Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Operation Cactus -1988 Maldives coup d'état

The 1988 Maldives coup d'état was a attempt by a group of Maldivians led by businessman Abdullah Luthufi and assisted by armed mercenaries of a Tamil secessionist organization from Sri Lanka, the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, to overthrow the government in the island republic of Maldives. The coup d'état failed after the Indian Special Forces eliminated the terrorist leaders of PLOTE. At the realization of the attacks failure, the terrorist group hijacked a Maldivian freighter named MV Progress Light and attempted to escape to Sri Lanka. After the terrorists escaped, the Indian Navy was called for help. They intercepted and captured the mercenaries and they were brought into custody in an operation code named Operation Cactus. Operation Cactus was hailed internationally as proof of India’s military prowess.

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The 1980 and 1983 coup d'état attempts against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s presidency were not considered serious, the third coup d'état attempt in November 1988 alarmed the international community.

About 80 armed PLOTE mercenaries, backed by Maldivian businessman Luthufi, landed in the capital Malé before dawn aboard speedboats from a hijacked Sri Lankan freighter. Disguised as tourists, a similar number had already infiltrated Malé earlier. The mercenaries quickly gained control of the capital, including the major government buildings, port, television and radio stations. The mercenaries then marched towards the Presidential Palace where President Gayoom was residing with his family. But before they reached the Presidential Palace, President Gayoom was escorted by Maldivian National Security Advisor to the Defence Minister's home. The Defence Minister then escorted the President to a safe house. Meanwhile, the mercenaries had seized the Presidential Palace and managed to take the Maldivian Education Minister as hostage.

President Gayoom’s Foreign Minister requested military intervention from Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but both denied any help, citing a lack of military capabilities. The president then requested Singapore’s intervention, but declined, citing the same reasons. After that, he contacted the United States, but was told that it will take them 2–3 days to reach the Maldives from their nearest military base in Diego Garcia, 1000 km away. The president then contacted the United Kingdom, which advised them to seek assistance from India. Following this, President Gayoom contacted the Indian government for assistance. India swiftly accepted their request and an emergency meeting arranged at the Secretariat Building in New Delhi. Within 16 hours of the SOS, India was ready to commence their operation.

Under the guidance of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, India responded with an overwhelming speed and efficiency. At 1530 hours on 3 November 1988, India approved the dispatch of troops to the Maldives, said an excerpt from India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership by David Brewster.

Troops were deployed in one swift motion. Less than 16 hours since President Gayoom’s SOS call, Indian paratroopers were en route, leaving from the Agra Air Force Station on an Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft.

The operation started on the night of 3 November 1988, when Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft of the Indian Air Force airlifted the men and material of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Farukh Bulsara, the 6th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and, the 17th Parachute Field Regiment from Agra Air Force Station. After a non-stop journey covering over 2,500 kilometres, the aircraft of the 44 Squadron of the Indian Air Force landed at Hulhule Airport in nine hours after the request. Barely a kilometre from the besieged capital, the troops quickly began their advance into the capital.

The Indian paratroopers immediately secured the airfield, crossed over to Malé using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom. The paratroopers restored control of the capital to President Gayoom's government within hours. Some of the mercenaries fled toward Sri Lanka in a hijacked freighter, MV Progress Light. Those unable to reach the ship in time were quickly rounded up and handed over to the Maldives government. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, most of them mercenaries. The dead included two hostages killed by the mercenaries. . The INS Godavari and INS Betwa of the Indian Navy intercepted the freighter off the Sri Lanka coast. Two Sea-King Mk.42 choppers of the fleet dropped depth charges, blocking the mercenaries attempt to escape. While the vessel evaded arrest that day, it was boarded the next day by commandos of the Indian Marine Strike Force (now known as the Marcos), and taken over with no incident.

The swift intervention by the Indian military and accurate intelligence successfully quelled the attempted coup d'état in the island nation. It was a very well planned mission and everything went as per plan. The Indian army, air force and navy played an effective role in a foreign land.

The militants’ made a fatal mistake that helped the Indians landing easy in Maldives. While the PLOTE militants seized many key points across the city, the one area they had forgotten to keep an eye on was Hulhule Airport. With no one keeping watch over this point of entry, Indian troops landed, and quickly took control of the airport. They then made their way into the capital using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom, driving out the militants.

The mission was concluded with no casualties to the Indian side, save for one soldier who reportedly shot himself in the foot. Operation Cactus was testimony to the fact that India could play a role in ensuring security in Asia. India’s swift, decisive action was hailed by the international community, ranging from US President Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher. India received international praise for the operation. United States President Ronald Reagan expressed his appreciation for India's action, calling it "a valuable contribution to regional stability". British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly commented, ‘"Thank God for India: President Gayoom's government has been saved". But the intervention nevertheless caused some disquiet among India's neighbours in South Asia.

According to Rejaul Karim Laskar, a scholar of Indian foreign policy, India's intervention in the attempted coup became necessary as in the absence of Indian intervention, external powers would have been tempted to intervene or even to establish bases in Maldives, which being in India’s backyard would have been detrimental to India's national interest. India, therefore, intervened with "Operation Cactus".

In July 1989, India repatriated the mercenaries captured on board the hijacked freighter to Maldives to stand trial. President Gayoom commuted the death sentences passed against them to life imprisonment.

The 1988 coup d'état had been headed by a prominent Maldivian businessman named Abdullah Luthufi, who was operating a farm in Sri Lanka. Former Maldivian President Ibrahim Nasir was also accused, but denied any involvement in the coup d'état. In fact, in July 1990, President Gayoom officially pardoned Nasir in absentia in recognition of his role in obtaining Maldives' independence. The operation also strengthened Indo-Maldivian relations as a result of the successful restoration of the Gayoom government.

India’s then-Cabinet Secretary, BG Deshmukh had this to say about Operation Cactus:

Operation Cactus enhanced India’s prestige enormously and showed our efficiency and capability to mount a successful operation at short notice. There was universal acknowledgement of our role as a police force in the area.

Also read:  India China diplomatic row in 1967

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(Another touching story)

Four walls don’t make a home!

India was partitioned in 1947 into India and Pakistan. Overnight people became refugees. People from both sides were crossing over to the other side. People were being massacred on either side, with over 10 million people lost their lives. This was the darkest chapter in Indian history. And Chopra and family was one of them. An affluent Punjabi family with a big house, property and business, had to leave it all overnight and cross over to the Indian side as refugees.

Most of the Hindu refugees mainly from Punjab, Sind and other places were given refuge by the Indian government in different towns and cities. Some were put in barracks, government housing buildings and other places. Some of the affluent refugees were offered small plots of land to construct houses and live with their own people in some of the suburbs of then Bombay. Chopra and family too got a plot of land to construct a house and live with their community.

Chopra’s family consisted of his aged mother, wife and young children, two sons and a daughter. Being a professional was able to get some assignments and manage his home. He managed to construct a small house in the plot of land given by the Indian authorities and have a safe roof over his head. Slowly they were able to come to grips with their fate. But they were happy that all were safe and together. Days passed by, and were trying to settle down in the new city, new environment and among new people.

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Children were attending school, Chopra was busy with his profession and doing well. Next he added a floor to the house. Since Chopra’s aged mother and his wife were not comfortable living in the same house, the family shifted to the top floor, while his aged mother lived on the ground floor. Chopra shared his free time with his mother on the ground floor and his family on the first floor. Now things were going smooth and they were settling down in the new place.

Years passed by, Chopra and his family was living a happy and peaceful life. After a couple of years, his aged mother expired peacefully. Children grew up, the elder son got admission in IIT, daughter and the other son would be finishing school in a few years. Time went by and life was kind to Chopra. They were settled and comfortable in the new city. Slowly they were re-building their life from scratch.

As years went by, everything was falling in place. The elder son passed out from IIT. The other son managed to get admission in an Engineering college and the daughter passed the entrance and got admission in a Medical College in Mumbai. However as things were going good, his wife fell ill and after some months, she too expired. Chopra was devastated. Now he was left with his children. The only solace was that he was living in a colony with houses and people  who too were refugees like him, some were his old friends. He would share his thoughts and memories with his contemporaries, of his native place in Punjab, now in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, his daughter and elder son were married. The younger son went abroad to USA. He lived with his elder son and wife. Slowly he retired from active life and was happy and healthy. Every morning on getting up, he would go down and join his old friends for a chat. Later again in the evening, he would sit with his friends in the colony and talk about various things, including life in their native place, before crossing over to India as refugees. And how they re-started their life all over again from nothing.These meetings was like oxygen to him to energize life being among his own people. He was enjoying his retired life and was happy that his son had taken over charge of the house.

Age was catching up with Chopra, but he was fit and healthy. His son who was in to business, established himself and was was doing well. He had two children, a girl and boy, who were schooling. With success comes ambition. With residential towers coming up nearby, his son and wife were keen to move into one of the modern towers. They booked a flat in the one of the top floors in a nearby tower. Chopra was not keen to shift since coming to Mumbai with his mother, wife and children had lived in this house he had constructed, for years. Besides people who too like him had crossed over  to India, were staying here as neighbours for decades. And they were the support system for each other in times of need.

But his son and his wife had made up their mind to shift to the new flat. Finally convincing his father, they shifted to the new flat in a tower on the ninth floor with all modern amenities. Chopra felt isolated and lonely. He couldn’t come down freely to go and meet his old friends, some distance away. In the earlier house, on getting up, he would walk down and chat with his old friends. Here it was all quiet, and the loneliness affected his health. Within a couple of months, he fell sick. He started to sink. Lying on the bed, just staring at the fan and the ceiling, was thinking about his old house, his friends from Punjab, the chats he had with them. Though his son got a reputed doctor and best of treatment for him, there was no improvement; without realizing that his heart was in the old house, among his old friends, which was like oxygen to him to energize and  to keep him fit and healthy. And almost after a year of shifting, his falling sick and struggling to get back to health, he expired a lonely man.

Shifting or displacing of the elderly during their twilight years from old and familiar surrounding and people does more harm to their psyche and their well being, affecting their health and loneliness creeps in.

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Sri Krishna Temple, Udupi, Karnataka, India
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