Airlift : The Real Story
Filmwallas need to give due credit than hurt sentiments: Sanjeev Kohli
W orld’s biggest evacuation from the conflict zone where multiple countries were involved could not have been possible without the prompt intervention of the government. These filmwallas (filmmakers) need to do proper research and give due credit to the deserved, rather than hurt the sentiments said Mr Sanjeev Kohli. Mr Kohli, the current Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand had played a key role in evacuating 160 thousand Indians from Kuwait, when Iraq attacked Kuwait. Mr Kohli was the last man to leave the conflict zone, then working as a young officer in Kuwait Indian embassy. In the recently released Bollywood flick Airlift the role of the Indian Government was not portrayed very positively, Mr Kohli’s role was enacted as well. In a very frank, intense and subjective interview with Indianz X-PRESS Newspaper, Mr Kohli laid bare all the trauma and turmoil of that incident. He also spoke about the President of India’s recent visit to NZ and about his plan, role and responsibilities as the Indian High Commissioner to NZ.
Q- There are reports saying you played the most important role in getting the Indians evacuated during Saddams invasion of Kuwait in 1990, could you throw some light on the incident from your perspective?
ANS: See the evacuation which took place from Kuwait,I think it is still the biggest ever war- zone evacuation. When this movie Airlift was released there was a character with my name, shown as a joint secretary. So all my friends and family got curious to know if that character was built around my role in real life. Secondly the film did not reflect the government’s role as positive. But, this movie has highlighted the event which was not appreciated in the manner it deserved when it was conducted. Due to this movie, people came to know that in 1990’s we could do this massive evacuation, especially the current generations who knew nothing about it. The movie became a hit because it gives a feeling of nationalism. And makes you feel proud that as a nation you could achieve something so difficult.
As a young officer I was posted in Dubai at that time. Past mid-night, early morning 2nd August 1990 when Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait took place I was working as the junior most officer of the mission at that time. I was just 27 years old. As it was shown in the movie, suddenly the whole dynamics of day-to-day life changed for everyone. Kuwait was considered a very comfortable country, everything was available easily but suddenly everything changed and loot-mar was the only law of the land. I distinctly remember that I had to stand in queue for hours to get a loaf of bread. Working in an embassy throws double the challenges, you have to look after yourself and also take the responsibility of looking after your Indian people and work for their safety and evacuation.
I was then asked to go from Kuwait to Iraq – Jordon border, you might know if you have seen the movie with two other people. That was the first point of entry where the people were received and their documents were checked. Then there was a camp ahead, where people who did not have complete documents needed to be dealt with. To handle and manage approximately 160000 people was a mammoth task under such volatile life threatening situation. Unlike other camps where there were some facilities, the place where we were stationed had absolutely nothing. The three of us were completely surrounded with desert. In such situations you can’t demand anything from anyone. There was no place to live, eat…..There was a small tea shop close to the border, we stayed in a small room above that tea shop for more than 50 days. We worked from 6 am till late night and the instructions to us were to be the last to leave after evacuating all Indians successfully from that war zone.
As an individual it was a great period of turmoil for me too, at that time my wife was doing her MD in India, we had a daughter who was only three months old. People don’t understand that you are also going through the same trauma. Your family is away from you and you are not sure whether you will be able to go back home or not. Telephones were cut for more than 6 months, we were not able to communicate with our families. Security was a huge threat, we were as vulnerable as any other. We were told that we couldn’t have two embassies as we have one at Bagdad and as Kuwait is now under Iraq, so we had no recognition as embassy personnel. With all these challenges and trauma we were living like any other, plus the responsibility that we could not go first and would be the last to leave. All this happened for approximately three and a half months. Once everyone was cleared and evacuated I was able to come back last.
But all this was not even known to my kids, when they saw the movie they asked like you, as to what was my role during that unprecedented evacuation. Now when I see things in perspective, which I had not realised at that time, because I was intensely involved, when I saw the movie and relived those moments, I had a sense of pride and satisfaction. That with our humble little contribution we were able to save so many lives. There were so many big agencies involved, Government of three countries, Air India also played a big role, but having dealt with the situation on the front line at the border is quite satisfying.
Q8- How do you see the movie Airlift as a creative drama with some facts or as a purely cinematic illusion?
ANS: See movie makers have that commercial obligation and purpose and you can’t take that away. Movies are fiction in general, some are inspired by real story some purely fiction. There is a big group of critics about the movie in the Ministry that say that the amount of work the Government of India had done during that incident has not been showcased in the movie. The movie reflects that the Government was sleeping and it was only the individuals who were doing the work. Even if you are making a fiction but picking it from a true life incident you should give due credit to everyone concerned. And as I said before evacuating people from the conflict zone, without Government’s prompt intervention is not possible. It hurts that the movie leave apart giving due credit, has shown these agencies in negative light. Although everyone was doing their duty but still due credit needs to be given. And I think these filmwallas should have that sensitivity. We are not saying that give them big pedestal but atleast don’t shame them.
There are some positives too, as they have shown a historic event to the new generation who mighthave never heard about what had happened. My personal opinion is though these are commercial ventures but they should show sensitivity. If they had done more research or been more realistic that would have been better.
Q- There are so many positive human stories of help from all corners of the world coming out of the good work done by Ministry of External affairs, mainly due to the social media, specially under the leadership of Sushma Swaraj ji, have things tremendously improved professionally or is it that people come to know these days because of the social media?
ANS: See I can tell you being the part of the Ministry and also coming from Delhi. I was in Delhi since this new Government came into power, so I know things from close corners. At a personal level our new minister is very sensitive about community related issues. She takes a deep interest. Her office fixes accountability and monitor day-to-day progress. Machinery is still the same like before. But when the system realises that the one on the top is taking interest and monitoring accountability the whole system sits upright and starts delivering. Plus everything is being followed-up now. And this social media is not only showing you in good light instead its more active when one does something wrong. So the advantage of social media is that it keeps everyone under microscope at all times.
I will tell you a personal incident with our minister Sushma Swaraj ji, it is not in the media but happened with one of my under secretaries. We have a control room in our ministry which operates during the weekend as well, which is managed by the undersecretary level officers. I was looking after Africa at that time and an undersecretary of mine received a phone call on Sunday in the afternoon in the control room, as you might know that there is an ongoing issue of some Indians who are still unaccountable in Iraq. So the undersecretary whose name is Prashant got a phone call from a lady saying, I am calling from a village in Amritsar, and among the 40 people missing in Iraq my son is also there. I have had no information about him, how is it possible. Prashant handled the call in the manner he is supposed to do. After 15 minutes of that phone, he received another phone call saying that the Minister Sushma Swaraj wants to speak to you. Then the Minister herself came on line and said that, the phone you received 15 minutes ago was made by me. I wanted to see how you are dealing with the affected family. I am calling you now to say that you have done a good job. So when a leader is so intense and gets personally involved then team has to deliver. So overall there is more urgency and accountability across board in bureaucracy as well.
Q – You have just recently pulled up a fantastic and historic visit of President of India to NZ, how that feels, especially in such a short time of your arrival in the country.
ANS: You are right, our President of India’s recent visit was a very successful visit and it was big challenge because it was managed at a very short notice. More so since I recently arrived in New Zealand and my credentials were presented 10 days before the President’s visit. The visit was initially planned for Wellington but due to landing issues of the bigger aircraft, it was re-scheduled to Auckland.We have our office here in Wellington and to get things done on such short notice for such unprecedented visit was a tough ask, but we could manage to pull it well with the support of everyone involved including the Government of New Zealand. For me personally it was a very satisfying visit especially at such early stage of my tenure. It sets up a good tone for future mutual relationship.
Q – President’s visit was on such a short notice, did it achieve the goal it was meant for?
ANS: As everyone knows we have very good relations with New Zealand so there was a short of aberration as no such high level visit has happened in New Zealand for a long period. The former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi visited New Zealand in 1986. So we were able to fill that aberration, which is a big achievement in itself. Secondly when the head of a state visits another country, it sends a message that we value the host country. On a specific note the President had meetings with the entire spectrum of leadership in New Zealand, including the Governor General, Prime Minister, Leader of opposition, which helps in understanding each other’s perspective. And also sharing the mutual success stories of our recent past like tourism, education, cricket and trade. We could review what is going good and how it can be consolidated and also how to improve what has not been going on as expected. We were also able to sign two services agreement, one in education sector setting up a chair in Victoria University.
Q- There is a huge thrust on Business tie-ups internationally since Mr Modi’s Government came into power, has it impacted on the roles and responsibilities of High Commissioners as well round the world…if so pls elaborate ?
ANS: High Commissions and the Commissioner carry the weight of the profile of the economical, political stature of the country. When the country is strong the High Commissioners job becomes easier because your voice is considerably heard more . Therefore in last two years the profile of India has gone bigger in front of the world. Our economy is back on tract growing above 7%. The image of our Prime Minister is also very good and dynamic which naturally benefits all of us. Having clear mandate and firm decisiveness there is new enthusiasm in India and abroad. Hence you becomes a centre of attraction to the world, people looking for opportunities India can offer to the world. It therefore enhances your responsibilities too. But as the whole environment is very conducive, this is a very good take-off point for everyone.
Q- How is Made in India concept fairing Globally and your personal view point on this?
ANS: We had certain advantages before in terms of size of market, skilled population, our own indigenous engineering pool, our enormous educated middle class but now it has got the decisiveness and momentum, which the whole world is looking at. We have a better growth-rate than China. Now the effort is to take the best advantage of our demographic situation and in coming 10 to 15 years we should be the fastest and the largest growing economy in the world. Seeing this every big company in the world has now started feeling that if they need to grow they cannot ignore India anymore and for that they need to have their presence in India. Because Indian market is so big, diverse and complex that you have to have your physical presence in that.To meet the demands of the aspiring affluent vast Indian middle class you have to manufacture products to be cost-effective. So if you see in last one year the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has gone up tremendously, reflecting the success of Made in India globally. I think it’s a dynamic, evolving and very exciting phase for India.
Q – What kind of potential do you see in creating business opportunities in NZ for India and vice-versa?
ANS: We share a historic relationship with NZ, people to people contact, democracy, English, so we have an inherited advantage with NZ. We could be different in our geographical or market sizes and be away from each other distance wise but both are doing very good economically in their own regions.
There are few complimentary facts as well, like in NZ there is always a great reservoir in the field of research & technology. Because NZ has learned to be self -reliant due to its geographical constraints. Therefore, it provides a great meeting point to both economies, specially sectors like, ICT, aviation technology, service sector like health care, education etc. Being a small size population & economy NZ needs capital input in different sectors to grow, where large Indian business houses can play a vital role having capital surplus and also ambition to expand. And this could be a perfect blend which together can expand into the other parts of the world jointly. Other NZ strengths like agriculture, food processing, food storage etc. India needs to upgrade themselves in such areas technologically where NZ can play a very vital role. Their expertise in aviation and security can be very handful in India’s development as well.
We are talking FTA (Free Trade Agreement), some are disappointed as to why it is taking so long. It is a continuous process, a work in progress but don’t wait for that instead, start sitting, discussing, exploring and executing the areas of mutual growth. Projects in India like Smart Cities, Digital India, NZ has the potential and the expertise and strengths in those areas. So the very good thing is that what are our priorities, NZ have expertise in those areas. So consistent business meeting and exchange of delegations can bring mutual growth for both countries.
Q- How are you feeling coming to such beautiful, cooler and small country like NZ after having served previously in hot and volatile places in Gulf?
ANS: See working in the diplomatic services like ours you get posted to different countries, different systems and environment. I am an Arabic speaking officer so I had an expertise in the Middle East countries. You are trained to go and do the job you have been assigned to wherever it is required. So here I am in New Zealand now, personally it is a very beautiful country. Full of natural beauty and lots and lots of opportunity to do a lot of work. So overall I think it is a challenge , an opportunity and for the family it is a chance to see a place they have not visited earlier. So as a total package I think NZ is very exciting and promising.
Q- Do please tell us about your background, parents –upbringing and family which has helped you to be a person you are today?
ANS: I was born in Gurdaspur, my father migrated from Pakistan during the partition. He had a very tough young life. He was only 17 when he had to take responsibly of the whole family-widow mother, two younger brothers. He had come to India empty handed. My grandfather died much earlier, I never saw him. I have only heard about all this through my grandmother. After coming to India, he used to work in day time and study at night. Finally he was a state civil services officer and then he became an IAS (Indian Administrative Services) officer in Punjab. My mother used to teach in the college. Now they both are no-more. I had a very good upbringing both parents were educated intellectuals. I have two sisters and a younger brother. I did my engineering from Chandigarh university. And then gave civil services exams and joined foreign services. My wife is a doctor and we have two daughters and a son. The elder daughter is married and working in Bangaluru, the younger one is with me in New Zealand and the son is currently doing graduation in India. I think I have been lucky having great parents and family. I think God has been very kind to me.
Q- What do you aspire to achieve as a High Commissioner during your tenure in New Zealand?
ANS: As I have said before I have come to a country as a High Commissioner with whom we share historic relationship. There is so much common and we have big diaspora here. And above all it’s a trouble free relationship for a High Commissioner, so there is a lot we can achieve specially after the head-start we have got from our President’s visit. And I think we will be able to build on it successfully on economical, social and cultural grounds. We have special interest in Asia-Pacific region and we have an assistance programme for Pacific Islands but we were not able to deliver it due to long distances but New Zealand being prominent in the region, we can make it tri-lateral forum to work on it successfully. We have done the same with some African countries recently with the help of United States the concept is…the funding comes from USA, with the help of these funds USA and India choose experts from African countries to get trained in India. The advantage is the cost effectiveness of training. More number of people in India can be trained then going to America which is 10 times expensive. What India gains is that their Institutions get the funding and also the mutual relationships get stronger. Currently this is being done in the agriculture sector. So I am thinking of developing such a model here with the help of NZ for Pacific Islands. The other important thing I want to do is to increase the outreach of the commission to our community. There is something lacking somewhere as per my experience. I therefore want feedback as to how we can have more connectivity with our community and gain their confidence.
Q – When are you hoping to get our own Independent High commissions building.
ANS: The tender has come out, we think that the work should start by Oct-Nov this year and the construction period is around 18 months. So I presume that we should have our own building by the end of 2018 with-in my tenure.
Q- There are substantial talks about PM Modi’s visit to NZ this year, are you able to give any official word on that ?
ANS: Normally PM’s visit calendar for the year gets approved in the first quarter of the year. If some special events come then they get adjusted. I do not think this year there is a possibility, more so because the President has just visited. And it happens very rarely that the President and a Prime Minister pay a visit to a country within the same calendar year. So I think this year it is not possible but with such good relations with NZ and our hugely expanding community may be in near future.
Q- The general perception towards High Commissions, people have reservations interacting freely with High Commissioners or your team in general, may be because of the very few opportunities they get to interact, would you be easily available to them, plus more presence in social gatherings so people can approach you amicably.
ANS: See as I told you myself that I have felt that the people are reluctant to approach us. Our outreach is limited. We are trying to identify the reasons for that and then resolve it. I want everyone to know that I am easily available and if I am not busy with my prior scheduling, no one needs an appointment to see me. People have my cell phone number to approach me. I would rather be happy if people come and talk to me and share their views and feelings. I would want to convey that for everyone we are easily assessable and please do have the confidence to approach us, we are only here to serve you with the best of our capabilities.
Q- Your message and also expectations from our Indian community?
ANS: Our community is our asset for the commission, I was talking to few of our community members lately and telling them that we all project the image of our country by our deeds and attitudes. We therefore need to enhance our strength by helping each other to grow with a consolidated effort. We feel very lucky to have a community which is very successful, respected and very supporting of the High Commission. Whenever we have needed them we have got full support from them. I want our relationship to grow stronger.