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.

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.

The Maldives: Omen of Recovery

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 businessmCactusTOI Cuttingan, 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 IMG_4034 2available 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.

IMG_4033 2A 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.IMG_4031 2

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, IMG_4030 2the 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!”

Cactus Malé Hulule under construction Thanks ChinaIf 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!

 

PHOTO-2017-11-30-06-01-45Author’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.