When Indian Armed Forces saved a beautiful neighbor-Maldives- Operation Cactus

Male city-


IL 76 heavy lift – Gajraj


Hulhule airstrip

hulhule airport strip

In Early November 1988,  third coup attempt was made against the government of Maldives to replace President M Abdul Gayoom. Close to 150 mercenaries landed in the capital Male and took over all important government buildings. President Gayoom moved from house to house to evade capture and a highly probable execution. The telephone lines to outside world were still open, hence he was able to call for help. One such call came to the Prime Minister’s residence, 7 Race Course Road, New Delhi, India, at around 7 AM in the morning. The mercenaries were a mix of Maldivians and  PLOTE, a breakaway group of the LTTE. This desperate call for help, started turning the gears of Indian Government machinery…and to the surprise of many observers, at a very rapid pace. The way India responded won her laurels from all major powers and may have inspired some of Sylvester Stallone or Arnold’s Hollywood hits.

There was an important meeting at around 10 AM with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Senior Govt. officials and Service chiefs. Multiple options were considered. Now, Male is a small city….and island 1 KM by 1.7 KM…which is smaller than any major IT park in India. The only flat open area was a football field. Another open area was the airport…which was a 3 KM stretch built by joining two small islands….the airport at its narrowest point was just 500 meters across. To attempt a para-drop at such locations with high cross winds would have been extremely hazardous. Also, there was very limited information about whether the airport was still functional or what was the situation in the ground and what should the attacking forces expect to encounter.

Everyone knew that a decision had to be made fast. Other forces in the region like a US flotilla from their base in Diego Garcia had promised help in 48-72 hours. Indian Navy would have taken a minimum of 36 hours to reach Maldives and the Sri Lankans didn’t want to get involved. But the Indian Air Force had an ace up its sleeve…a 150 ton, four engine behemoth- IL 76…aptly named ‘Gajraj’. These had been recently acquired and were stationed in Agra…as was the Army’s Parachute Brigade. With very limited information and time, decision was passed on to send out about 300 personnel in the first of the multiple 3000KM trips that shall be made over the next few days.

Two IL-76 took off from Agra at around 6 PM. Remember the call came from Gayoom at around 7 AM. To plan and start and operation within twelve hours was an incredible achievement for a govt. machinery notorious for its lethargy.
When they reached Maldives around 9.30 PM, they had to land without alerting the rebels. Hulhule airport is separated from the Capital Male, by a channel of water….there were no connecting bridges but a ferry service to take passengers to the capital city. Luckily, the airport was not under the control of the rebels and the ATC promptly responded to the request of IAF pilots to keep switching on and off the runway lights, to allow for a safe landing. They just had one chance, if the IL76 couldn’t land in first attempt, it was decided to fly it back to Trivandrum. The problem with IL-76 is that it does make its presence felt in an impressive manner due to the four turbofan engines and the little bit of noise that they make.

With help from ATC and brilliant display of skills by the pilots, both planes landed safely….troops disembarked…took positions with the machine-guns, jeep mounted guns etc. Some of the boats at the jetty were captured and were used to land at Male. When the rebels became aware of Indian Armed forces landing at the airport,they knew that there game was over. But instead of surrendering, they took some hostages and hijacked a ship. While they were escaping Indian forces fired rockets at the ship and damaged it, but she was still able to slip away. This prompted an action packed entry of the Indian Navy into the operations. INS Godavari and her sister ship INS Betwa were sent to intercept the hijacked ship which was trying to escape to Sri Lanka. The ship was intercepted and surrounded, but the rebels in their last act of defiance brought a hostage to the deck and shot him in cold blood. That was enough for the Indian Navy. A few shells from the 4 inch guns on INS Godavari and peppering of the hulk by anti aircraft guns was enough to make the rebels wet their pants. They surrendered and were taken into custody.

Within 24 hours the whole operation was over. Abdul Gayoom came out of hiding and was ever so grateful to the Indian state for saving his life. All major powers like the US and UK praised India but some of her not so friendly neighbors did get heart-burns. India came out as  strong regional power with capability to influence events in smaller neighboring countries, if need be.

– Jai Hind.

Ref. India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy, Gen. V.P. Malik.

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