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Will SAARC leaders remember operation cactus next week? (RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMMUNICATOR)

New Delhi, Thu, 03 Nov 2011 ANI

New Delhi, Nov 3 (ANI): The leaders of the eight SAARC nations who are gathering in Addu Atol, Maldives next week-from 10 to 11 November- have their theme "Building Bridges", which aims at improving communication and cooperation in the region.


Would they recall the incident when India built a 'bridge' to the country by responding to Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's request to come to the help of the island territory when a group of mercenaries took over the presidential palace in Male at 4 a.m. on the morning of November 3, 1988.


India received a request at 5.30 in the morning for help. The Foreign Minister of Maldives, Fathulla Jamil, called Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and gave him the details. Rajiv Gandhi responded positively to the request.


As Principal Information officer of the Government of India, I remember being asked to come to the operations room in the Army Headquarters that morning. By that time General V.N. Sharma, the Chief of Army Staff, decided to send a detachment of the Para Brigade to Male and the Air Force was asked to be in readiness for the airlift.


What was not clear was whether the aircraft carrying the troops could land at Male airport. If it was under the control of mercenaries, the paratroopers had to be airdropped and asked to capture it. The number of mercenaries, their antecedents, and the kind of weapons they had, were not clearly known. I was asked whether we should take the media to cover the event. The Union Cabinet was scheduled to meet later in the morning. I suggested that we should take the media, particularly the visual and audio-visual media along with the paratroopers. An operation of the kind, I felt, had to be covered.


The consensus was that the operation should be kept top-secret and briefing on the subject should be done when the operations were complete. If there was any requirement for media personnel, the then Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, Ronen Sen or G. Parthasarathy, who had earlier headed the External Publicity Division, would let me know. I happened to be on leave on that day, as my daughter Smita was getting married that evening. I returned home to make the arrangements and perform the religious ceremonies.


I was told later in the morning that it was decided not to take the media along with the paratroopers. The aircraft were to take off from Agra in the afternoon.


Meanwhile the Indian Navy was to dispatch INS Godavari, which was near the area, to Male. All of us kept our fingers crossed.


There was some delay in getting the paratroopers and their gear put together. More facts were available about the strength of the mercenaries and it was important for the prestige of the country as it displayed India's ability to respond to requests from its neighbours. Fortunately, there was little opposition to the Indian paratroopers as they landed at Male. The mercenaries panicked. They took around 30 persons from Male as hostages in a ship, which was recognized as the Progress Light the next day. Indian Naval Ships Godavari and Betwa were closely following the Progress Light. The area was also within reach of naval helicopters.


Incidentally, there was a change in the decision of the Government about taking the media to cover the operations. The decision was taken late in the afternoon. A transport aircraft was kept ready at Palam to take the media team to Agra.


The problem then was to mobilize a media team at short notice. G. Parthasarathy, who was the Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office looking after the media, was very innovative. My daughter Smita was getting married to Sanjiv, the son of Prem Prakash, a pioneer in the field of audio visual media in the country and the representative of the international audio-visual agency, the VISNEWS. The media was bound to be attending the wedding ceremony of my daughter at the Asoka Hotel that evening.


G. Parthasarathy, hijacked the media persons who were guests at the marriage reception, including cameramen. Partha, as I knew him, later occupied many more distinguished positions, including that of Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan.


Looking back, it was important for India that Operation Cactus should succeed. India had a mixed experience with the Indian Peace Keeping Force, which had gone to Sri Lanka in August 1987. The IPKF had gone there after protracted negotiations between the various Tamil groups and the Sri Lankan Government.


As per the agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the militant groups, the Indian Peace Keeping Force was to be inducted into Sri Lanka in August 1987 and its main task was to take possession of arms which were to be surrendered by the militant Sri Lankan groups.


The IPKF was also expected to help in the establishment of peace and normalcy in the Jaffna peninsula. The IPKF was expected to stay for a short period in Sri Lanka, after taking over the arms. Simultaneously, the Sri Lankan government was to grant autonomy to the Tamils.


While some groups surrendered their arms, the most important of them, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam handed over only a few of its weapons. The Sri Lankan Government took into custody a few LTTE personnel, who were kept in custody at Palali, the airport in the Jaffna peninsula.Following an incident, the Sri Lankan Government decided to take LTTE personnel in custody at Jaffna to the mainland. The LTTE personnel consumed cyanide and died immediately. Violence broke out between the IPKF and the LTTE in October 1987.


The Government of India was keen that the operations in Maldives should be clean and not leave scars like the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka. Fortunately, Operation Cactus had few thorns.


The bonds of friendship established in 1988 have stood the test of time. I had an opportunity to spend some time in Maldives in 1990 when Prime Minister V.P. Singh visited that country. The people there were full of warmth for India for having sent troops to that country and shifted back the forces when the task was completed. They also remembered the help given by India in launching "Operation Cactus", which is considered by them "a defining moment in the relationship between the two countries and a landmark event in the history of their nation. "


The island is an active member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Maldives hosted the SAARC summit in 1990 and in 1997.


Maumoon Gayoom continued as president till 2008, and was in office for thirty years. He has been succeeded by Mohammad Nashad .who is piloting the task of "Building Bridges" in the SAARC region.


Every year when we celebrate the anniversary of my daughters' marriage on November 3, I remember Operation Cactus, and the hijacking operation of media personnel from her marriage reception to cover the operation! By I. Ramamohan Rao (ANI)


(I. Ramamohan Rao. Former Principal Information Officer, Government of India) e-mail:


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