'Maldives drifting away from India'

Mubarak Ansari
Sunday, 1 April 2018

Retired IAF, Army officers describe the 1988 Operation Cactus in the Maldives

Pune: Group Captain Anant Bewoor (Retd), who was the protagonist of the Indian military's 'Operation Cactus', which saved Maldives from a coup in 1988, said the country has 'drifted away from India' over the years. He was speaking in the backdrop of the current political crisis in Maldives. 

Bewoor was speaking on Thursday at the first 'Mangalvedha Annual Lecture Series in memory of Late Wg Cdr P N Patwardhan' under aegis of Centre for Advanced Strategic Studies (CASS). Over 200 persons including serving and retired armed forces personnel and students attended the lecture at Savarkar Hall of MES Garware College of Commerce. 

“The operation was a decisive military success even in severe challenging circumstances like no knowledge or even map of the Maldives, its airport, availability of only 77 parachutes etc. India got a call from the Maldives as its President Abdool Gayoom was under threat from Sri Lanka-based terrorists. The rebels surrounded his palace, and were in control of all vital installations except Hulele airport, which is located on another island. "Initially we were thinking about para dropping troops at a runway later identified as the one in Gaan, 400 km from Male, the capital of Maldives. We had little information about the archipelago. Then Indian high commissioner A K Banerjee to Maldives was in India. He came to Agra, where we were based and told us about the Gaan runway. He handed over a tourist map for the planning,” Bewoor recalled. 

Operation Cactus 
At 6 am on November 3, 1988, the acting Indian high commissioner at Male, informed Delhi of shooting taking place in the city. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered Indian military intervention. Group Captain Bewoor headed the 44 squadron (IL 76 transport aircraft) of the IAF in Agra, also where the Army's Para Commandos have a base. The troops were airlifted by 6 pm in two IL-76 transport aircraft but information was given about only one aircraft and the other followed with its lights and radio off. 

“We said it was routine cargo going to Trivandrum in Kerala. The Air Traffic Control guys at Trivandrum were miffed when we didn't land there. I spoke to a senior IAF officer in Arabic at the ATC and he said go. All this was for secrecy but BBC announced by 6.30 pm that India has sent troops. We landed at Hulele airport by 9.45 pm and the troops rescued President Gayoom by 2.15 am on November 4. When our aircraft landed the airport lights were switched off the moment we touched down. The other aircraft landed in the dark, thanks to Wg Cdr Amardeep Gill,” Gp Captain Bewoor said. 

Col Ramesh Poonekar (Retd), then Major with the special forces, added, "There were guides who helped us locate the President. We had to check buildings, rooms in the densely populated city of Male." Col Poonekar had led one of the teams of Para Commandos in Maldives. 

Ramraje Nimbalkar, Chairman of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, who presided over the function, said, “There is a communication gap between the armed forces and the politicians and it needs to be bridged. India is surrounded by not friendly countries from all sides. A better understanding with the armed forces will help in the long run.” 

Who was Wg Cdr PN Patwardhan? 
Mangalvedha is a small town in Solapur district which was given to the Patwardhans as Tainat Inam by the Peshwas and duly endorsed by the Chhatrapati of Satara during the 1700s. A branch of Mangalvedha includes the Saranjamdar families of Jamkhindi, Kurundwad, Miraj, Sangli and Tasgaon all of whom have a rich martial history. Late Wg Cdr Patwardhan belonged to the Mangalvedha branch and served as a fighter pilot in the Royal Indian Air Force in World War II. After the end of WW-II he was posted in the Ministry of Defence and left the Air Force in 1949. He then worked in the private sector and was also in business. Wg Cdr Patwardhan passed away in June 1983. The concept of this lecture series is that of his son Anant and grandson Capt Ameya Patwardhan. 

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