Operation Cactus- When the Indian Army Protected the Democracy of Maldives

Operation Cactus

India has done many international operations to help its neighbors like Sri Lanka, and Maldives. In our previous article, you read about Operation Pawan conducted to neutralize the offensive capabilities of rebels in Sri Lanka. In this article, we will learn about Operation Cactus. 

This operation was conducted by India in Maldives when they requested our assistance. Matter of fact is that they tried assistance from Sri Lanka and Pakistan. To which they refused to say that they are incapable of such operations. Even the United States and the United Kingdom said that it would take time for them to help them. The United Kingdom suggested the Maldives ask for India’s assistance which they did. India immediately agreed and sent their military assistance and the Maldives coup d’etat attempt failed. 

1988 Maldives Coup d’etat Attempt

There have been two coups (In 1980 and 1983) against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s government, but they were not considered serious enough. The 1988 coup attempt, however, was serious enough to alarm the international community.

Amount 80 PLOTE mercenaries landed in the capital Malé on the dawn of 3 November 1988 aboard a hijacked Sri Lankan freighter. They quickly took over key infrastructures such as airports, ports, television, and radio stations.

The mercenaries then made their way toward the Presidential Palace but before they could seize president Gayoom, he was escorted by the Maldivian National Security Advisor of the Defense Minister’s Home from where he was escorted to a safe house.

On failing to secure the President, the mercenaries resorted to taking hostages among key government ministers. President Gayoom requested military intervention from nearby countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Singapore, but they all refused help citing a lack of military capabilities. The United States did agree but said it would take 2-3 days to reach Maldives.

President Gayoom contacted the United Kingdom, whose Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advised to ask India for help as the UK naval forces were too far away to provide any meaningful assistance. He promptly did so and India accepted his request swiftly. Following an emergency meeting in New Delhi, India was ready to carry out its operation.

Operation Cactus

Rejaul Karim Laskar, a member of the Indian National Congress, stated that India’s intervention in the attempted coup became necessary. In the absence of Indian intervention, external powers would have been persuaded to intervene or even establish bases in Maldives. The Maldives which is in India’s backyard would have been detrimental to India’s national interest. Therefore India intervened with “Operation Cactus”.

Operation Cactus began on 3 November 1988, when an Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft airlifted a detachment of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade 6th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment and the 17th Parachute Field Regiment. Under the command of Brigadier Frukh Bulsara. The detachments flew from Agra to Malé, landing at the Malé International Airport on Hulhule Island.

The Indian paratroopers immediately secured the airfield and crossed over to Malé in boats. They engaged the PLOTE mercenaries, where in a lengthy firefight, they secured the capital.

Following the end of the fighting, about 19 people were killed, mostly mercenaries and two hostages killed by them. Indian Navy Frigates intercepted the hijacked freighter that brought in the mercenary force off the Sri Lankan Coast. The immediate response by the Indian military and the pinpoint accuracy of the intelligence received about the coup helped in successfully averting a political crisis in the Indian Ocean.

Operation Cactus Reaction

India received praise for its intervention. United States President Ronal Reagan expressed his appreciation for India’s action, calling it “an immense contribution to regional security”. Yet there was some disquiet among India’s neighbors in South Asia

India extradited some of the mercenaries captured from the freighter in July 1989 to stand trial in the Maldives. Although they were all handed death sentences, President Gayoom commuted them to life imprisonment under Indian pressure

The 1988 coup was funded and headed by Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthufi from his base in Sri Lanka. Former Maldivian President Ibrahim Nasir also was accused but he denied any involvement in the coup… In July 1990, Nasir was pardoned by President Gayoom in absentia due to his role in the Maldives Independence struggle.

The operation also strengthened Indo-Maldivian relations as a result of the successful restoration of the Gayoom government.

As per scholars of India’s Foreign Policy, India’s intervention in the attempted coup became necessary as in the absence of Indian intervention, external powers would have been tempted to intervene or even establish bases in Maldives, which is in India’s backyard would have been detrimental to India’s national interest. India, therefore, intervened with “Operation Cactus”.

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