Maldives crisis: All you need to know about 1988's Operation Cactus, when New Delhi rescued Male from a coup

As the political crisis in the Maldives deepens, calls for India to step in and help resolve the situation have also intensified. Exiled former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed has urged India to "act swiftly" to help in resolving the crisis in the island nation.

He has also asked India to send an envoy, backed by the country's military, to release the judges and political detainees including former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He has requested for a "physical presence".

New Delhi has chosen to restrict itself to a statement for now. Ministry of External Affairs said that India was "closely monitoring" the evolving situation in the Maldives and also hoped that the safety and security of Indian expatriates in the island nation would be ensured by the Maldivian authorities under all circumstances.

India is, however, believed to be examining the full range of options available to it – including tough ones – so as to jolt the President Abdulla Yameen government and make it realise that the current political course and the impasse it has created are not sustainable, The Wire said in a report.

India responded to a similar call for intervention in 1988 when then Maldivian president Abdul Gayoom sought India's help to defeat a coup by mercenaries. That was the only time New Delhi directly intervened in the affairs of Male. The operation was called 'Operation Cactus'.

With another political crisis brewing in the Maldives, there are constant calls for a repeat of 'Operation Cactus' to oust Yameen and get Nasheed installed in the government again.

Any Indian involvement would risk raising tensions further in the archipelago of 400,000 people and intensify the rivalry with China. Aside from the intervention in 1988, India has generally tried to avoid meddling in the Maldives’ internal affairs, although it has continued to provide military and economic assistance.

What was 'Operation Cactus'?

In 1988, India intervened in the political crisis of the island nation to prevent an attempted coup by mercenaries against the then president Gayoom. The coup was carried out by Sri Lankan Tamil militants on behalf of the Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthufi, as Sushant Singh explains in his book 'Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible In The Maldives'.

Maldives president Abdulla Yameen and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PIB

Maldives president Abdulla Yameen and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PIB

On 3 November, 1988, the presidential palace was taken under siege and Luthufi installed himself in the president's chair. However, Gayoom had escaped and kept shifting his hiding bases. His foreign minister made a swift call to several countries seeking help, including then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Gandhi dispatched 1,600 troops within nine hours to the Maldives and it was a matter of hours before order was restored in the country. The Tamil insurgents had forgotten to man the Hulhule Airport, giving Indian soldiers space to land and quickly take control of the airport, Singh said in his book. They then made their way to Male to rescue the president through commandeered boats.

A group of insurgents with 27 hostages, however, managed to escape on board a merchant ship. The following day, with US assistance, Indian maritime patrol aircraft were vectored onto the ship, which then tracked it until two Indian naval vessels reached the area, David Brewster, a senior research fellow at ANU's National Security College, wrote.

Indian Marines returned the rebels to Male for trial. Most of the Indian troops were withdrawn from the Maldives after order was restored, with around 150 troops remaining for a year after the attempted coup, he added.

India received international acclaim for its role in reinstalling Gayoom and bringing the island nation to stability. India's then cabinet secretary BG Deshmukh said, "Operation Cactus enhanced India's prestige enormously and showed our efficiency and capability to mount a successful operation on short notice. There was a universal acknowledgement of our role as a police force in the area," according to The Quint.

India's position in current crisis

The calls for India to take a tougher position and directly involve itself to help resolve the crisis in the Maldives have put New Delhi "in a spot", as C Raja Mohan said in an article in The Indian Express. He explained that "doing nothing" is an option for Delhi; that in effect means India chooses Yameen’s side.

"Doing something" would involve political mediation between the government and Opposition, the use of coercive diplomacy, and ultimately force, to restore order in the Maldives. However, he said that Delhi surely knows one thing from its past interventions – the task of fixing other people’s problems is never easy.

Also, unlike Operation Cactus, the president has not explicitly asked for India's help this time. According to The Quint, India cannot interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign neighbouring country in the name of 'saving democracy'.

Senior defence expert Nitin Gokhale also ruled out a repeat of Operation Cactus.

Further, India has been trying to better relations with the Maldives since the last few months. Maldives foreign minister Mohamed Asim met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union minister Sushma Swaraj and stressed on his country's policy of "India First".

Sources told The Indian Express that the Maldivian foreign minister reiterated that his country would not undertake any activity which would harm Indian interests and it would also be conveyed that the country was "sensitive" to India’s concerns over peace and security in the Indian Ocean region.

Amid reports that the Yameen regime has been tilting towards China, any overtures of friendship by Male is a welcome step for New Delhi. While trying to improve its relations with the tiny archipelago, India finds itself in a difficult situation amid calls for it to intervene in the political crisis.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Feb 06, 2018 15:29 PM

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