Of “Butcher’s Bill” and Gallantry

The mission to rescue the Maldivian President (Operation Cactus, November 1988) was a race against time. The Indian troops had to cover 2600 kms (Agra to Hulule) and find him in the capital, Malé before the rebels could spot him on that small island measuring barely two square kilometres. If the rebels, led by Abdullah Luthufee were to find him before the Indian troops, and if they could gain control of Malé, then the rescue operation by the Indians would be construed as an act of aggression against a sovereign state. Besides, when the IAF aircraft landed at Hulule airport, a single gun-toting rebel lying in wait by the runway could have caused catastrophic damage to the rescue force.

India could have ill afforded a debacle in the Maldives following its setbacks in Sri Lanka in the preceding year. The stakes were very high. Most pundits, and strategic thinkers would have forecast failure on the eve of the Operation, yet the spectacular success of the Operation was met with relative disdain.

There was an opinion galore: Some compared Operation Cactus with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade albeit with a twist in the tail, others found parallels with the kinds of Operation Eiche (the rescue of Benito Mussolini by the German paratroopers in 1943) and Operation Jonathan (popularly remembered as the Entebbe Raid––the rescue of over a hundred hostages by the Israelis in 1976).

Brigadier FFC Bulsara, the dynamic commander, who led the paratroopers in that Operation knew what his men had gone through and had recommended names of a few individuals for recognition of their gallantry. Grudgingly, very few of them were doled out decorations––hardly any for gallantry. Bulsara was observant enough to recognise the contribution of the then Indian High Commissioner, Mr AK Banerjee also. The diplomat had mustered the courage to join the task force (with apprehensions, of course) on the mission impossible. Needless to say, his presence did make a difference. But, Bulsara’s recommendation went unheeded. At a later date, he lamented the apathy of those at the helm for ignoring the deserving.

A Commander’s lament

As it seems, body bags elicit greater awe and emotion than victorious troops. In fact, when they head for the war-zone, people often bid the soldiers to ‘lay down their lives’ for the sake of the country. Perhaps, a tweak in the attitude towards the soldiers (and war-fighting) will make a huge difference to their morale (and to the outcome of their endeavour). Annihilate the enemy and return victorious!” will surely be a better wish for a soldier than die for the country.” Likewise, a greeting: You fought well! We are proud of you! might be a pleasant recognition of his effort.

Operation Cactus: The Indians did not sleepwalk into the Maldives!

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.

TIME Magazine CoverOperation 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.

Could the US have Faired Better in World War II?

I have a question, and the one suggested by the title of this post, is not it. Dear readers, please bear the necessary preamble. With prudence bestowed by hindsight, let alone what the US did in World War II, everything done in the past, could have been done better, much better, indeed. The answer to that rhetorical question about the US and WW II therefore, is obviously: “Yes.”

How?

There are many answers to that one-word question. For now, let’s focus on just one, to get a point––by setting aside its prejudice against its blacks. In the America of the 1940s––even after 75 years of enactment of the Civil Rights Act, which gave the blacks the right to American citizenship––the blacks were still less-among-equals. Even the patriotic fervour of the day could not bring the two Americas together.

Among others, Jim Crow Laws and racial discrimination were the hurdles that delayed the contribution of blacks to a national cause that needed the support of every able-bodied individual, man or woman, direly. The Red Cross segregated the blood supplies to allay fears that infusion of negro blood would result in development of undesirable characteristics among those infused with it. As a result of the race riots in Texas and Michigan, black workers left the cities temporarily, causing a loss of work hours adversely affecting defence production. As per War Production Board estimates, two million hours of work were lost in the first two days of rioting alone. In the summer of 1943, when the War in Europe and the Asia-Pacific was peaking, there were 242 major race fights in forty-seven cities across the US. There was definite setback to the war effort.

That much for my preamble.

Fast forward to TODAY and NOW. Wars are on in different parts of the world; countries are involved directly or are fighting proxies. Many countries are under sanctions either by the US or coalitions of like-minded countries. The affected countries are retaliating. India, and many other countries are caught in the crossfire. Each warring side is conveying in its own way: “Either you are with us or against us.” Even if India is not on one side, for it to manage affairs in a fragmented world is becoming increasingly difficult.

Escalation of crude oil price in the international market is one of the obvious fallouts affecting India. In the prevailing world order, to be able to buy Rafale from France, S-400 from Russia, Chinook from the US, oil from Iran and surveillance equipment from Israel requires statesmanship and diplomacy of a superior order. In addition, attending to the war being waged by the insurgents and terrorists inside the country and on the borders, requires sustained effort, undisturbed by domestic worries.

India is faced with many wars. And then, we have Sabrimala Crisis, the Bihari Exodus (from Gujrat) and the many agitations, which bring the country to standstills on regular basis.

And now about the question that I sought to ask right in the beginning: Can we Indians do better in these on-going wars, and possibly, win them too?

India's Many Wars

With that one hindsight from the American experience in WW II, my military sense suggests: “Of course, we can definitely fair better.”

How?

Again, there are many answers. But a simple one is: By involving everyone regardless of which part of the country one comes from; each one doing his bit (and a little more) and letting others do theirs (and a little more). Since it is “WAR” we are talking about, a little bit of self-imposed military discipline is the need of the day.

Think it over:    Most protest marches are a loss of invaluable man-hours. All candlelight vigils are a senseless waste of petroleum resources leading to depletion of ozone layer.

Australia Day & Operation Cactus

Malé. November 3, 1988. A band of Sri Lanka based Tamil terrorists led by a Maldivian businessman, Abdullah Luthufe, attempted to overthrow President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives. The President went into hiding and flashed SOS messages to rescue him and restore peace in the island nation.

Operation Cactus was India’s gritty response to the Maldivian President’s call for militaryCactusTOI Cutting assistance. It is rated among the most daring military operations of the world––among the likes of Operation Eiche (Rescue of Mussolini by German Paratroopers, 1943) and Operation Jonathan (the rescue of 104 hostages by the Israeli Commandos from Entebbe Airport, 1976). The diplomatic corps also played a significant role in the success of the Operation. The President was rescued and Malé was secured. The Indian Navy chased the fleeing rebels and freed the hostages taken by them for bargaining later.

It is interesting how an event that took place miles away in Australia, 200 years ago, influenced one of the outcomes of Operation Cactus––the rescue of hostages (including a Maldivian Minister and his Swiss wife). Read on….

On January 26, 1788, the first fleet of British ships, carrying convicts from Britain, reached Australia. They were the first settlers of the continent. Their landing at Sydney Harbour was a historical event. The anniversary of that day is celebrated each year with fervour as Australia Day. The Bicentenary of the official National Day of Australia was celebrated with even greater pomp and show through 1988. Indian Navy (IN) was among the navies of the world invited to participate in over a month long celebrations in October 1988. Indian Naval Ship (INS) Godavari was returning to India––the crew were undergoing customs clearance in Port Blair––when the first shots were fired in Malé.

The ship was directed to intercept the rogue ship (the hijacked merchant vessel, Progress Light with the rebels and the hostages on board) on high seas before she could enter the Sri Lankan waters.

Rest is history.

 

Note: The author was on board the first IL-76 aircraft of the IAF that landed at Hulule on the fateful night of November 3/4, 1988.

Out of the Blue into the Tree!!

“Out of the blue, into the tree,” is the Hindi equivalent of: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” That is exactly what happened to me (the Hindi one) when I parachuted through the clear blue Goa sky on a fine January day in 1986.

It was a skydiving demonstration as a part of the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Liberation of Goa. I was in charge and leading a team of skydivers. The forecast winds were way beyond the performance characteristics of the parachute we were using, and the capabilities of the jumpers, to counter. Prudence demanded that I called off the demonstration jump. But then, the thought that organisers and the spectators would be disappointed impelled me to give it a try.

To our good luck, the winds died down absolutely by the time our helicopter came overhead to commence the drop. Flight Lieutenant Thapar from the ground control transmitted the position of the streamer (a piece of cloth that has the descent characteristics of a parachute) that I had dropped to judge the actual winds. The position of the streamer also confirmed gentle winds. It was safe to jump.

It was a clear blue sky and fine weather for a parachute jump but my mind was still clouded by the forecast of very strong winds. So, I decided to err on the positive side. I signalled thumbs up to the jumpers (to jump out) much upwind of the sports ground––where we were to land in front of the spectators––hoping that the winds would help them drift and make it to the target on the ground.

It was a mistake. Jumpers could barely make it to the sports ground––a few landed in the front of the spectators others landed scattered outside the ground. I was the farthest from the landing area. Tall trees welcomed me as I approached mother earth. Despite my best efforts to avoid them, I landed in a big one. My fall through the tree broke several branches before the suspension lines of my parachute got stuck and I was jolted to a stop. It was an uneasy feeling dangling ten feet above the ground.

In the time I took to take stock of the situation, several thoughts flashed past my mind.Burma Radio Operator The worst recall was that of the vivid account of a radio operator who had bailed out of a disabled aircraft over the thick forests of Burma during the Second World War. In a similar situation i.e., hanging from a tree, he was attacked by giant red ants. He tried to cut free of his parachute harness by shooting at its webbing with his service weapon. He shot himself with the last bullet when he failed to come out of the situation and the nuisance of the ants became unbearable. His skeleton was found hanging upside down in the parachute harness when the search and rescue team found him several moths later.

It was a silly recall. I was in a much better situation, less than half a kilometre from the ground. People would soon come looking for me. In any case, I did not wait for them. I followed the standard drill: I whipped open my reserve parachute and lowered it to the ground; carefully unfastened my parachute harness and slithered down to safety. Recovering the parachute was an arduous task.

That parachute jump in Goa is one of my most memorable ones for all the wrong reasons.

Sifting the History of Pakistan Army’s Surrender (Dacca, 1971)

Strategists and thinkers assign different reasons to the surrender of the Pakistani Army in the eastern sector in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The views differ and depend on where one stands while looking at the question.

There can’t possibly be one reason for the surrender of 93,000 soldiers. Each service and each arm did its bit to bring the enemy to its knees.

It is rather difficult to say which proverbial straw broke the camels back?

But then these, among others, could have been some of the last straws that broke the camel’s back–the leaflets thrown over erstwhile Pakistan.  In essence, the message was:

“Officers and men of the Pakistan Army surrender! You have been surrounded. You have no choice. Your fate is sealed. Don’t you want to return to your family and children? There should be no shame in surrendering to the Indian Army. Indian Army will take care of you. Surrender before it is too late!”

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Copy courtesy AVM DK Dhingra (Late) who was a member of the team that planned and executed the Airborne Operation (Tangail, 1971).