A coup attempt in the Maldives in November 1988––by Abdullah Luthufee, a Maldivian businessman supported by the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam––sent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom into hiding. Malé flashed SOS messages to the US, the UK, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan seeking military assistance. While others took time to decide, India responded with concrete action.
It was a race against time––the Indian troops had to reach President Gayoom before the rebels could find him on Malé Island. If the rebels could find President Gayoom before the Indian troops, and if they could gain control of Malé, then the rescue operation would be construed as an act of aggression against a sovereign state. India could ill afford a failure in the Maldives after its setbacks in Sri Lanka in the year gone by.
The decision to launch an airborne operation 2600 kms away in the Maldives was a difficult politico-military choice. India’s pre-occupation in Sri Lanka did weigh heavily on the Indian Prime Minister’s mind. The advice and the confidence of the military leadership enabled him to give a ‘go ahead’.
In response to Delhi’s clarion call, the paratroopers got into action. The IAF airlifted them to rescue the President and secure the islands. The Indian Navy chased the rebels and forced them into surrender.
It is a fact that there were no maps; there was very little intelligence; the notice was short, …the men were scattered––the list of handicaps on the eve of the launch of Operation Cactus is long. Owing to the extreme uncertainties, most pundits, and strategic thinkers (of that time) would have forecast failure, nay a catastrophe. Three decades later, the opinions about Operation Cactus still fringe on disdain and indifference. The reason perhaps is the absence of well-researched material on the subject. Articles and books analysing the Operation are few and far between. The available literature throws light on small segments of the Operation. Many views are devoid of facts and informed analysis. It is no wonder then, that some people question the sanity of the very decision to embark on this mission. They feel that India could well have avoided going into the Maldives.
The fact is that the decision to go to the Maldives was deliberate and sufficiently contemplated––contingencies had been catered for, including abandoning the Operation and returning to Trivandrum, if the situation so demanded. The decision was followed up by prompt military action. The resources, and the capabilities were limited, but the ability to exploit those resources was tremendous––what was achieved was perhaps the best that could have been done under those circumstances.
The Indians did not sleepwalk into the Maldives.
Operation Cactus underscores three fundamental issues: One, success of military operations depends on innumerable factors. Two, all such factors cannot possibly align favourably, always. Three, success favours those who dare and act regardless. Operation Cactus is the saga of men determined to achieve ends despite all odds. It proved the prowess of Indian military and diplomacy alike and showcased India as an emerging Regional Power.