Operation Cactus: Why India is a Natural Leader
A nation's military might and her diplomatic faculties work interchangeably or in sync for peace and security reasons of the nation. Positively, the statement holds true for India as well. On the international front, India’s virtue of altruism and benevolence in terms of foreign policies or military aids has historically helped her win long-lasting friends, especially, closer home (read – Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives among others). The riveting drama that unfolded in Maldives in November 1988 stands as an evocative testimony to the fact that the Indian Armed Forces are capable enough to not only defend their own borders but also be of value to those under threat overseas.
India to the Rescue
On 3rd November 1988, India woke up to an SOS message from Maldives, a far off archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Hours before the call, the 2000-island(s) nation was attacked by 80 or more so, substantially armed PLOTE ( People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, based out of Sri Lanka) militants under the leadership of Maldivian businessman turned political aspirant, Abdullah Luthufi. Luthufi, in his abhorrence for the then sitting government of Maldives, staged a coup attempt against the head of state, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. [On a side note, Maldives then was a fairly crime-free state with the country’s latest murder reported back in 1976, but surprisingly, coup ďétat attempts against their governments wasn’t something unheard of among Maldivians. 1988 was the third coup attempt against Gayoom’s government.]
Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi with Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mrs. Gayoom at the official residence of the Maldives President at Male of February 7, 1986. Source: The Wire
The lungi-clad rebels group from Sri Lanka quite easily overpowered the capital city of Malé with guns, grenades and mortar. The militants hit the presidential residence and the National Security Service headquarters leaving several dead on both sides. Visible fear lingered on in the Maldives as they held power over the nation’s radio, tv and communication stations and cut electricity and water supply within hours of entering the city via the high seas. The nation's non-militarily trained security forces [NSS] could hardly offer security against the militants' heavy ammunition. The tiny capital city of less than seven square km was fully in control of the mercenaries. Their final aim now was the capture of President Gayoom. (While the militants combed the entire city to find Gayoom, in hindsight, the efforts seemed futile as none of the rebels knew what President Abdul Gayoom looked like.)
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was already in a safe hideout when the militants came for him. While in the hideout, he immediately relayed SOS messages to near and far countries including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Pakistan, United States, United Kingdom and more. Sri Lanka prepared its 150-personnel Special Task Force commandos at standby at Ratmalana Air base
in Colombo. Pakistan cited inability to take swift actions due to the great geographical distance between them. Washington and London stepped back from carrying out direct intervention but offered assistance via India’s operation. India, on the other hand, rose to the occasion and was more than willing to go the extra mile (or 2,235 miles for that matter), with some interest to establish regional influence within close neighbourhoods. The SOS call was answered with unprecedented promptness and tangible actions by the Rajiv Gandhi government.
The initial plan to mobilize Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that was stationed in Sri Lanka at the time due to its close proximity to Maldives, was squashed for multiple reasons. But under the leadership of Brigadier F.F.C. Bulsara, an action plan, called Operation Cactus, was drawn up with 1,600 troops to be sent, using tourist maps of Maldives along with other cumulated sketchy information. Lack of primary information about the Maldives in terms of topography, maps, scales or even the prevailing situation in Malé, made Operation Cactus a rather high stake and bold endeavour on the Indian side. The operation was to be shouldered by the joint forces of 44 Squadron Indian Air Force, 50 (I) Parachute Brigade of Army and the Indian Navy. Within 16 hours of the SOS message, India was airborne with its first batch of 316 Para Brigade troops on Ilyushin Il-76 heading toward Hulhule, the adjacent island city to Malé, which was still under the ambits of those loyal to the President, of the small archipelago. This four and a half hours journey in the air enabled the troops to be briefed in detail about the impending operation.
Right after the IL-76 landed securely on Hulhule island, the Indian troops immediately crossed over to Malé and restored the government and the local administration, and by 02:10 am on 4th November the beleaguered President Gayoom was rescued and safely moved back to the official residence. The remaining troops arrived on AN-32s and on Naval ships. With that, Operation Cactus's set agenda – a) to safely rescue President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom; b) and to reinstate the government’s control over the capital city of Malé, was achieved. But to everyone’s surprise, there was still more to come.
Concise map of Operation Cactus Source: Salute Magazine
Battle Op on the High Seas
While the drama on Maldivian lands was only simmering down, the ringleader, Luthufi extended the battlefield to the high seas. As soon as they got the knowledge of India's military presence in Maldives, and in order to escape their wrath, the militants led by Luthufi boarded a merchant vessel MV Progress Light with about 27 hostages and took off for, what was later established, to be the Sri Lankan waters. The hostage situation on board MV Progress Light, made it a grossly sensitive chase and rescue operation for the Indian Navy. Unable to openly attack the vessel in fear of hitting a hostage, Indian Armed Forces on board INS Betwa decided to rather tail the fleeing ship. INS Godavari and INS Tir also joined the fray. Even the diplomatic initiatives by the PLOTE's leader sitting in Sri Lanka, Uma Maheswaran reached an impasse. The now enraged and desperate rebels on Progress Light shot a hostage and threw the body in the waters to make a point and force the Indian Navy to back off. This tactic to budge the Indian Navy off their shoulders obviously failed and the navy fired rounds till the vessel could no longer sustain afloat. The Indian naval force rescued the hostages using lifeboats while the rebels winding Luthufi pleaded their surrender, before MV Progress Light sank entirely on 7th November.
Abdullah Luthufi on board INS Godavari after his surrender on 6th November 1988
On board INS Godavari, the rescued hostages were tended to by the medical Corp of the Indian Task Force while the rebels were apprehended to be sent back to Maldives for their trial.
With a huge sigh of relief, the head of states of both countries exchanged calls, appreciation and gratitude was returned by one, future assurance of the same and a promise of friendship by another.
Indian Armed Forces captured the rebels of coup ďétat in Maldives 1988 Source: Twitter
India’s efforts for security and stability in the Indian Ocean attracted substantial international praise and media attention alike.
Operation Cactus’s spectacular victory and surgical accuracy allowed India to emerge as a natural leader and a bona fide model of ‘net stability provider’ in the immediate region. It also laid an extensive foundation for India and Maldives' security and defence understanding to grow manifolds in the years to come. Before the mid-1980s India's defence expenditure was primarily spent for internal and border security only. But, Operation Cactus's unpredictable and exceptional success worked as a catalyst to spend and invest in defence and strategic interests beyond our borders, too.