Between 1987 and 1990, India did the unthinkable when it agreed to send its military abroad to participate in active operations, the likes of which had never been seen after Independence. This was the first time that India had operated beyond its territory without wearing the United Nations blue helmet and actively engaged an enemy that had not threatened India’s immediate security concerns. Both the operations were sanctioned under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and while one ended in abject failure, the other was an astounding success.

The failure was Operation Pawan, India’s ill-advised three-year misadventure in Sri Lanka, which claimed the lives of over 1,400 Indian military personnel, and ended with the troops being brought back home in 1990, unclear about why they were sent in the first place. But the military intervention that succeeded was Operation Cactus, a short, sharp intervention in the Maldives that began on November 4, 1988 and ended in a matter of days.

The story of that operation has been often told and discussed in bits and parts, but has never been put together in a coherent narrative. Such a story is now available as Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible in the Maldives, a slim book launched on its app by the new publishing company Juggernaut.

Authored by Sushant Singh, a former military engineer, it is a tale that reminds us of a key era in India’s military history that ought to raise a lot of questions that are more than relevant even today. (Disclosure: I have known Sushant Singh for several years and have enjoyed many insightful discussions with him on strategic issues.)

Singh’s book is lean and tight, written as a racy thriller that is more Alistair Maclean than BH Liddell-Hart. Clearly, this is meant for an audience which wants to read a slim book that is fast and entertaining. This book is both, written in the form of reportage as Singh tracks down many key participants in that operation and weaves their narratives into his own.

The crisis and the response

On November 3, 1988, India received a distress call from the President of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, to the effect that his country was under siege. Sri Lankan mercenaries had attacked key installations in a bid to overthrow his government.

The Sri Lankan Tamils, owing allegiance to the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, were led by Abdullah Luthufi and his associate Sikka Ahmed Ismail Manik, who had landed on the island nation from speedboats and quickly overcome the rudimentary defence forces present. President Gayoom had taken shelter in a safe house and sent out SOS messages to several countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom and the US.

But it was left to the Indians, led by a young and inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi, to react immediately and launch the most ambitious airborne operation since the 1971 war for Bangladesh.

Many of the military aspects of the operation are now part of oft-repeated accounts of how ill-prepared India really was. It did not even have a map of the Maldives, and it was left to Brigadier FC "Bull” Bulsara, commander of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, to source every scrap of intelligence he could get. Bulsara, who had commanded the elite 9 Para (Special Forces), was a battle-hardened veteran and didn’t care much for hierarchy when it came to plain speaking.

He sent his officers across Agra city to grab any maps or tourist brochures they could find, so that he could plan such an intricate operation. When the first Indian Air Force aircraft took off, they had these tourist maps to guide them across the tiny island nation.

Where Singh clearly succeeds is in bringing together the personal memories of some key participants. AK Banerjee, who was then the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, was in India when the coup attempt unfolded. His inputs would prove crucial to the success of the mission.

During an operational planning session, he was the first to notice that the military were looking at the wrong map and were all set to land at a disused airport, far from their intended target! His intervention ensured that the Indian forces eventually homed in on the correct airport in Male, the capital of the Maldives.

Other principal characters such as Ronen Sen, then serving in Gandhi’s Prime Minister's Office, Brigadier VP Malik (later army chief), and Group Captain Ashok Goel (later Air Marshal) acted as decisive players in a moment of crisis.

The limitations of narrative

A book that is mostly dependent on the narratives of individuals has its pitfalls. In this case, some crucial details slip through the cracks. While Singh writes that the plan to send in the newly created National Security Guard was “shot down” by the army, the facts appear to be otherwise.

The then Inspector General (Operations) in the NSG, Major General Naresh Kumar, objected to the proposal on very sound military grounds. He pointed out that the NSG was a hostage rescue force and many of them were not trained for parachute jumps. In case the Hulule airport needed to be taken by force, a parachute jump would have greater chances of success than the NSG. This is the reason that the Para Brigade was chosen for the task and not the NSG.

Another assertion in the book is that the preparedness of the Para Brigade was at “half-mast”. However, the After Action Report, a key document in every military formation records that the troops were ready to be deployed even before the Indian Air Force planes were. In fact, as per standard protocol, one battalion of the brigade is always on standby to be deployed in six hours and one of its companies to move out in just two hours.

The author also points out that India is still ill-prepared to undertake such missions today, but does not elaborate on it. This could have added much more heft to the book.

Eroded capabilities

The 1980s were, in many ways, a traumatic period for the Indian armed forces. They were thrust into Operation Blue Star, which was an unmitigated disaster and also led to the worst mutinies in India’s post-independence history. The period also saw prolonged deployment in Sri Lanka, fighting an enemy that had been trained by India through the external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing.

India almost came close to war when the Indian army undertook Operation Brasstacks, an ambitious military exercise in the deserts of Rajasthan. The Pakistanis quickly mobilised their military, thinking that this was an impending invasion.

What remains largely unstated, but does come through in the book, is the speed and determination with which India reacted to an international crisis. While this is clearly beyond the scope of the book, it raises pertinent questions about the current status of India’s military. Despite being better trained and equipped today, chances are that the Indian military will be unable to react to an international exigency like it did in 1988.

That’s because the military has seen a steady erosion of its capabilities since then, marred by faulty planning and ill-advised decisions. It is interesting to note that even though Operation Cactus was led by an experienced Special Forces officer, there were no special operations that had been planned before the paratroopers landed.

This was also because the parachute battalions operate with a mass that the Special Forces lack. As a result, the parachute regiments have always been considered the “rapid reaction force” that can immediately respond to what the military calls “Out of Area” contingencies.

Unfortunately, in the two decades since Operation Cactus, the Parachute battalions have been forcibly converted to Special Forces, which operate in small teams, paring down India’s capabilities for Out of Area contingencies, even as the nature of future threats is quickly evolving into battles far away from India’s shores.

Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible in the Maldives, Sushant Singh, Juggernaut App.

Saikat Datta is the author of India’s Special Forces and a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. All views expressed in the article are personal.