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A military operation in Maldives. Like most people of my generation, I was aware of the 1988 Indian operation that foiled a coup, but didn’t know any details about it. A few years ago, when I was still in uniform, I mentioned the Maldives operation in a random conversation to journalist Smita Prakash, and she suddenly perked up. She went on to share the story of her wedding which was that day – her father was part of Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO then — whence the ceremonies couldn’t be recorded because all the journalists, along with the video and still cameras, were rounded up from the hotel to be taken to Maldives.

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The front page of Indian Express newspaper on 4 November 1988

Thus began my interest in Maldives. I tried to read about it off the internet, or look for a good book on it, but there was hardly anything available which covered it in adequate detail, or provided proper context for it. The operation was a military success, but what made the difference was the political decision-making. The diplomats knew what the Prime Minister would decide, they were directly talking to their military counterparts even before final orders were passed and everyone was singing from the same sheet.

As I delved deeper, I realized that in the hurly-burly of Bofors, Operation Pawan, Exercise Brasstacks, the Chinese standoff – not to forget the Khalistan militancy and consolidation at Siachen – Maldives didn’t figure in our memories of the 1980s, not even as a footnote. The army did not issue a medal for it, and the Defence Ministry hasn’t released the official history of the operation.

Unravelling the threads of ‘Operation Cactus’ – as the operation in Maldives to undo the coup against President Gayoom was called – was an education by itself. It started with my first port of call for all things educational, historian Srinath Raghavan. He put me in touch with a few people who were involved in planning the operation, and then one thing led to another. Talking to Ronen Sen, who was then a Joint Secretary in the PMO, was enlightening in ways I could not have imagined. If someone can get him to pen his memoirs – Chiki and Nandini have not succeeded so far – it would tell us things which none of us can otherwise dream to know.

While I was hunting for facts, one of the big surprises was getting to know the story of A.K. Banerjee, India’s High Commissioner at Male then. He was the only civilian in the first aircraft that landed at Maldives with paratroopers of 50 (I) Para Brigade. It is perhaps the first and only instance of an IFS officer accompanying troops on a military operation.

Operation Cactus p 34 AF 1998

Hand-written notes by protagonists of Operation Cactus during the operation. A.K. Banerjee wrote, ‘Everything should go as planned.’ Maldivian NSS official Major Mohammed Zahir wrote: ‘Your government’s kind assistance is very much appreciated by our force.’ Brigadier Bulsara wrote, ‘We’ll secure the air-strip and the President by 1000 hours tomorrow.’ India managed to do it well-before that!

Lt General (retd) Vinod Bhatia, who was the Brigade Major of the Para Brigade then, was very generous with his time and documents. Without even asking, he gave me a rare copy of a book, which had the late Brigadier Bull Bulsara’s memories of the operation. ‘Sushant, even if I were to attempt a book, it doesn’t matter. I trust you to do a better job than me,’ General Bhatia said. That’s a huge burden of expectation on my shoulders.

The story of Operation Cactus is a thorny one. General Bhatia was close to being court-martialled during the operation, and Brigadier Bulsara was threatened with disciplinary action. All this for something which led the Time magazine to bring a cover story on India, ‘Super Power Rising’, in April 1989.

Time magazine

Was it a perfect operation? In outcomes, yes. In planning, no. Imagine launching a military operation in a foreign country with the aid of tourist brochures and guide maps; and with scanty intelligence and negligible information about an airport which an Indian company had constructed. Only 60 parachutes were available, not even enough for a company to airdrop and capture the airfield. The men who pulled Operation Cactus off did it with a lot of fortitude, boldness and courage, aided in no small measure by large dollops of good fortune.

That leaves us with one final question. Can a more modern, stronger, confident India of today pull off a similar operation 3,500 km away? In your answer to that question lies the importance of Operation Cactus.

Operation Cactus, Sushant Singh’s history of the military operation, is now live on the Juggernaut app. Read it here.

 

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