The Republic of Maldives is located south of Lakshadweep, and the archipelago is the smallest Asian country with a land area of 300 sq km. Despite its small size, the Maldives plays a significant role in regional politics, particularly due to the strategic maritime passages in its northern and southern parts, making it a key toll gate in the Indian Ocean.
Over three decades ago, in 1988, India came to the rescue of Maldives and thwarted a coup attempt. The decisions made by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundation for close ties between the two countries.
S.O.S – From Male To New Delhi
At 6 am on November 3, 1988, Kuldeep Sahdev, a senior bureaucrat in charge of the Maldives desk, received a call from the acting High Commissioner in Male, the capital of Maldives, informing him about a shooting incident in the city. Thirty minutes later, another call confirmed that Male was under attack, and this time the foreign secretary of Maldives, Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, requested New Delhi’s help. Requests were made to the UK, Pakistan and the US as well but India was the only nation that could quickly respond.
Maldives was under attack by Tamil mercenaries from the People’s Liberation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), commanded by Uma Maheswaran and funded by Abdullah Luthufi, a disgruntled Maldivian businessman. The two co-conspirators planned to oust the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and reportedly wanted to establish a secure base for PLOTE by planning a coup.
President Gayoom managed to hide in a safe house, but the armed mercenaries were on a rampage in the capital.
India Decides To Intervene
The Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi was in action mode, and Rajiv Gandhi decided to intervene to save the Maldives from a coup and rescue their President. By 7:30 am, the Indian Air Force’s strategic airlift aircraft were ordered for departure, and the Army’s 50th (Independent) Parachute Brigade was told to stay prepared for action.
Sushant Singh, a former army officer, in his book ‘Mission Overseas,’ writes that Kuldeep Sahdev informed the IAF after receiving a call from Male. He then informed Ronan Sen, a Joint Secretary in the PMO, who then informed Rajiv Gandhi. By the time the Prime Minister arrived from Kolkata, all the officials were prepared. Zaki was told by Ronan Sen to not hang up, or else the light at the telephone exchange would go off, and mercenaries would notice. That call ended 18 hours later after the military operation ended.
Plan Of Action But No Maps
The plan was to use ground forces for a speedy intervention, and the 50th (I) Parachute Brigade, stationed in Agra, was chosen for the task. The Prime Minister suggested to P Chidambaram, a minister in the cabinet, to send the National Security Guards, but the plan was later scrapped.
The newly acquired Russian IL-76 aircraft from the 44 Squadron, under the command of Group Captain Anant Bewoor, was chosen for the task, and the Parachute Brigade under Brigadier Farouk Bulsara was prepared. 6 PARA was chosen as the lead battalion, with 3 PARA to follow as backup.
Indian High Commissioner to Maldives, Arun Banerjee, was luckily in Delhi when the crisis unfolded in the country. He was the go-to man for all the operational planning, especially maps. India had very limited information on the Maldives until Mr Banerjee brought maps of the country to assist in the planning. He was airlifted to Agra along with Brigadier VP Malik (later General) to guide the troops.
When Mr Banerjee saw Group Captain Bewoor flash a map of an airfield in the operations room in Agra, he figured it was not of Hulhule but that of Gan, 400 miles south of Hulhule. A major disaster was averted, and Mr Banerjee was the ‘intelligence resource’ man for the operation.
General VP Malik, who was a Brigadier back in 1988 and was closely involved in the operation, writes in the book ‘India’s Military Conflict and Diplomacy’ that it was “a race against time.” “For security reasons, the first IL-76 flight was stated to be a cargo flight to Trivandrum, and the second one had to follow and maintain complete radio silence throughout.” The US Ambassador, John Gunther Dean, called New Delhi and said India has the first right to respond in this regional crisis, says Gen Malik.
The IL-76 arrived at Hulhule and landed safely, followed by the second aircraft, and by 10:30 pm, the airport was secured and under Indian control. The troops reached Male in boats and started the mission objective, rounding up mercenaries in Male by 1 am the next day. President Gayoom was located and secured the National Security Service (NSS) headquarters, and by 4 am, Male was safe and under control. President Gayoom called Rajiv Gandhi and thanked him for the timely assistance.
Navy In Action
Abdulla Luthufi soon realized he wouldn’t survive the battle, so he fled on a boat with his men and hijacked a cargo ship, MV Progress Light. Indian troops at Hulhule spotted the ship moving away from Male and launched a shoulder-fired missile, which some accounts say hit the ship and slowed it down. Indian Navy’s INS Godavari and INS Betwa then swung into action and chased the cargo ship, which was heading toward Sri Lanka. The Navy sank the ship before it could reach Sri Lanka and rescued all the hostages.
In 2018, Abdullah Yameen, a pro-China Maldivian President, declared an emergency and jailed Supreme Court judges. Maldives’ opposition leaders sent an S.O.S to Delhi requesting urgent military intervention. The current Maldivian government, which came to power with an “India Out” campaign, is oscillating between “close ally China” and old friend India. Maldives slipping out of India’s sphere of influence gives China an advantage to assert its dominance in the Indian Ocean region, just like the South China Sea.