On February 6, the day after President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives declared an Emergency and arrested two judges of the Supreme Court, Mohamed Nasheed, the exiled former President, implored India on Twitter “to send (an) envoy, backed by its military, to release judges & pol(itical) detainees inc(luding) Pres(ident) (Maumoon Abdul) Gayoom. We request a physical presence”. On Wednesday, he tweeted that “Maldivians see India’s role positively: in (19)88 they (Indian forces) came, resolved the crisis, and left. They were not occupiers but liberators”.
As reported in The Indian Express on Wednesday, India does not believe that sending troops to the archipelago is an option at the moment. Thirty years ago, the circumstances were very different.
Early on November 3, 1988 morning, Ronen Sen, Joint Secretary in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO, got a call from Kuldeep Sahdev, Joint Secretary (Burma, Sri Lanka and Maldives) in the Ministry of External Affairs. Sahdev had been rung up at 6 am by the acting Indian High Commissioner in Malé to be informed of shooting in the city. A half hour later, the envoy had called Sahdev again to confirm, on the authority of Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, then Foreign Secretary of the Maldives, that an attempt was under way to overthrow the government of President Gayoom.
The shooters had targeted the President’s residence and the headquarters of the National Security Service (NSS), taken over key government buildings including the radio and TV stations, and cut off power and water supply to the capital. The 80-odd gunmen were identified as Tamil mercenaries from a Sri Lankan group called the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, or PLOTE, headed by Uma Maheshwaran. The group had been recruited, funded, armed, and trained by expatriate Maldivians led by businessman Abdullah Luthufi and his associate, Sikka Ahmed Ismail Manik.
Uma had chosen November 3 because President Gayoom was expected to be away in India on that day. But the trip had been called off at the last minute, even as an Indian aircraft sent to bring Gayoom to New Delhi was mid-air. Rajiv had had to travel for an election campaign, and Gayoom and he had decided to meet some time later.
Meanwhile, A K Banerjee, India’s High Commissioner to Malé, who was then in Delhi ahead of Gayoom’s anticipated visit, heard from his secretary that the President, hiding out in a safe house, had made a personal request for help to India. But similar appeals had also gone out to other countries, including the US, UK, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Pakistan, Banerjee was told by his secretary. Banerjee later found out that his secretary had been briefed by Anbaree Sattar, Gayoom’s chief security officer, who later served as High Commissioner to India.
India was at the time involved in a messy counterinsurgency campaign in Sri Lanka, which had made the central government very unpopular in Tamil Nadu. But Rajiv was clear that the neighbourhood was India’s zone of influence, and would not hesitate to play its role in the region.
Sahdev called Air Vice Marshal Denzil Keelor to tell him that the IAF should be ready to fly to the Maldives. By 7.15 am, Air Headquarters had alerted the transport aircraft fleets at Agra and Jorhat. At the office of the Prime Minister’s private secretary, Vincent George, Ronen Sen took a call from Zaki in Malé, and told him to stay on the line so as to not alert the coup leaders through switchboard activity — thus starting “the longest call ever made between Delhi and Malé”, lasting for the entire 18-hour duration of the attempted coup.
At a chaotic and noisy meeting at the Army Operations Room in South Block, initially “no one had any clear ideas”, Sen said, “and people were passing around tourist picture postcards of the Maldives to make sense of the place”. After Rajiv noted that this was the first time a neighbour had requested help against a coup attempt, it was agreed that India would provide military help to Gayoom’s government. The Air Force would fly an Army contingent in, and keep supply lines open. The Navy would stand by to respond to the evolving situation.
The initial plan to paradrop soldiers from the Agra-based Parachute Brigade was abandoned due to the absence of a dropping zone on the islands that was large enough for the paratroopers to drift in and land on firm ground. The Military Operations Directorate informed the PMO that casualties could be as high as 40%-50% — a cost Rajiv was unwilling to pay at a time when a large number of body bags were already coming in from the IPKF campaign in Sri Lanka. It was then decided to land Il-76 transport aircraft at Hulhulé airport — the Para brigade would secure the air base and use commercial and private boats to get to Malé. While government forces still had control of the airport, all that the Indian Army and Air Force had going into the operation were tourist brochures, guide maps and some World War II maps.
The Parachute Brigade led by Brigadier ‘Bull’ Bulsara was tasked to take off from Agra by 2.30 pm. He planned that in case Hulhulé airport falls to the rebels, 60 paratroopers (only 60 D5 packed parachutes were available) would drop down. Banerjee had been flown to Agra to give Bulsara firsthand inputs; the Brigadier got him to come along to Hulhulé in the leading aircraft. Banerjee requested official permission and a shaving kit.
“The troops of the 50 Para Brigade boarded the two Il-76s with assault rifles and other weapons, while I boarded with my shaving gear,” recounted Banerjee, perhaps the only IFS officer to have been in the vanguard of an Indian military operation. The aircraft, Friendly One and Friendly Two, took off from Agra a few minutes before 5 pm, the paratroopers shouting “Chhatri (Parachute) Mata Ki Jai”. Operation Cactus was under way.
“I was amazed to see travel magazines and tourist brochures on the Maldives instead of military maps,” Flying Officer Ashok K Chordia, who was on board the first aircraft, said. An hour before landing at Hulhulé, he asked both Bulsara and Banerjee for their thoughts on what was coming. “I hope that everything goes off as planned,” Banerjee wrote. Bulsara wrote: “By 1000 h tomorrow, we will secure the President and the airstrip.”
As it turned out, Bulsara was more than able to meet his own deadline. After landing at Hulhulé, he called Gayoom on local telephone: “Mr President, the Indian Army has arrived and will do its best.” He later recounted: “I was not about to go through what I had these past 10 hours, fly 3,000 kilometres, and then lose him to a bunch of ragtag mercenaries.”
At 2.10 am on 4 November, the paratroopers secured the Maldivian President. At 3.15 am, Bulsara and Banerjee reached him. At 4 am, Gayoom spoke with Rajiv, thanked him, and informed him that Indian soldiers were in control of Malé.
Operation Cactus was hailed internationally. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “Thank God for India”, and President Ronald Reagan of the US declared that the Indian action “will be remembered as a valuable contribution to regional stability”. Time magazine did a cover story: “Super Power”. Even top Pakistani military officials expressed awe at the swiftness and efficacy of India’s response. But the men who participated in that flawless operation got no medals, and the Defence Ministry is yet to bring out the official history of Cactus.
Nearly 30 years later, the Indian Armed Forces would not attempt an encore. There are several reasons — China now plays an enormous role in the Indian Ocean; unlike in 1988, the request for intervention this time is from the Maldivian opposition; and the consequences of Indian military action would be infinitely more complex.