Operation Cactus, India’s military intervention at the request of then President Gayoom of the Maldives in 1988, was a spontaneous response, swiftly executed, writes Sushil Kumar, for the Economic Times.
But who would have ever imagined that a mission to thwart a coup in the island capital of Male, would finally be accomplished more than a thousand kilometers away and turn out to be a historic mid-ocean rescue operation.
After the rapid induction of an Indian Army para brigade at the airport on Hulule island, adjacent to Male, the rebel group who were Sri Lankan mercenaries of the PLOTE cadre, ran for cover and grabbing hostages from ashore, hijacked a merchant vessel , Progress Light, which was anchored in Male harbour.
With its motley group of seven hostages that included a Maldivian cabinet minister and his Swiss mother-in-law , the hijacked ship raced out of Male harbour under the cover of darkness. But unknown to rebel leader Abdullah Luthufi on board Progress Light, an Indian Navy Task Force led by INS Godavari with Captain Gopalachari in command, was fast closing in.
As the drama unfolded at sea, the Indian Navy operations room in Delhi was palpably tense yet privileged by the distinguished presence of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was keenly following the action. The Maldivian president had personally requested that the rebels be captured and brought back to Male to face trial, so ensuring the safety of the hostages and also rounding up the rebels was certainly going to be a daunting task. This was evident from the incalculable difficulty of the mission flashed to Captain Gopalachari, the task force commander – “rescue the hostages and capture the rebels .”
When dawn broke on the following day, the rebels on Progress Light were startled by the presence of menacing-looking warships of the Indian Navy task force that had stealthily encircled the hijacked ship during the night. Agitated and confused, the rebels initially refused to talk and pressed on doggedly in a north-easterly direction. Their intentions were clearly to seek refuge in Sri Lanka; radio transmissions monitored by the IN warships had confirmed this.
After hours of inaction at sea, a terse message from the Sri Lankan Navy came like a bombshell to the Indian Navy operations room: “The SLN had been directed by its government to destroy the rebel ship, if it approached within 100 miles of the Sri Lankan coast.” Our sources also confirmed that Sri Lankan Navy gunboats were manoeuvring out of Colombo harbour.
The Sri Lankan ultimatum posed an operational dilemma for the Indian Navy, since the rebels were hell-bent on taking the ship to Sri Lanka. Moreover, the mandate given to the Sri Lankan Navy also had the possibility of a naval confrontation which would have ruined everything. Fortunately, camaraderie at sea remains a praiseworthy concept and with the hotline as a handy device, a tense situation was promptly defused.