Remember Operation Cactus? In November 1988, India launched Operation Cactus when the Maldives was encountering a frightening situation after being attacked by a group of eighty Tamil mercenaries belonging to People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam (PLOTE).
The Maldives government led by President Gayoon sneaked into a safe house and requested the Indian government for assistance through the Indian High Commission in Male. The Indian government decided to intervene quickly and dispatched a crack team of the Para Brigade led by Brigadier Farooq Bulsara to rescue the Maldivian President. This operation was named Operation Cactus.
On the occasion of “Victory Day”, the Foreign Minister of Maldives, Abdulla Shahid remembered the “invaluable” military support provided by India under the military operation – Cactus.
“On the 31st anniversary of Victory Day, we honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. Today, the brave martyrs of the Maldives National Defence Force and civilians are remembered with abundant love. We are grateful that such heroic people were amongst us. We honour all those who undertook the duties entrusted to them with unwavering dedication and dignity and fought to preserve the sovereignty of this nation,” the Foreign Minister said in a statement.
“It is a day to value true friends and partnerships. The invaluable military support of the Indian Government on November 3, 1988, remains etched in our hearts. Our highest gratitude and deepest appreciation shall never diminish,” he said.
India’s intervention in the attempted coup became necessary as, in the absence of Indian intervention, external powers would have been motivated to intervene or even to establish bases in the Maldives which being in India’s backyard would have been pernicious to India’s national interest. India, therefore, intervened quickly with “Operation Cactus”.
The Operation Cactus commenced on the night of 3 November 1988, when Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft of the Indian Air Force airlifted the elements of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, the 6th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and, the 17th Parachute Field Regiment from Agra Air Force Station and flew them non-stop over 2,000 kilometres to land them over the Malé International Airport on Hulhule Island.
The Indian Army paratroopers arrived on Hulhule in nine hours after the appeal from President Gayoom. The Indian paratroopers promptly secured the airfield, crossed over to Malé using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom. The paratroopers restored control of the capital to President Gayoom’s government within hours.
Some of the mercenaries escaped toward Sri Lanka in a hijacked freighter. Those unable to reach the ship in time were quickly cornered and handed over to the Maldives government. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, most of them mercenaries.
The dead included two hostages killed by the mercenaries. The Indian Navy frigates Godavari and Betwa intercepted the freighter off the Sri Lankan coast and apprehended the mercenaries. Speedy operation by the military and precise intelligence information successfully suppressed the attempted coup in the Maldives.
India received international accolades for the Operation Cactus in the Maldives. The then US President – Ronald Reagan expressed his admiration for India’s action, calling it “a valuable contribution to regional stability”. The then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly commented, ‘”Thank God for India: President Gayoom’s government has been saved”.