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.”
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?
With that one hindsight from the American experience in WW II, my military sense suggests: “Of course, we can definitely fair better.”
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.
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 military 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,” 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. 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.
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!”
Copy courtesy AVM DK Dhingra (Late) who was a member of the team that planned and executed the Airborne Operation (Tangail, 1971).
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.
The turbulence in the wake of the omni-role fighter aircraft Rafale, which India has decided to buy, has become insignificant in comparison to the turbulence generated by the politics surrounding it. The purchase (mind you, not so much, the flying machine itself) has been making headlines every other day. The politics of it has given the opposition parties the nuclear tipped cruise missile to try and tether the government. The Brahmastra has been launched. Now, frantic effort is ON to decide as to who or what should be the target. The effort is to ensure that the missile hits a target (anything that could be labelled as a target) before it runs out of propellant. And it must happen before the Lok Sabha elections scheduled next year.
The media is genuinely trying to keep the all-so-innocent junta informed. Effort to improve the TRP is a parallel enterprise. So, any news that informs (read sensationalises) is good. New issues need to replace the old ones.
In the clamour of people and parties accusing each other of motives and intentions, some good meaning media-persons consider it worthwhile to report on the performance characteristics of the aircraft, leaving aside the politics of it for a while. Who better to hear from than the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa? So they try to get the right answer from him.
Few would envy him for being in a position in which people with shallow theoretical knowledge seek comments on issues that are technical, sensitive and of strategic importance. And among the crowd are the smart people who attach meaning to each word the Chief says; and they comment on his body language and timing of the comment too. Now, because “the country wants to know,” (and because it would be inappropriate to keep the people guessing), the Chief confirms that it is a good aircraft that the country is buying to address the dire current defence need. He says so with the conviction of an air warrior who has flown thousands of hours in fighter aircraft. He is the one who flew solo in a MiG-21 aircraft soon after taking over as the Chief displaying rare and exemplary military leadership!
When he speaks, he is sure of what he is talking about.
Yet on another occasion, they ask him about the aircraft. His answer is the same. A little later, the question is repeated in different ways. The Chief who means business of national defence only, repeats the answer.
Then comes the time to generate new and renewed interest in the Rafale Deal.
At a National Seminar on the IAF’s Force Structure (2035), a media-person recalls the Chief’s statements on the performance of Rafale aircraft and the timing thereof, and suggests if the comments are politically motivated. It was not the Chief who was asked the question but an officer (a retired one in that). The question was not responded to because it was not relevant to the subject and perhaps because it was the prerogative of the Chief to respond.
Any effort to draw the IAF into the political slugfest on Rafale will benefit people: some will be able to settle scores with the government; others might find a way to pass the blame, if any. But if the deal were to be shelved or the procurement were to be deferred, the worst sufferer will be India whose defence preparedness will get compromised.
My Anna Bit: Whichever party comes to power, it will need the Air Force to defend the country’s skies and the frontiers. The Indian Air Force will continue to feel the pressure until the shortfall is made good. We’ll do well to leave the Chief and the Air Force to do their bit.