Operation Cactus: The Indian military was asked to intervene in the Maldives 30 years ago as well

The exiled Maldivian president has requested Indian intervention in Malé. A look back to 1988, the last time the Indian military stepped in to quell a coup.

On November 3, 1988, [Ronen Sen] remembers waking up to an early morning phone call. It was from Kuldip Sahdev, joint secretary (BSM) in the foreign ministry, informing him of the coup in the Maldives. (BSM stood for Burma, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and Rajiv Gandhi was fond of ribbing Sahdev at conferences that every country under his watch was in trouble.)

Sahdev remembers that assignment as the most challenging and exciting one of his career. With Indian peacekeeping operations in Sri Lanka against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in full swing and Aung San Suu Kyi returning to Burma in 1988 and agitating against the military junta, those were indeed turbulent times.

At around 6.00 am on November 3, Sahdev was woken up by a call from the acting Indian high commissioner at Malé, who informed him of some shooting taking place in the city.

The predawn silence in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, a remote Indian Ocean archipelago, was broken that day by the sound of machine guns, rockets and grenades. The peaceful country, which didn’t even have a proper army, was being attacked by seaborne raiders. They had struck at selected targets including the president’s residence and the headquarters of the Maldivian National Security Service (NSS) and taken over key government buildings such as the radio and TV headquarters, and cut off the electricity and water supply in Malé.

Half an hour later Sahdev got another call from the acting high commissioner. This time it was more urgent. He confirmed that Malé was under attack and asked if India should help. His source was Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, then foreign secretary of the Maldives.

The raiders were later identified as Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka, belonging to the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), headed by Uma Maheshwaran. PLOTE had initially been funded and supported by Indian intelligence agencies as a counterpoise to the LTTE. The group that launched the coup in the Maldives had been funded, recruited, armed and trained by a few disgruntled expatriate Maldivians led by a businessman named Abdullah Luthu and his associate Sikka Ahmed Ismail Manik. The eighty-strong team of raiders landed at Malé before dawn, using speedboats from a freighter. Several other PLOTE mercenaries, disguised as tourists, had entered the Maldives earlier.

President Gayoom, an Islamic scholar and cricket fanatic, was then fifty. President since 1978, the diminutive, balding figure was widely respected and into his third consecutive term. The Maldives had a form of indirect democracy, where the President was elected by the Majlis (parliament) which in turn was elected through consensus by the people. There was no direct voting or election for the Majlis.

On November 3, President Gayoom was expected to have been in India and the plotters, to whom his travel schedule had been leaked, planned to strike while he was away. The Indian aircraft sent to bring Gayoom to Delhi was mid-air when the trip was cancelled.

Rajiv Gandhi had to unexpectedly travel out of Delhi for an election campaign, and he and Gayoom decided it was best to put off the visit for the time being. Undeterred, the ringleaders of the coup decided to go ahead with their plans.

The Indian high commissioner to Malé, AK Banerjee, had reached Delhi two days before Gayoom’s scheduled visit – protocol requires the presence of the envoy whenever a head of state or government visits India. With the visit postponed, Banerjee took a few days’ leave to spend time with his family in India. He had been high commissioner to the Maldives for over a year, since July 21, 1987, and knew Gayoom well, even playing cricket with him regularly.

A mild-mannered man, Banerjee is a retired career diplomat who feels that he did not get his due from the government. He was at his father’s house at Defence Colony in Delhi on the day and planned to drop in at the MEA at South Block.

“I was comfortably asleep, wrapped in my quilt, when I was woken up by a call at around six thirty on November 3. The caller was my secretary from the high commission in Malé. He told me that since four thirty that morning, there had been incessant shooting and the gunmen were on the streets. They had attacked the NSS office and killed several people. The Maldivians were retaliating but they were outnumbered and outclassed. The gunmen, apparently Sri Lankan Tamils, were trying to capture the president and overthrow the government. The Maldivians wanted India to help them and asked me to intervene since I was in Delhi,” recounts Banerjee.

Banerjee was stunned by this news. His first thoughts were of concern for his staff in Malé and he asked if the Indian high commission personnel were safe. His secretary reassured him but added ominously, “Who can give any assurance in these circumstances?”

There was more news. President Gayoom was, according to Banerjee’s secretary’s source, in a safe house and the request for help had come personally from him. Appeals had also gone out to other neighbouring countries including Malaysia and Pakistan.

Banerjee later found out that his secretary was being briefed by Anbaree Sattar, President Gayoom’s chief security officer. Sattar had managed to reach the secretary’s house incognito to relay this message to India. President Gayoom trusted Sattar implicitly and, years later, rewarded him by making him minister for defence and later still, high commissioner to India.

Taken aback by the attempted coup, Gayoom had asked not only India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia but other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, and the Commonwealth organisation for help.

The Sri Lankan government in turn asked India to provide an IAF aircraft so that their soldiers could be airlifted to the Maldives.

Pakistan, according to an Indian official who was privy to the deliberations among the military brass at Rawalpindi, was reluctant to move its troops so far, across the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, with no assured help from India. The Americans would have to move troops from their base in Diego Garcia, and it would take them a couple of days to even reach Malé. The UK and the Commonwealth organisation were also not in a position to help promptly.

India, in contrast, was already involved in an overseas military operation in Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi had made it clear to his team of officials that the neighbourhood was India’s zone of influence. India, as the largest country in South Asia, had to bear the fallout of conflicts and unrest in its smaller neighbouring countries, and needed to be prepared to play its rightful role in the region.

Against that backdrop, Indian officials were able to swiftly put together a plan of action. As soon as Sahdev got off the call from Malé, he called Air Vice Marshal Denzil Keelor to tell him to ready an IAF team for the Maldives. Sahdev and the IAF were already working closely together on Sri Lanka, the two knew each other well and the usual channels were bypassed.

Sahdev then spoke to Ronen Sen, who subsequently called him to a meeting in the army operations room at South Block later in the morning, where the prime minister, who was on his way back from Calcutta, would be present. So by the time Banerjee called Sahdev to inform him of the attempted coup, he found a battle-ready and prepared official who asked him to attend the prime minister’s meeting.

The morning was taken up with preparations. At 8.30 am Group Captain Ashok Goel, then joint director (operations, transport and helicopters), was summoned to the office of the Vice-Chief of the IAF, Air Marshal NC Suri, where he was asked about the availability of the transport fleet. “I promptly replied that five IL-76s and sixteen AN-32s [Soviet-made Ilyushin-76 and Antonov-32 transport aircraft] were at Agra, and another fourteen AN-32s could be brought from Jorhat to Agra by 1.00 pm. He directed me to alert the fleet and be ready to launch the operations to the Maldives,” Goel recalls. He too was asked to attend the meeting in the army operations room at South Block.

All participants have different versions of the meeting but most agree on a few things. Rajiv Gandhi walked in with Ronen Sen and Kuldip Sahdev; others present included the service chiefs, officers from the military and air operations staff, the defence secretary and the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).

The first few minutes of the meeting were chaotic and noisy. In Ronen Sen’s words, “No one had any clear ideas and people were passing around tourist picture postcards of the Maldives to make sense of the place.”

The deputy minister for home, P Chidambaram, suggested flying the commandos of the then newly formed elite National Security Guard (NSG), which was under his charge, to the Maldives but that proposal was firmly shot down by the army. The intelligence available was sketchy and the R&AW, in particular, had scant information on what was happening in the Maldives. In fact, it was the last to know of the attempted coup and said that the international airport at Hulhule, a deserted island fifteen minutes from Malé by boat, had been taken over (this turned out be false) and that hundreds of rebels were spread across the island nation.

The R&AW chief was “given a shut-up call” by Sen, who was best informed about the developing situation in Malé. This was thanks to what Sen calls “the longest telephone call ever made between India and the Maldives”.

That call came from Zaki, the Maldivian foreign secretary, to 7 Race Course Road (RCR) and was taken by Sen before he proceeded for the meeting at South Block. From his house, Zaki could see the rebels who had captured the telephone exchange across the street. As he was explaining the situation, Sen told him not to hang up because that would cause the lights on the exchange switchboard to go off, alerting the rebels. They would then track Zaki down and India’s connection to the Maldivian government would be lost.

The phone at Zaki’s house in Malé and the one at 7 RCR – in the office of Rajiv Gandhi’s private secretary, Vincent George – thus remained off the cradle till the military operation ended, eighteen hours later. It became the Indian government’s sole reliable source of information, and the only way in which they managed a limited coordination with the Maldivian agencies.

Excerpted with permission from Mission Overseas: Daring Operations By The Indian Military, Sushant Singh, Juggernaut.

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