When illegally deposed Maldivian President Nasheed was put behind bars in March 2015, many wondered if India would signal its intent by a military show of force — a flotilla of naval vessels or a few sorties by fighters over Male would have unambiguously conveyed New Delhi’s position and its willingness to project power. Those were the early days of the Narendra Modi government, and with its emphasis on breaking from the past, this course of action could have become the new normal. It would have harked a new future but also linked to the past, of nearly three decades ago.

In the 1980s, after Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, India displayed hitherto unseen boldness in projecting power in the neighbourhood. Indian armed forces undertook expeditionary missions at very short notice, the most famous among them being Operation Cactus undertaken in 1988 in the Maldives, to undo the coup against President Gayoom. The outcome of the mission was perfect: Gayoom was restored to power, there were no Indian casualties, the global media covered the operation in glowing terms and India was feted, its prestige increased manifold. But there was a lot that went into making Operation Cactus a success.

NSS HQ Nov3rd Nov

Indian military forces in Maldives during Operation Cactus

As information trickled in to India and the crisis that was unfolding in the Maldives became apparent in the early hours of 3 November 1988, the direction that the political brass would want to take, although never explicitly stated, was easy to divine for foreign ministry mandarins and the military. Everyone knew what was going to be done, and started working towards it well before Rajiv Gandhi returned from Calcutta to chair a meeting in the Operations Room in South Block and take personal charge of the situation. Imagine: a joint secretary in the foreign ministry called the vice chief of the Indian Air Force to ready the aircraft even before attempting to inform the foreign secretary — so clear was the direction that India would take. The army, the IAF and the navy worked in perfect tandem, and the media, both Indian and foreign, was taken along to witness and report on the operation.

But around the same time, another overseas operation that India had launched was not going so well. The Indian Peace Keeping Force was deployed to Sri Lanka mainly to maintain law and order in the country’s civil-war-torn north. The IPKF also had contingency plans to prevent a coup against President Jayewardene, who had signed a peace accord with Rajiv Gandhi, under which the IPKF was sent to Sri Lanka. But rather than being the keepers of the peace, the IPKF ended up having to fight India’s Frankenstein’s monster, the LTTE, who turned out to be ferocious fighters. The IPKF first got a taste of their ferocity when they tried to capture Jaffna in an audacious operation.


IPKF soldiers prepare to leave Sri Lanka

As part of that mission, 13 Sikh LI was tasked with landing at Jaffna University ground — the LTTE was headquartered in the area — in a heliborne operation. A team from 10 Para Commando battalion was to act as the pathfinder for the operation, and also net the LTTE supremo, Prabhakaran. In the Maldives, the para brigade had gone in armed with tourist brochures for want of proper military maps, while in Jaffna, the Sikh LI battalion had maps that were from half a century ago. Everything that could go wrong went wrong in Sri Lanka. Helicopters were shot down, the Sikh LI platoon was eliminated, and the para commandos were trapped in a residential area surrounded by rebels. To rescue the injured para commandos, brigade-level forces and tanks were put on the job, and struggled. Those 37 hours saw the LTTE at its fiercest, while the IPKF struggled to find its feet.

The Sri Lanka experience put India off further overseas adventures. New Delhi started proffering the excuse that it would operate overseas only under the UN flag, and this became de facto policy. But when things went wrong for a Gorkha battalion during a UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone in 2000, the Indian government was forced to respond and take charge of the situation. And respond effectively it did, 10,000 kilometres away in the tropical forests of west Africa, Operation Khukri was launched. More than 200 Indian soldiers kept hostage by rebels for 90 days were rescued without any harm, as Indian armed forces took the bulk of the responsibility in what was dressed up as a multinational UN mission. Operation Khukri was a resounding success.


Indian soldiers during Operation Khukri

The success of the Sierra Leone experience, however, does not hide the pitfalls of working in the UN environment. The Nigerians were not happy to see India flex its muscle in their backyard, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were unwilling to put their might behind India when its soldiers were imperiled. The UN Secretary General prevaricated, neither approving nor rejecting the Indian force commander’s request to launch a military operation.

As India grows into a regional and global power, it will need its military to be prepared for overseas missions. Operation Khukri tells us that working under the UN flag is not necessarily the best option in such cases, and India would do well to go out on its own. The lessons of Operation Pawan and Operation Cactus can provide us with the right template for any such operations in the future. A well-prepared military, political will and a clarity of strategic thought are essential to pull off any overseas mission. If this books helps in even a limited manner in nudging government thinking in that direction, it would have achieved its purpose.


Sushant Singh’s Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military, which details the three operations mentioned above, is available here:


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