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Operation Cactus: How India helped Maldives thwart coup bid backed by Lankan militants

On November 3, 1988, a group of Maldivians assisted by a Sri Lankan militant organisation unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the government in the island republic of Maldives. We take a look at how the story unfolded.

Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata |
Updated: November 3, 2021 11:10:43 pm
We take a look at what the attempted coup of November 3, 1988 looked like from the perspective of Maldives’ security forces and the Indian Armed Forces.

This weekend, 33 years after they first met as adversaries, Major General Moosa Ali Jaleel (retd) invited Ahmed “Sagaru” Nasir for coffee to his Malé home. It was only the third time that the two had met in person, three decades after Nasir was arrested for the failed November 3, 1988 coup d’état in the Maldives, which was thwarted by India’s military intervention.

Wearing a mint-green T-shirt, with age lining his face, Nasir says with a smile, “My children don’t want me to do interviews”. Sitting on a blue sofa with large printed flowers, the two spoke to indianexpress.com over a video call, with Nasir mostly speaking off the record.

“I met him in 1988 for the first time when I was the task-force commander. Due to the circumstances, I did not have time to chit-chat,” Major General Jaleel says of the hours shortly after the militants were apprehended. He ended his three decades of service as the Chief of Defence Forces from 2008 until 2012. There are perhaps only a few people in the Maldives who witnessed the unfolding of the events as closely as Major General Jaleel did and November 3 remains vivid in his memory.

That day, Maldivian businessman Abdullah Luthfee and Ahmed “Sagaru” Nasir, aided by Uma Maheswaran, leader of the Sri Lankan militant organisation, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), and a group of 80 militants commanded by its leader Vasanthi, tried to overthrow the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives.

Maldivian nationals Abdullah Luthfee and Ahmed “Sagaru” Nasir being transported to Malé from INS Godavari. Photo credit: Maldives National Library

This is how the story unfolded:

04:00 hours: Malé, November 3, 1988

Then 28-years-old, Lt. Jaleel was woken up by the sound of gunfire in the National Security Service (NSS) barracks. As the officiating commander of the elite task force responsible for defending the NSS headquarters and other important government institutions, he and Lt. Adam Ibrahim Manik grabbed AK-47s from the taskforce weapons rack and two magazines, and started running towards the headquarters’ main entrance facing heavy firing.

“I had recurring dreams of an attack at the NSS headquarters six months and two months prior, and so I undertook rehearsals with the taskforce soldiers at the headquarters and the Girifushi Training Island with live firing exercises,” says Major General Jaleel. Just like in the premonitions, the NSS headquarters was under attack from unidentified assailants.

Outside the NSS headquarters in Malé, Maldives, Lt. Moosa Ali Jaleel, Major Mohamed Zahir and Major Ambary Abdul Sattar, Director General, Ministry of Defence, oversee operations against the PLOTE militants who launched an attack on the country. (Photo credit: Historical photos of Maldives/Facebook)

Shortly after the confrontation started, Lt. Jaleel was struck by shrapnel from a grenade that severely injured his knee and leg. Just after news broke, the presidential security team moved President Gayoom and his family to a safe house.

In the darkness of the night, the militants had strategically taken over an empty office building located opposite the NSS headquarters some 20-25 feet away. “They got themselves into a good defensive position and started shooting from doors and windows. They also used people as human shields,” recalls Major General Jaleel.

06:30 hours: New Delhi

India’s then High Commissioner to the Maldives, Arun Banerjee, was still asleep when the phone rang. It was an urgent call from Malé. There “had been incessant shooting and there were gunmen on the streets. They had attacked the National Security office and killed several people. The Maldivians were retaliating but they were outnumbered and outclassed. The gunmen, apparently Sri Lankan Tamils, were trying to capture the president and overthrow the government,” he later wrote in an occasional paper. Banerjee was informed that the Maldives was seeking India’s assistance.

There are diverging accounts of exactly when distress calls for help reached New Delhi. But within hours of being moved into a safe house, it is clear that President Gayoom, Minister of Foreign Affairs Fathhulla Jameel and Foreign Secretary Ahmed Zaki took advantage of the still operational telephone lines and began calling the US, the UK, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Singapore and India for military assistance.

“The US said straight away that they fully supported any rescue operation or relief to the Maldives unconditionally, but their bases were too far away. The UK too couldn’t reach fast enough. This is something that I am privy to,” recalls Brigadier Subhash C Joshi (then Colonel), who was instrumental in India’s 1988 rescue operations. “We were the closest, but the Maldives were not sure. Then, the US & UK suggested they reach out to us.”

Bullet holes visible on the walls of the National Security Service (NSS) headquarters in Malé, Maldives, following an attack by militants of the PLOTE, led by Maldivian businessman Abdullah Luthfee and Ahmed “Sagaru” Nasir. (Photo credit: Historical photos of Maldives/Facebook)

09:00 hours: New Delhi

Banerjee’s secretary informed him that the request for India’s military assistance had come directly from President Gayoom. Simultaneously, Kuldip Sahdev, the joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (JS BSM), began receiving urgent calls for help from Malé. That day, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was in Calcutta and was urgently called back to New Delhi.

Within three hours, a crisis committee meeting was scheduled, to be chaired by PM Gandhi at 9 am in South Block. In that meeting, several top officials including Foreign Secretary KPS Menon, Brigadier V P Malik and others from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs sat down to discuss how assistance could be offered to the Maldives.

While the crisis committee was deliberating, the Indian Army headquarters had been alerted that a possible mission was coming up in the next few hours which activated the 50th Parachute Brigade. Three hours away in Agra, Colonel Joshi, then 42, had been just about ready to go on leave to Sikkim, when he was summoned to the brigade headquarters. “Brigadier Bulsara gave me a general briefing and I asked ‘What time are we taking off’? He said: ‘What take off? You’ve got to run! You have to take off at 12:30 pm.’”

In Agra, commanded by Colonel Joshi, 6 Para was activated, and at the battalion headquarters, Major Rupinder Dhillion and Major Umed Singh were told to get ammunition ready for departure. “So we took infantry ammunition—bullets, anti-tank rockets, rockets, machine guns, and also recoilless anti-tank rifles. The reason was very simple: we were going to an area where there was sea and we were going to be engaging, perhaps on boats,” explains Brigadier Joshi. What followed was a rapid mobilisation of the Indian armed forces.

By 3:30 pm, the Air Force’s 44 Squadron and the vanguard of the Parachute Brigade were at the airport, waiting for instructions, by which time Brigadier V P Malik and Group Captain Ashok Goel from the Army and Air Force headquarters arrived in Agra along with High Commissioner Arun Banerjee.

Operation Cactus had commenced.

“The advantage of having the High Commissioner in the team was that he gave us a book in the briefing room that gave us a lot of information that was useful. It was a tourist guide book that you may find in Connaught Place. That was where we got our first look at Malé,” laughs Brigadier Joshi. It also gave the soldiers their first look at a photograph of the man they were going to rescue: President Gayoom.

But nine hours after activation and several more since the attack had started in Malé, 44 Squadron and the Para Brigade were working without any significant intelligence on the situation in the Maldives, including a lack of identification of the militants. To top it all, they were confronted with the possibility of a paradrop at night with little information about the geography of the Maldives required for such a mission. That was when Banerjee’s familiarity with the country offered some insight. Two IL-76s loaded with soldiers, the Indian High Commissioner and ammunition, headed for Hulhulé airport.

During Operation Cactus, India’s Para Brigade offloads ammunition at Hulhulé airport in the Maldives on November 3, 1988, hours after the start of the militant attack. (Photo credit: Maldives Airport & Fire Rescue/Twitter)

21:25 hours: Hulhulé airport, Maldives

At 9:25 pm, Hulhulé airport was cleared for landing and the IL-76s descended unguided towards a dark, unlit runway. “It was the great skills of Group Captain AG Bewoor, that he made it an almost blind landing on a short runway and landed troops safely,” recalls Brigadier Joshi.

In his notes published several years later, Group Captain Bewoor, Commanding Officer of 44 Squadron, wrote recalling how Indian armed forces had made “history in a strategic intervention”. He had flown 3,000 kms from Agra across India to the Maldives, flying the IL-76.

“Exactly 15 minutes after we landed, Rupinder Dhillon said, ‘Sir, the air traffic control is under my command.’ I said, ‘Call the NSS’. The NSS said, ‘We can’t hold on much longer, come immediately’,” says Brigadier Joshi.

Ibrahim Faisal, the officer-in-charge of Hulhulé airport, who was also manning the airport’s ATC, guided Indian soldiers to boats that would help transport the troops to Malé. But just as they started getting into the boats, an unidentified ship was spotted moving into Gaadhookolhu, a narrow channel between Hulhulé airport island and Malé that serves as the passage to enter the capital city. “I told my boys on the shore to fire at the ship and we fired rockets, and two out three hit it and water went in.”

Colonel Joshi and his men would later learn that this unidentified ship on which they had opened fire was the MV Progress Light, which the PLOTE militants had commandeered to escape. They would also learn that these hits had considerably slowed down the vessel.

On board MV Progress Light, the militants had taken 14 Maldivian nationals hostage, including the country’s minister of transport and shipping Ahmed Mujtaba and his wife, as well as Ismail Naseer, under-secretary of the ministry of trade. Shortly after the PLOTE militants began witnessing the arrival of Indian paratroopers in the Maldives, one group of these militants had seized the freighter, shoved the hostages in and attempted to flee.

NSS soldiers, now MNDF, along with Indian paratroopers photographed inside the NSS hangar at Hulhulé airport. (Photo credit: Historical photos of Maldives/Facebook)

“Many, many aircraft landed that night, during which the whole Parachute Brigade—three battalions—turned up.  They were literally landing one after the other. There would have been 2,500 troops who arrived in the Maldives in total. That night, the IL-76s flew a total of five sorties,” says Brigadier Joshi.

23:30 hours: Malé

At a distance from where the action was unfolding on the high seas, Colonel Joshi and Major Rupinder Dhillon had to ensure the safety of the president. In an account shared a few years ago, Major Dhillon said that the paratroopers standing at the landing area watched a stranger approach on a cycle and knocked him down. He turned out to be the designated guide for the Indian forces, who would lead them to Ilyas Ibrahim, the Deputy Defence Minister.

“Ibrahim was Gayoom’s brother-in-law. He was the one who gave us information on how to get there. That is how Rupinder reached the president’s hideout almost at the same time as the Maldivian presidential rescue party,” says Brigadier Joshi.

A stone’s throw from the Presidential Palace, in the house where the president and his wife and children were hiding, Indian troops discovered a visibly shaken family. While Colonel Joshi briefly met the president, his men began surrounding Malé. “I gave Rupinder the task of escorting him to the NSS headquarters which all said and done, was the safest place.”

According to Major Dhillon’s account of that night, on the way to the NSS headquarters escorting the president and his family, the unpaved, sandy streets of Malé were littered with the bodies of PLOTE militants, civilians and NSS servicemen who had fallen in an exchange of fire.

November 4, 1988: Maldivian waters, Indian Ocean

Operation Cactus was a tri-services mission, engaging all three branches of India’s armed forces. While the Indian Army and the Air Force had already reached the Maldives, INS Betwa departed from Cochin, and INS Godavari, returning from a friendly visit to Australia, was activated. “INS Betwa started on an intercept course after MV Progress Light. The idea was to stop it from entering Sri Lanka’s territorial waters,” says Brigadier Joshi, recalling conversations he later had with Navy officials.

The INS Godavari, a guided-missile frigate of the Indian Navy, that was instrumental during Operation Cactus in the Maldives in 1988. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

India-Sri Lanka relations had been particularly tense that year, following the challenges that the Indian Peace Keeping Force had experienced with the Sri Lankan Tamils.

“Then the drama on the high seas started,” says Brigadier Joshi. While INS Betwa, commanded by Captain Hari Gokhale, awaited orders from the Naval headquarters, INS Godavari, commanded by Captain Gopalachari, had reached Maldivian waters. Command of this section of the operations were then handed over to the fully-armed INS Godavari.

With India’s navy warships on its heels, militants killed two hostages and threw the bodies overboard. A Reuters report from 1988 quoted the captain of the 5,000-tonne MV Progress Light, Capt. Jaya Davan, saying that 25 more hostages on board would be killed if the Indian warships did not stop pursuit and allow Progress Light unhindered entry into Sri Lanka.

INS Godavari opening fire on Progress Light in the Indian Ocean, during Operation Cactus. (Photo credit: Historical photos of Maldives/Facebook)

Following an escalation in confrontation, INS Godavari fired more rounds at MV Progress Light, that hit the ship’s engine room after which the militants surrendered. Naval helicopters of INS Betwa transported NSS officials to INS Godavari to help communicate with rescued hostages because the officials understood Dhivehi.

The rescued hostages were brought on board the INS Godavari and the wounded transported to Trivandrum, India, on naval helicopters, after which they were shifted to the Command Hospital in Pune. INS Godavari would later bring the hostages and the apprehended militants to Malé.

Indian naval helicopters above the Maldives during Operation Cactus in November 1988. (Photo credit: Maldives National Library)

04:00 hours: NSS headquarters, Maldives

“I asked Brigadier Bulsara, ‘Why don’t you and the ambassador meet the president?’,” remembers Brigadier Joshi. At the NSS headquarters, the Indian defence attache in Colombo put through a call to New Delhi, so that President Gayoom could speak with PM Rajiv Gandhi. “So there is a famous photo in which I am not there, but Brigadier Bulsara, Dhillon, and the ambassador are with the president when he spoke with Gandhi.”

Indian soldiers patrolling the streets of Malé early in the morning of November 4, 1988, carrying search and patrol operations. Photo credit: Historical photos of Maldives/Facebook

09:00 hours: Malé, Maldives

Two hours after President Gayoom’s safety had been secured, and he had addressed the country’s citizens at 7:45 am, journalists began descending in the Maldives. It had been a little more than 24 hours after the militants had first launched their attacks, but the tasks assigned to the Indian armed forces were far from over.

In his occasional paper, Ambassador Banerjee recalled walking around Malé city with Brigadier Bulsara that morning. “There were a few dead bodies, empty bullet casings and garbage strewn all over the streets which were nearly deserted…” By then, civilians had gotten some information of what had unfolded in the city and began cautiously coming out onto the streets that were still being patrolled by Indian soldiers.

At 9:10 am, Subedar Pritam Singh of A Company urgently contacted Colonel Joshi over radio that armed men had been spotted escaping with goods. Subedar Singh fired at the boat navigating its way out of coral, resulting in shrapnel injuries for at least one militant and sinking the vessel. The 60 Para Field Ambulance took over to address the militant’s injuries and handed over the boat’s occupants to the NSS.

By 11 am, Brigadier Bulsara asked Colonel Joshi to inform the Maldives President’s Office and the NSS that Malé was safe. “Then I was suddenly asked to provide a security detachment to the High Commissioner because intelligence reports had suggested that there may be a threat to him. So we guarded him for some time and later withdrew it,” says Brigadier Joshi.

“Brigadier Bulsara had ordered a protective detachment to remain with me for as long as I wanted; it was to guard me 24 hours and would be deployed at the High Commission premises or at the residence,” Ambassador Banerjee wrote in his occasional paper.

 

Indian soldiers photographed outside the NSS headquarters in Malé in November 1988 following the end of the conflict. They appear to be assisting with carrying in supplies into the building. (Photo credit: Historical photos of Maldives/Facebook)

New Delhi, India, November 4, 1988

PM Rajiv Gandhi addressed Parliament apprising the House about the mission undertaken in the Maldives: “President Gayoom managed to elude the attackers and took refuge in an area outside the Presidential Palace. Shortly thereafter we received a formal appeal for urgent military assistance to put down this plot. This request was repeated by Maldivian emissaries in Colombo and New York… Maldives is also one of our closest and friendliest neighbours.”

“It appealed to us in desperation in its grave hour of need… I am proud to report that our troops have carried out their assigned task in an exemplary fashion in the highest traditions of the Indian Armed Forces… President Gayoom telephoned me early this morning… We are happy to have been of assistance to the friendly of the Maldives, with whom we have always enjoyed close and warm ties…,” Prime Minister Gandhi had said in his address.

President Gayoom heavily guarded by Indian and NSS soldiers. Standing behind the president is Major Adam Zahir, in charge of the Maldives police. This photo was taken when the president had been rescued and was meeting the press on November 4, 1988. (Photo credit: Maldives National Library)

The aftermath

The Parachute Brigade stayed on in Maldives for a fortnight. By November 5, INS Betwa reached Malé, followed by INS Godavari two days later, with the apprehended militants and hostages on board. “I was told by Brigadier Bulsara that I was to stay on in the Maldives for a year,” says Brigadier Joshi.

(From left) Coln. Subhash C Joshi, High Commissioner of India to the Maldives Arun Banerjee and Brigadier Faroukh Bulsara with an unidentified individual (in a white shirt), standing outside the NSS headquarters in Malé, Maldives, after the arrest of the militants in November 1988. (Photo credit: Archives of the 6 PARA, Indian Army)

What had happened in the Maldives had shaken the country. In its modern history, an attack like this on the small island nation had never occurred before. “This was the only incident in the last 200 years where there was a direct confrontation with security forces in any foreign or local-aided attempt to overthrow the government, using weapons and ammunition,” explains Major General Jaleel.

Just days after the attack, a joint investigation mechanism was established by the governments of the Maldives and India in 1988. “It started then and there.”

“Unfortunately, Sri Lankans were involved and we strongly consider Sri Lanka to be our second home. The government was very sensitive in dealing with these people. They were not physically or verbally abused in custody. I am very specific about this. Most of them were handed back to Sri Lanka after the investigations,” recalls Major General Jaleel.

The Maldives opened six interrogation sites across the islands, manned by police officials, government personnel and Indian soldiers. In most narratives of the attempted coup of November 3, the role of the Indian armed forces ends with the securing of Malé, but that is just three-quarters of the story.

 

Some Indian soldiers stayed back in the Maldives at the request of the government of the Maldives to assist with investigations into the attempted coup of November 3, 1988. This archival photograph shows a soldier standing on duty on a street corner in Malé. (Photo credit: Historical photos of Maldives/Facebook)

The presence of the Indian soldiers during interrogation was necessary not only for additional security but also for logistical purposes. “Indians were required because the militants all spoke Tamil and we didn’t. So we asked questions in Dhivehi, that were translated to English, and then to Tamil. The group included some Maldivian translators as well,” recalls Major General Jaleel.

To lessen the impact on Maldivian-Sri Lankan diplomatic relations, and India’s role in the operation, the investigation had to be carried out with care. “The investigation was a transparent process,” he says.

“The investigation was carried out so quickly not just because of the sensitivity of the situation, but because we were talking about 68 Sri Lankans who were apprehended and seven Maldivians, out of which death penalty was imposed on four Maldivians and 12 foreigners, including Luthfee. The high court sentenced them to death in August,” says Major General Jaleel. President Gayoom later commuted the death sentences passed against the militants to life imprisonment.

President Gayoom with PM Rajiv Gandhi, photographed a few months after Operation Cactus. (Photo credit: Maldives National Library)

Some three decades later, Operation Cactus has not been forgotten by the people of the Maldives. India’s assistance in 1988 always finds mention in discussions on bilateral relations between the two countries, says Dr Gulbin Sultana, whose area of research includes the Maldives. “Across party lines in the Maldives, they don’t criticise this operation. They will mention other issues that they have with India, but not this.”

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