day!


  1. "Iraq", World Book (New York, World Book, 1990), Vol 10, p. 260
  2. CNN The Gulf War (Video) (Atlanta, CNN News, 75 min., 1991)
  3. Why DID Iraq Invade Kuwait? -- A Brief History, By G. Simon Harak, S. J.
  4. Simons (2003). p. 343.
  5. Yousseff M. Ibrahim, "Iraq Threatens Emirates And Kuwait on Oil Glut" New York Times, 18 July 1990
  6. Michael R. Gordon, "U.S. Deploys Air and Sea Forces After Iraq Threatens 2 Neighbors" New York Times, 25 July 1990
  7. Finlan (2003). pp. 25–26.
  8. Finlan (2003). p. 26.
  9. Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 7, No. 1, January-March, 2011, 93-107 | ORAL HISTORY: Biggest Ever Air Evacuation in History 97 pg. 7
  10. | The Berlin airlift was remarkable, but the largest civilian evacuation in history is by India
Also read:


13 thoughts on “The real story behind Airlift”

  1. Thanks for sharing these valuable facts. In fact after seeing the movie, my husband and I kept wondering why no one ever spoke about this important mission in the country!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same thought.
      And frankly speaking, Indians aren’t usually that interested on matters such as these. It is saddening to find abundant material on the internet pertaining to so many things from the west but when you search for something from India, you’ve got better luck finding it on print media.

      Digital India really needs to happen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But you know Deboo… that’s not true! We are interested and that’s why Desh and I were saddened that this wasn’t spoken about. Desh makes it a point to write about such inspiring stories, and even though we live in the US whatever happens in India still concerns us a hell lot. I think there will be many such Indians living abroad who feel the need to know about what’s happening in their motherland… and if they don’t, it’s their loss!
        Thanks again buddy and I agree… India is in dire need of being digitized!


        Liked by 1 person

  2. After watching Airlift I was deeply saddened. I lived in Kuwait for eight years and this exaggerated movie was disappointing. This film distorted the events to suit the 100cr club. I am sharing your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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