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.

Clinking Goblets, Morsels of Love and Life

Like all who get married, Chhaya and I looked forward to a happy life ever after. Respect for each other, love, care… were fine––they were packaged neatly in the blessings, wishes and advice showered upon us. Discreetly though, some scared us with sacrifices (read compromises) people have to make for marriages to work. And of course, the added responsibilities and the little quarrels so typical to the people who dare tie the knot.

It was a tad scary.

We struck an understanding to understand each other and consign our differences, ifGoblets ever they cropped up, to the nearest waste bin at the first opportunity. We devised a pleasant way of weeding out undesirable moments before they could take roots. On rarest-of-the-rare days when we had higher-than-usual-decibel conversation, we clinked our crystal goblets and flushed down evil thoughts with a sip of fresh water. That ensured a clean slate and no baggage to carry on life’s journey.

Perpetually building on mutual respect, love and care is an even better way to avoid sorry situations. We don’t know how and when it commenced––at every meal together, we started offering the first bite to each other. We have now been doing it for over three decades. The unspoken words: “I love you” are embedded in the gesture.

It happened so gradually that we didn’t realise when the habit of offering the first morsel to each other elbowed away the need of clinking goblets for good.

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).

Damsel in Real Distress

I spotted her from a good distance. She was standing by her parked car; distress lights blinking. Her mobile pressed to her ear, she was gesturing half-heartedly at the drivers of passing vehicles. There were two young men standing by their bike parked a little IMG_0981away on the other side of the road. Several cars passed her before I reached her. There was light traffic on the Barapullah Elevated Road that day.

“Is she really in need of help?” Some old memories flashed past my mind. “What if she is a journalist and the guys on the other side of the road are her colleagues?” With those questions still lingering in my mind, I stopped ahead of her car and walked up to her.

“Are you in need of help?”

“Yes Uncle, my car has run out of petrol.”

I wasn’t surprised. My wife had been stranded on the roadside twice for the same reason.

“No problem,” I said. “I can tow your vehicle down the elevated road. There is a CNG station near the exit of Barapullah. On the other side of the road is the petrol pump.”

I taught her some hand signals while I connected her car to my car with my towrope. Then I asked her to call me on my mobile and listen to my instructions as I towed her car. She was confident and followed my instructions to the letter. Within minutes we were at the CNG charging station. She parked her car and came and sat in my car. We drove across to the other side of the road––to the petrol pump.

She bought a litre of petrol in an empty water bottle. To get back to the car we drove to the Ashram Flyover and took a U-turn. I emptied the bottle in her car’s tank. The engine came to life when she turned the ignition key, but within seconds it ceased. I shook the car, the way mechanics often do. The car started again. But before the girl could drive on, the engine became silent.

With a little effort we found a mechanic who suggested that we put more petrol into the tank. So we bought a 5-litre jerry can of distilled water and emptied it in the nearby gutter and got it filled with petrol.

With more petrol in the tank, the car started again; this time, the engine continued idling. It did not stop. I followed the girl’s car to the petrol pump where she got the tank filled to the brim. Relieved at last she thanked me and handed me a visiting card.

It wasn’t hers.

It was her father’s. The national emblem embossed in gold on the top right corner drew my attention. “Is your father a parliamentarian?” I asked.

“No uncle. But he provides technical support to the Sansad Bhawan complex. He’s been there for many years, about to retire. I have just spoken to him. He has thanked you and will call you sometime.”

Mr Praful (name changed) called me later in the evening. He went overboard, thanking me for being of help to her daughter when she needed it most. He asked me to feel free to call upon me if he could be of any assistance to me.

A few days later…

Mr Praful called me. “My daughter is planning to join the Air Force. Is it OK for girls to join the Air Force?” He continued, “She has to appear at the Air Force Selection Board at Mysore. She can’t be there in Mysore on the given date. Can the date be changed? Or, at least the venue be changed to Dehradun? How do I go about it?”

With a little guidance he was able to find his way. Finally the girl did not join the Air Force. She chose another profession, is in the US now.

Postscript: Months later, I requested Mr Praful to get me connected to one of the Members of Parliament––who was present at the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to discuss the rescue of President Maumoon Abdul Gayuum (Operation Cactus, the Maldives, November 1988)––to seek an interview for my seminal study on Operation Cactus. Mr Praful did give me the contact details of the MP but the interview could not materialise. My book, published in February 2018 is devoid of a view from that angle.