“India now has the capability of protecting its strategic interests. The massive operation “operation cactus” which came as the year was closing, demonstrated that the three services, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy, had acted in perfect coordination. The Maldives Operation has been a showpiece in military strategy.” —Janes Magazine, Dec 1988.
Till then, the Maldivian’s had hardly ever witnessed crime leave aside violence. The last murder in this island nation was reported in 1976 and that too of a German murdering his girlfriend and the one before that was way back in 1793.
Now, a rich businessman, Abdullah Luthufi, had taken over the island nation, capturing the radio and TV stations and the presidential palace with the help of mercenaries from the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). The 1500 strong National Security Service (NSS) whose headquarter is located adjacent to the presidential palace was besieged by the mercenaries, who fortunately failed to enter and take over the armoury. The complicity of a few NSS cadres was never ruled out.
Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the president since 1978, had been returned to power with a 98.5 per cent majority for the third time. He was scheduled to visit India prior to his oath taking ceremony on 11 November. On learning of the coup, the president went into hiding, taking shelter in a safe house in the capital island of Male.
From the safe house, he requested assistance, first from the U.S. followed by the Soviets and thereafter Pakistan to rescue him. The U.S. base at Diego Garcia was the nearest, located 1,175 km away, but it was an election year with the U.S. Presidential elections scheduled for the 8th of November.
Not having received a positive response from the three nations, President Gayoom requested India for assistance. It would be remembered that India was at that time assisting Sri Lanka with the IPKF deployed in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka, fighting the LTTE.
3500 km away from Male, where this violent drama for the power of a small though important island nation was unfolding, another seemingly normal day dawned for the paratroopers of 50 (I) Parachute Brigade located at Agra. This was soon to change to an exciting, challenging and historical day. I was then serving as the Brigade Major (BM) of 50 (I) Parachute Brigade and at around 1000h.
I received the first indication of an impending operation when I received a call from Brig. V.P. Malik (later General and COAS) the Deputy Director-General of Military Operations (DDG MO). Brig. Malik issued crisp instructions and the urgency in the voice conveyed the gravity of an emerging though uncertain situation.
I was informed that the Para Brigade was to move to an Island for operations. One company group and one battalion group was to be kept at standby to move at 6 hours notice and at 12 hours notice respectively. The Brigade Commander with one staff officer was required to move to the MO Directorate at Delhi by the evening, but the time was not specified.
At this time, Brig. F.F.C. Bulsara, Commander 50 (I) Parachute Brigade was on a visit to the Army Airborne Training Area at Kheria. He was requested to fall back immediately to the headquarters. Not being privy to any further information, we thought that this was one more of the numerous moves of the Para Brigade’s Reconnaissance and Order group to Sri Lanka for another of those contingency plans for Op Pawan, the codename given to operations being conducted by the IPKF.
At about 1040h, I received another call from the Army Headquarters, this time from the VCOAS, Lt Gen. (later COAS) S.F. Rodrigues. As the Commander was moving back from Kheria to the brigade headquarters and was not in communication, the Vice Chief spoke to me and gave the following orders/ instructions:
Orders for Operation Cactus
- Brigade to move to the Maldives.
- One Battalion group to emplane by 1230 hours (ie less than 2 hours)
- Brigade less battalion group to move to the Maldives on night 03/04 November.
- Prepare for an airborne assault on an island, para drop planned on a beach.
- The enemy is equipped with small arms, rocket launchers, mortars and general-purpose machine guns (GPMGs).
- There is no air defence, though the enemy may possess some surface to air missiles.
- Air effort allotted is three IL-76 and ten AN 32 aircraft.
- First and second-line ammunition to be carried.
The brigade was located in Agra, but most troops were committed to training and administrative activities. Of the three battalions of the brigade, 7 Para was out on collective training, 3 Para had two companies deployed at Lucknow and 6 Para had two companies providing security at COD Agra. However, 6 Para and 3 Para were both mobilised and 7 Para was instructed to move back to Agra forthwith. In the meantime, 10 Guards (Mechanised) was also mobilised from Gwalior by MO Directorate to move to Agra and marry up with the Para Brigade at the earliest.
Those were not the days of the internet and mobile communications, and we had very little or no information on the Maldives. All that we knew was that Male was the capital of the island nation and the airfield was at Hulhule. It was only after Brig. V.P. Malik landed at Agra at around 1515h, with the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, Mr Ashok Banerjee, that the clarity and enormity of the task dawned on us. By this time, the Commander had also returned.
Brig. Malik gave out the task and plan as formulated at MO Directorate. The task was categorical “To rescue the President of Maldives and escort him safely to India”. The plan in essence included two airborne assaults – one on a beach at Male and the other in Hulhule airfield. Thereafter, the rest of the combat echelons were to be landed at the Hulhule airfield, once it was secured.
However, if the airfield at Hulhule island was under the control of troops loyal to the President, then the two IL-76 aircraft would land troops at Hulhule. However, the airborne assault at Male would still go ahead as there was no wherewithal to move the assault echelons to Male island which was separated by about one kilometre of ocean.
If the airfield was in the hands of loyal troops, codeword ‘HADIYA’ was to be sent by radio and the runway lights were to be switched on and off. To facilitate landing, the airfield lights were to be switched on just prior to landing and switched off once the landing was successfully accomplished.
With scant inputs of not only the prevailing situation but also of the topography, the situation remained uncertain and confused. The only maps available were photocopies of tourist sketches of Male and Hulhule islands. But now Brig F.F.C. Bulsara took charge. A decisive military leader and soldier, he comprehended the seriousness of the situation which was compounded by the prevailing confusion and issued clear and concise instructions not only to the units of the Para Brigade but also to the Air Force and the Military Operations Directorate.
He had trained the brigade very effectively so as to achieve all military tasks, especially airborne tasks under the most challenging of circumstances. After getting as much information as he could from Mr Ashok Banerjee’s detailed knowledge of Male, Brig. Bulsara decided to launch the operation with Col (later Brig.) S.C. Joshi, CO, 6 Para spearheading the operation.
Two plans were made for operation cactus:
- Operation Cactus Plan ‘A’
- Plan A for operation cactus was to launch an airborne assault with sixty paratroopers from one IL 76 at Hulhule airfield, to capture and secure the airfield. The remaining paratroopers in that IL-76 aircraft were then to be landed, followed by troops from the follow up IL-76 aircraft. Thereafter, the troops were to move to Male to rescue the President by capturing and commandeering local boats. The limit of sixty paratroopers was dictated by the availability of packed parachutes with the Air Force on that particular day and time.
- Operation Cactus Plan ‘B’
- Plan B for operation cactus Involved a landing at the Hulhule airfield. The decision as to which plan was to be implemented was to be taken by Brig. Bulsara, once the aircraft was over Hulhule airfield or when nearing the Maldives. Flying the two aircraft were Group Captain (later Air Marshal) AK Goel and Group Captain A.G. Bewoor, the Commanding Officer of 44 Squadron.
The assault echelons of 6 Para, 3 Para and 17 Para Field Regiment, along with sappers, signallers and medical detachments, emplaned in the two IL 76 aircraft and took off from Agra at around 1730 hours. I, along with the GSO3, accompanied the Commander in the lead aircraft as part of the tactical headquarter. The four and half hour flying time from Agra to Male was well spent in carrying out detailed briefings of all contingencies, including showing the photograph of the president to all ranks.
On approaching Hulhule one could only see the vast ocean. Group Captain Bewoor then confirmed receipt of codeword ‘HADIYA’ on radio from the ATC. The light signal had also been give. It was decision time now for the Commander.
Was the code given under duress or by deceit? Even during the landing, it was easy for the rebels to simply position a vehicle on the runway, thus jeopardising not only the mission but also the lives of 180 troops on board. The other alternative seemed equally dangerous as Male is about two square kilometres only and the assaulting paratroopers would have mostly landed in the sea, with no chance of survival.
The drop zone where the airborne assault was planned was no more than 200 m by 50 m. Weighing up the odds, Brig. Bulsara decided to land. That decision proved vital and was to be discussed in military circles for many years, with many self-proclaimed military experts criticising the decision. Given the task and the situation it was a bold and pragmatic decision, the less risky of the two alternatives and with a better probability of success, exemplifying in full measure the motto of the Paratroopers “Who Dares, Wins”.
Fortunately, the landing was unopposed and the first IL -76 with 6 Para and the brigade tactical headquarter landed at 2148 hours and secured the airfield in quick time. The second IL 76 landing after a gap of ten minutes, brought in the company of 3 Para under Maj. (later Lt Gen.) N.K.S Ghei, elements of sappers and medical and the artillery component under Col K.K.K. Singh.
Hulhule was totally abandoned, but intermittent firing could be heard at Male. 6 Para with a company under Maj. R.J.S. Dhillon, after commandeering the boats had moved for the main assault to secure a beachhead South West of Male with the 3 Para company heading straight for the Male jetty as a diversionary.
Around this time, the troops observed a ship sailing between the two islands. The ATC also gave information that the rebels had taken control of a merchant’s vessel and were fleeing with hostages including a minister and his wife. The ship was effectively engaged with all available firepower including recoilless guns and machine guns.
In the meantime the Commander got in touch with the President from the ATC. The President informed him that the situation was desperate as he was surrounded from all sides by the rebels and could not hold out any longer. It is to the credit of the Commander’s plan and the flawless execution by the troops that by around 0220 hours, Col SC Joshi and Maj RJS Dhillon secured the President from his safe house.
In the meantime troops had lifted the siege on the NSS headquarters, TV and radio stations and the presidential palace and commenced securing and sanitising the areas. President Gayoom, now safe and secure wanted to stay on at Male, whereas the orders were to evacuate him to India. This was also the time that the follow up waves started landing at Hulhule and by early morning more than 1600 troops had built up with all support echelons.
By around 0430 hours the NSS headquarters had been fully secured and the president moved, to enable him to speak on a secure link to the Prime Minister of India. The primary task achieved with surgical precision, the brigade was tasked to now help restore the situation and neutralise all rebels. Early morning the IAF fighter air crafts made a couple of passes over Male reassuring all that normalcy had been restored by the Indian Armed Forces.
At 0800 hours an Indian Navy IL 38 reconnaissance aircraft landed at Hulhule and after an update on the ship (MV Progress Light) having escaped with the rebels and hostages on board confirmed that while en route they had sighted a ship listing portside, South West of Male. The navy thereafter kept surveillance over MV Progress Light and with INS Godavari and Betwa having moved in on 06 November, rescued the hostages, took the rebels including their leader into custody and destroyed the ship.
The coup leaders and rebels were brought to Male and handed over to the Maldivian authorities. The Indian Army was requested to keep the rebels in their custody till the legal proceedings could be completed, and accordingly they were taken to a prison Island Gamadoo under the escort of Indian troops. 50 (I) Para Brigade less 6 Para with two companies de-inducted by 17 November. Thereafter, the Indian Army, on the request of the Maldivian government took on the task of capacity building and helping NSS reform to meet their future security challenges.
The precision timed “Operation Cactus” in which Indian armed forces acted within hours to thwart a coup attempt to dislodge a lawfully elected government on the Indian Ocean Island of Maldives made military watchers sit up worldwide.
On 03 April 1989, Time magazine ran a cover story “Super Power Rising” stating “India asserts its place on the world stage”, consequent to the Indian Armed Forces unprecedented success in executing an intervention operation albeit at the request of a friendly government. Operation Cactus launched to rescue President M.A. Gayoom, demonstrated Indian power and capability to be a ‘net security provider’ in the region.
The operations launched including operation cactus from a cold start and executed with surgical precision was successfully accomplished within 16 hours of the first indication of an impending operation, 3000 km from the base. The cover story of Time magazine by Ross H. Munro flags India’s growing military power, quote “At an air force base five miles from the Taj Mahal at Agra, hundreds of India’s finest combat troops (50(1) Parachute Brigade) filed into the cavernous holds of Soviet-built IL-76 transporters, whose jet engines were whining impatiently.
Soon the transporters were headed into the night, winging southwards across the subcontinent and then out over the Indian Ocean. When they landed four hours later at one of the 1200 coral islands, that make up the republic of Maldives, the paratroopers charged out of the planes, rifles at the ready.”
Operation Maldives and operation cactus launched conjointly by the Army, Navy and the Air Force was successfully accomplished without a single casualty. The operation exemplifies the excellent jointness achieved. The success of this operation at home mostly went unnoticed as did a few important lessons learnt.
Had it failed, maybe India too would have created structures and organisations to exploit the full potential of a Special Operations Command to safeguard national interest and assets, much like the United States which established the US Special Operations Command (USSOC) comprising the SOF of the three services and marines, in the aftermath of the failure of Operation EAGLE CLAW to rescue American diplomats held hostage at the US Embassy at Tehran in April 1980.
Operation Cactus is undoubtedly one of the most professionally executed military operation in the world, right on top with the likes of Operation Thunderbolt (Israeli raid on Entebbe), Otto Skorzeny’s rescue of Mussolini, the long-range desert patrols of David Sterling (Phantom major) and Op Geronimo, the Abbottabad raid by US seals to neutralise Osama Bin Laden among a few others.
Lt Gen. Vinod Bhatia, PVSM, AVSM, SM was the Brigade Major during the above operation. After superannuating from the Indian Army, he is presently the Director, CENJOWS (Centre for joint Warfare Studies), an inter-service think tank based in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.