In November 1988, an attempted coup in the Maldives nearly succeeded. The ramifications of such an eventuality would have been staggering. It was carried out by mercenaries from the PLOTE (People’s Liberation Army of Tamil Eelam), an armed outfit fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka but it never became clear what the new government would have given to the PLOTE leadership if the coup had been successful. At the very minimum, the outfit would most certainly have got the use of one or more of the Maldivian Islands as a quid pro quo which they could have used as safe bases from where to launch attacks against the Sri Lankan armed forces. This would have vitiated the security atmosphere in the region, the impact of which we would probably still be feeling today.
It was fortunate that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom went into hiding and evaded capture by the plotters. He sent an urgent message to India for help, which resulted in one of the most daring rescue missions ever launched, code named Operation Cactus. In a lightning operation, the likes of which have rarely been seen in history, Indian para commandos were landed by the Indian Air Force in pitch darkness over a runway that no one had secured. And then the troops got into action and quickly seizing control, neutralised the opposition.
All these details have been well sketched out in this amazing book. However, things were not as simple as that. It is apparent that like many instances in the past, the force carrying out the operation had to make do without maps, without intelligence and most glaringly, without adequate equipment. The troops had also not been prepared or trained for such a contingency. Yet they delivered, which simply points to the brilliant leadership of the Commander, 50 (I) Para Brigade, Brig F. F. C. Bulsara and the grit and courage of the officers and men from the Army and Air Force who took part in the operation.
Why is the Indian military so often short changed that it has to go into operations in such a manner? Perhaps it has something to do with the higher structural organisation of the Ministry of Defence, wherein the babus have power without accountability and the military is left holding the baby. That remains our weakness till date.
An important aspect of Operation Cactus was the role of leadership. Brig Bulsara was given a plan by the VCOAS, which he thought was unworkable. He had the courage of his convictions to oppose the plan which would have been an unmitigated disaster had it been implemented. The Vice Chief was abusive and crass when he spoke to Bulsara over the telephone, but the Commander held firm. It is generally not well known that on completion of operations, Brig. Bulsara, while waiting at the airport for the flight back home, wrote a hand written note to Gen. Rodrigues. In this note, Brig Bulsara informed the Vice Chief that the operation had been successfully completed. He then expressed his anguish at the crude and abusive language used by the VCOAS in the run up to the operation, stating “While issuing instructions for the Operation, you did not speak to a formation commander appropriately. May I request you to refrain from speaking to Formation commanders the way you did,”or words to that effect. And lastly,he stated that should he ever be asked to go into battle again, he would not like to do so under Rodrigues.
The VCOAS replied in a hand written note stating that he said things under the heat of the moment, and that he harboured no ill will towards Bulsara. Be that as it may, it is tragic that the man who gave India victory at Maldives, did not get his next rank. The Vice Chief however rose to become the Chief!
This is a book that should be read by all officers of the Armed Forces. The Maldives operation should also be a compulsory subject for promotion examination in India’s Armed Forces and should be studied to understand the role that leadership plays in war.