Operation Cactus: The Day India Saved the Maldives
In 1988 a group of 80-200 Sri Lankan militants from the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), backed by Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthufi, mounted a coup in the Maldives in November 1988. After infiltrating the country’s capital of Male, the militants spread out and seized key areas in the city in an attempt to overthrow the then President Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom, however, escaped, taking refuge in the Maldives National Security Service headquarters.
President Abdul Gayoom reached out to a number of nations, including India, Pakistan, the United States, Britain, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and other states. The US and Britain, after talks, decided they wouldn’t intervene directly, but said they would coordinate a response with India. Under the guidance of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, India responded with an overwhelming speed and efficiency.
Indian Troops were in the Maldives within hours of receiving the message from President Gayoom. At 15:30 hours on 3 November 1988, India approved the dispatch of troops to the Maldives. Troops were deployed in one swift motion. Less than 16 hours since President Gayoom’s SOS call, Indian paratroopers were en route, leaving from the Agra Air Force Station on an Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft. After a journey covering over 2,500 kilometres, the aircraft of the 44 Squadron of the Indian Air Force landed at Hulhule Airport. Barely a kilometre from the besieged capital, the troops quickly began their advance into the capital.
While the PLOTE militants seized many key points across the city, the one area they had forgotten to keep an eye on was Hulhule Airport. With no one keeping watch over this point of entry, Indian troops landed, and quickly took control of the airport. They then made their way into the capital using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom, driving out the militants.
The mission was concluded with no casualties to the Indian side. Operation Cactus was testimony to the fact that India could play a role in ensuring security in Asia. India’s swift, decisive action was hailed by the international community, ranging from US President Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher.