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Operation Cactus: When India Saved the Day

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

30 years ago, in 1988, an intervention by the Indian armed forces - codenamed 'Operation Cactus' - averted an attempted coup on the island nation of Maldives.

Destiny sometimes is stranger than fiction. I have been blessed with witnessing some extraordinary scenes in my life, which are difficult to create with imagination. I sometimes think that my karma led me to lands unexplored, with the blessings of my ancestors, for which I am both thankful and full of gratitude.

Picture this: Alighting from a transport air force plane with paratroopers, fully loaded with weapons, in the dead of night in a foreign land. No passport. No visa. Witnessing a coup, and that too, without a single bullet being fired. Then, returning to my homeland in 24 hours.

Sounds straight out of a Bollywood movie, doesn't it? Such happenings force you to become a firm believer in destiny and fate.

Let me unravel the mystery and narrate the sequence of events.

Time: Week 1, November 3, 1988.

It was like any other normal working day. I was on parliament duty for All India Radio news covering the Lok Sabha proceedings. Very normal right? Well, things were about to change.

So, as I was sitting in the parliament, watching the Lok Sabha session and making notes, I got an urgent call from my director with an unusual request.

He said, 'Harish, rush to the Palam Airport and report in their technical area. The prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi is going to Thiruvananthapuram to attend a cultural event and you are accompanying him. You will be back tomorrow evening.

I was very surprised and tried asking him some related questions. Sir, I am happy to go but please allow me to first go home, have my dinner, inform my family and pack a few things.

The director said in a firmer tone now, your plane leaves in two hours, there is no time to waste. I want to you to head to the airport now. A car is waiting for you outside. Just jump in and be gone.

In army, we are trained to understand the urgency by pre-empting it. This seemed like an emergency for sure. So I informed my wife and left for the airport immediately.

Although I knew that my director was hiding something, I went ahead with the plan. He did not sound very convincing. What could be so important about a cultural event, I thought. In any case, we had a correspondent and a full-fledged unit in Thiruvananthapuram. I never covered cultural events anyway.

Sometimes saying yes without questioning can help you experience the most wonderful, exciting adventures. Mine was just about beginning.

As I reached the Palam Airport technical area, I found a giant transport plane of Indian Air Force IL-76 waiting. I was rather puzzled. The Prime Minister never travelled by IL-76. As I boarded the plane, the mystery was finally solved.

Upon entering, I saw paratroopers of Indian army, fully loaded with weapons on board. I was briefed then that the plane was on its way to Maldives capital Male in response to an SOS call by the president of island nation, Abdul Gayoom.

CONTEXT: A local group headed by businessman Abdullah Luthufu and supported by a Tamil secessionist organisation in Sri Lanka had made a daring coup attempt to overthrow the elected government of President Gayoom.

About eighty mercenaries disguised as tourists had reached Male. A similar number had infiltrated into the capital city earlier. The mercenaries quickly gained control of Male, capturing major government buildings including the Presidential Palace, airport, television station and radio station.

President Gayoom had a miraculous escape, carrying his telephone diary with him. He made desperate phone calls to several countries for help but without any results. He then approached the Indian government to save his country and his government. The then Late Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, acted with lightning speed and instructed the defense forces to launch operation, CACTUS.

1600 paratroopers of the Indian Army, under the command of Brigadier Farooq Balsara flew two thousand kilometers non-stop in Indian Airforce planes to reach Male. Besides me, the only other person from press covering this operation was my service colleague and dear friend, late Amitabh Chakraborty, reporting for Doordarshan News.

Such were these secret operations carried out by the Govt, which we worked on.

Moving ahead, the plane IL-76 landed at the Male airport in the middle of night. The paratroopers quickly took positions at crucial points to secure the airport.

All by myself, I needed to figure out how to manage the news coverage. My army background helped me to interact with troops and gather information.

At the first light of dawn, the paratroopers rushed to the capital city and gained control of all crucial buildings in Male. The coup attempt was foiled and president Gayoom rescued.

Operation Cactus started on the night of 3 November 1988, and concluded as a huge success without single bullet being fired.

We were informed by several sources that President Gayoom was safe. He wanted to meet us. When we met the President, he was visibly emotional and thanked India for being the only country that responded to his call for help. Replying to a question, President Gayoom said, He was in control of the situation throughout the crisis.

This was another time when I felt the same surge of pride for my nation, my country as I did when I was as soldier. Once a soldier, always a soldier I guess!

The moment mercenaries got the news that Indian troops were nearing Male, they seized a Maldivian trawler, took 27 people hostages including some prominent Maldivians. They loaded the trawler with scotch whiskey and imported cigarettes, looted, at gunpoint, from the Male airport duty free shop and sped towards Sri Lanka.

Indian Navy was alert and did not allow mercenaries to get away. The trawler was seized before it could reach Sri Lanka and leader of the coup Abdullah Luthufi and other mercenaries were captured. 20 hostages were rescued. Four hostages were unfortunately killed while the fate of the other three is still unknown.

There were bare minimum casualties: 19 Maldivians and 8 national security service men. When captured , Abdullah Luthufu was asked how could he think such a coup could succeed in present times. His reply was, why not. If luck was on my side and Indian troops had not come for some more time, he would have succeeded.

While all this was happening, my family had no news about me. They thought I was safe, covering a cultural event in Thiruvananthapuram.

I had covered the entire operation, interviewed President Gayoom and was ready with my story and dispatches. The big question now was how to file them. All communication lines in Male were down.

India received international praise for this operation.

Luck was on my side. or perhaps, my bauji was speeding things up for me. I got information that one of IL-76 planes was leaving Male in a short time for Thiruvananthapuram. I rushed to Male airport in a speed boat to catch the flight.

I must mention here that I was the lone passenger in that giant aircraft. And it was a very different experience. I still remember it.

I got friendly with the pilot on the way. He told me that he had instructions to get the plane refuelled at Thiruvananthapuram and then leave for Delhi immediately.

Refuelling would take about two hours. What! I could not believe my luck. Things were just falling in place. You may call it coincidence, or my destiny. This was just enough time for me to file my story.

Always remember, if you want something with all your heart, the entire Universe will conspire to make it happen. (and no, it isn't Shahrukh Khan's original dialogue. It is Rumi's.)

I told him, happily, that I need just that much of time to hand over my stories and dispatches to AIR Thiruvananthapuram news staff who were waiting for me at the airport. The dear pilot, god bless him, agreed and said that he would wait but just for two hours.

The AIR news staff was waiting for me at the airport. I just handed over the material to them and sprinted back to the aircraft. The Sergeant on duty in IL-76 asked me if I would like to have black coffee and some biscuits. I grabbed the offer and thanked him.

This was to be my first meal after a gap of twenty four hours. My last meal was lunch at Parliament House canteen the day before.

IL-76 landed at the Palam Airport technical area in the evening. My office transport was waiting. I reached our General Newsroom well-in-time to give finishing touches to my final story for the evening series including the main 9pm bulletin.

Then I recorded dispatches for the AIR spotlight and newsreel programmes. Finally I went to our Spot Light unit where Sunil Roy from PTI was there. He had also prepared a script on Male crises based on agency reports and informed sources.

The spot light editor (and I will not name him) informed me that script by Sunil Roy will go first followed by my voice dispatch. Look at the irony of fate. I had travelled four thousand kilometers to give first hand information about the aborted coup, hungry and putting myself at risk of life and the editor wanted to use the script based on agency reports as lead.

Controlling my frustration, I advised him to consult evening supervisory officer and then decide. He went to GNR, general news room, spoke to the Additional Director General News Bibeka Nand Roy who was on duty. He came back and said Roy Sahib wants your voice dispatch to go first.

Finally, he saw sense. My coverage of the Maldivian coup was highly appreciated.

Maldives, the floating nation is known for its scenic beauty, coral reef islands and sea life. Maldives literally means necklace of islands. 1192 coral reef islands in the shape of Garland adorning the Indian ocean form this island nation. More than 1100 species of fish and 21 species of whales and dolphin are found here. These islands are spread over an area of 35000 sq. kilometers.

Only 298 sq. Kilometers of this area is dry land. Maldives is lowest country in the world. More than 80 percent of its land comprises of coral reef islands which rise less than one meter above the sea level. According to one study, the way sea is rising, Maldives runs high risk of being merged in sea by 2100 AD. Total population of this island republic is around 557000. About 1100 varieties of fish are found in this part of Indian Ocean.

Economy of island nation is based on fish exports and tourism. Number of resorts grew from just two in 1972 to 92 in 2007. Today number of resorts is 152. There are also 618 guest houses. According to world bank, economy of Maldives comes in high middle class category, with GDP of 6 percent.

Maldives has very interesting history. It was a Buddhist nation for more than 1400 years. In the year 1153 or 1199, historians are not sure, Buddhist king, Dhovemi embraced Islam. Reasons for conversion are not known. He proclaimed himself as sultan of Maldives , changed his name to Mohammad IBN Abdulla and established sultanate of Maldives. Portuguese entered Maldives in 1556 .

They were expelled from Maldives by the Dutch in mid 17th century. Dutch hegemony continued till 1796 . British ousted Dutch and Maldives became a British protectorate. Maldives attained full political independence from British in 1968. Sultanate was abolished and republic established.

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