In November, 1988 the government of the Maldives was facing an unprecedented crisis when a group of 80 Tamil mercenaries belonging to People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam (PLOTE) launched a raid to help disgruntled expatriate Maldivians led by businessman Abdullah Luthifi. The government led by President Gayoon (who was in his third consecutive term) hid in a safe house and managed to send a request for help to the Indian government through the Indian High Commission in Male. The Indian government decided to intervene quickly and decisively. The crack team of the Para Brigade led by Brigadier Farooq Bulsara was asked to carry out the operation and rescue the Maldivian President. This operation was named Operation Cactus.
In his book Mission Overseas, journalist Sushant Singh has given details of the operation. He has revealed the difficulties that were encountered, mostly due to lack of information. The book reveals the political thought that went behind the launch of this operation, its execution and how the world saw the operation.
Here are some excerpts from the chapter on Operation Cactus from the book, Mission Overseas:
Maintaining India’s zone of influence
Rajiv Gandhi had made it clear to his team of officials that the neighbourhood was India’s zone of influence. While India as the largest country in the region had to bear the fallout of conflicts and unrest within its smaller neighbouring countries, it had to also not hesitate to play its rightful role in the region. Against that backdrop, Indian officials were able to swiftly put together the future course of action.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi eventually took a firm decision at 3.30 that afternoon for it. But G. Parthasarthy remembers bypassing the defence secretary, T. N. Seshan – who later became famous as this hardnosed chief election commissioner – and requisitioning an aircraft for the journalists directly from the Indian Air Force (IAF). As Partha got busy managing the complex media arrangements, the prime minister had a special instruction for him. ‘Time is doing a major piece on India’s rise as a regional power. Please make sure that Ross Amroe, the Time journalist who met me for the story, is on board,’ Rajiv told him.
After the operation
At about 3.15 a.m., Bulsara and Banerjee entered the NSS headquarters immediately after M. K. Singh had escorted the President (Gayoom) into the building. A score of dead bodies, mostly of rebels and mercenaries, lay around the building. The pockmarked walls bore ample proof of the mercenaries’ dogged efforts to break in and of the NSS men’s equally determined efforts not to let them in.
Banerjee remembers that the President ‘looked shaken but was in full command, and was happy to receive us.
He had with him his foreign minister and one or two others. He thanked us for the timely help and said he wanted to speak to the PM, Rajiv Gandhi.’ The satellite telephone link between Delhi and Malé was still functional and at 4 a.m. President Gayoom spoke to Rajiv Gandhi from the NSS headquarters. He thanked Rajiv for the timely assistance, telling him that the Indian soldiers were in full control of Malé. Ronen Sen recalls that Rajiv was at that time working on his desktop computer – ‘typing with one finger as he always did’ – and it was only after this call with President Gayoom that he went to sleep.
As a concession to Ronen’s long day, the prime minister told him he could come late to office. But Ronen’s relief was short-lived. ‘“Come by 9.30 or so,” Rajiv said, and added, “And do get the draft of the document I had asked you to prepare,”’ Ronen recalls wryly. As Ronen left Rajiv’s study, his last instruction was, ‘Do congratulate the defence minister [K. C. Pant] on my behalf for a successful operation,’ but then added with a smile, ‘Leave it; he might be asleep.’
“If only the Indian troops had not come for a few more hours”
Operation Cactus, as it was officially christened, was hailed internationally. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher commented, ‘Thank God for India. President Gayoom’s government has been saved. We could not have despatched a force from here in good time to help him.’ US President Ronald Reagan congratulated India for thwarting the attempted coup in Maldives and stated that this action ‘will be remembered as a valuable contribution to regional stability’. Time did a cover story – thanks to Rajiv Gandhi’s tip-off about Ross Amroe – “Super Power Rising”. Even top military officials in Pakistan expressed their surprise and awe at the swiftness of India’s response.
But the men who participated in the operation did not get any medal for it, as they usually do for all military operations, be it Kargil or Siachen or Sri Lanka. As the Indian army was suffering heavy casualties in Sri Lanka at the same time, there would be hardly any gallantry awards for a flawless operation in the Maldives where Indian armed forces did not lose a single man. The defence ministry has still not brought out its official history of the operation, which was so well-executed and lauded globally.
Looking back, the officials who played such an extraordinary role in the affair wonder why a more powerful and stronger India, twenty-eight years later, wouldn’t even dream of embarking on such a courageous adventure any more, why the kind of swift and perfect coordination between all arms of the government that took place on that day no longer seems to happen today.
The final accolade for Operation Cactus came from the mercenary leader, Luthufi. After surrendering to the navy commandos, Luthufi told India Today aboard INS Godavari, ‘Uma Maheswaran approached me in my poultry farm near Colombo and asked me to take over the country.’
But did he really expect such a crazy, reckless venture to succeed, he was asked. ‘Why not?’ he shot back with chutzpah. ‘Anyone can be the President of such a country. If only luck had been with us. If only the Indian troops had not come for a few more hours…’