Operation Cactus: The Maldives, November 3, 1988.
The Indian Armed Forces had embarked on a seemingly impossible mission; a mission to rescue President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had been surrounded by armed men (cadres of People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam) led by a Maldivian businessman, Abdullah Luthufee. I was a part of the team that landed at Hulule airport to respond to the SOS call of the Maldivian President.
The notice was short; and there was practically no intelligence. The odds were loaded heavily against us. Most strategists would have forecast a failure, nay a debacle, when we took off from Agra. And, although people have compared Operation Cactus with the Charge of the Light Brigade, albeit with a pleasant end, the Indian Armed Forces did not sleepwalk into the Maldives that November night. It was a fairly well planned and methodically executed Operation within the time and resources available on that day. The risks were calculated and catered for. The spirits were high. A determined Brigadier FFC Bulsara wrote the following message for me hours before we landed at Hulule: “We’ll secure the airstrip and the President by 1000h tomorrow.”
In a very well coordinated operation involving the three Services and the diplomatic corps, the IAF airlanded the Paratroopers at Hulule who rescued the President. The Indian Navy chased the fleeing rebels and rescued the hostages on board the rogue ship. Among the hostages were a Maldivian minister and his Swiss wife. There was no casualty on our side.
A Maldivian National Security Service (NSS) officer, Major Mohammed Zahir wrote a note on my scribble pad. The note speaks about the Maldivian sentiment at that time: “Your Governments kind assistance is very much appreciated by our Force. National Security Service.” He also presented me a cap badge and a formation sign of the NSS as souvenir.
That was 30 years ago. Time and tide has eroded the gratefulness.
China has taken over and occupied islands on lease in return for the infrastructure it has created for the Maldivians. Like Sri Lanka, the country is heavily in debt. The population seems ignorant; the leadership has fallen into a trap from which it would be difficult to escape. Needless to say, Chinese gains have been at India’s cost. The pro-China sentiment is expressed in a hoarding which was put on the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge when it was under construction: “Waves are gifts from God. Bridge is a gigt from CHINA!”
If the recent elections are to go by, democracy is still alive and kicking in the archipelago. Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohammed Salih has defeated the present (pro-China) incumbent, Abdullah Yameen. The former President, Mohammed Nasheed has recommended a review of the agreements with China. For India, this might turn out to be an omen of recovery of ties with the Maldives. It is an opportunity to put back the relations with the Maldives on firm footing.
It will be naïve, to say that replacement a pro-China president will lead to slipping of Beijing’s grip on the Maldives (as a newspaper headline suggests). Change of guard does not necessarily mean change of ideology or policies. At best India can start afresh, regaining the confidence of the Maldivians. India has many advantages (over the Chinese), including that of proximity to the Maldives. There is a lot that India can do to restore the strategic balance in the region.
Today is the day, now is the time!
Author’s Note: “Operation Cactus: Anatomy of One of India’s Most Daring Military Operations” (Group Captain Ashok K Chordia, Knowledge World, New Delhi, 2018) is a seminal study of the operation launched by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to rescue President MA Gayoom of the Maldives (November 1988). The book is based on recollections of the protagonists and official unit records and histories.