One-time India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, J. N. Dixit, in his memoirs, Makers of India’s Foreign Policy, launched in 2004, says that he preferred to call India’s interference in Sri Lanka during 1980-1990 period as ‘Indian involvement.’ However, a comprehensive study is needed to counter various misconceptions as regards the conflict as well as regional issues caused by Indian intervention.
Dixit asserted that the decision to give active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants could be considered one of the two major foreign policy blunders made by the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But he strongly defended the Prime Minister’s action, while asserting Gandhi couldn’t have afforded the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils [Chapter 6:An Indocentric Practitioner of Realpolitik-Makers of India’s Foreign Policy].
Dixit failed to explain how the Prime Minister hoped to achieve her twin objectives by recruiting, training, arming and deploying thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil youth. India also helped Sri Lankan terrorists establish contact with international terrorist groups.
Indian action caused irrevocable damage to Indo-Lanka relations. The Maldives, too, suffered due to Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Dixit totally ignored the Maldivian factor, though India was responsible for the coup attempt in the Maldives in Nov. 1988.
Maldivian businessman, Abdulla Luthufee, based in Sri Lanka, almost succeeded in seizing power in the Maldives in Nov. 1988 with the help of one of the terrorist groups trained and armed by the Indian government. Had Luthufee’s mercenaries assassinated the then Maldivian leader Maumon Abdul Gayoom, that country would have been ripped apart by political violence.
India’s military, particularly its navy, claimed credit for saving the Maldives from PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) mercenaries. The Indian media, too, talked in glowing terms of the operation code-named ‘Operation Cactus’ to save Gayoom. The Indian navy even mentioned it in an anniversary publication, ‘The Indian Navy: A nautical tryst’ alongside ‘Operation Pawan’ launched to liberate the Jaffna peninsula, in Oct. 1987. The Indian navy also pointed out that success of ‘Operation Cactus’ promoted TIME magazine to feature the Indian Navy on its cover, hailing it as the ‘the Next Military Power.’
TIME magazine didn’t even bother to point out that the PLOTE was one of the Indian trained groups, which had operated alongside the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), deployed in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. The PLOTE also maintained offices in India and worked closely with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
The PLOTE which ‘invaded’ the Maldives had been provided with arms, ammunition and equipment by India. It was ironical that India had to launch ‘Operation Cactus’ to neutralise a threat caused by a terrorist group which was under its own operational command.
Raid on Male
In an exclusive interview with ‘The Island’, Luthufee explained the events under which he had reached an agreement with the PLOTE to do away with Gayoom’s regime in the Maldives.
It was Luthufee’s first interview since his release following the Male coup attempt. He felt confident that PLOTE had the expertise to carry out a sea borne operation. Commenting on the raid on Male 23 years ago, Luthufee, who now lives in Sri Lanka said: “I wanted to get rid of Gayoom at any cost. As the election process in my country never gave a reasonable opportunity to the Opposition, I felt an outside force should be used to oust Gayoom. Due to my close association with the then PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran, I negotiated for the deployment of an 80-member strong PLOTE raiding party. In fact, we discussed the sea-borne raid since 1987 after the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, in line with the July 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord.”
Responding to a query, Luthufee emphasised said that PLOTE had been working with both Sri Lankan and Indian authorities in the wake of the Indo-Lanka accord. “PLOTE never asked for control over any part of Maldivian territory, in spite of Gayoom and his propagandists alleging that PLOTE wanted to use the Maldives as a base. Although, my revolt failed primarily due to shortcomings in planning, it forced Gayoom to realise that he couldn’t hoodwink the electorate.”
Luthufee and another Maldivian joined a heavily armed PLOTE contingent on the night of Oct. 29, 1988 on the Mollikulam beach on the north-western coast. They left the north-western shores around 8.30 p.m in two 40-foot fishing trawlers. Luthufee had the support of several key persons in the Maldivian military, ex-Major Abbas Ibrahim, ex-Corporal Abdulla Shahid and Umaru Jamaal. The trawlers reached Male at 4.30 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1988. Having secured the beach without a fight, they divided themselves into several groups and moved to specific targets, among which were the army barracks, President’s house and the Deputy Defence Minister’s residence.
Luthufee said that he was confident of a bloodless coup. But, due to an irrevocable mistake on the part of the group assigned to seize the army barracks, the entire plan had collapsed within a matter of hours. He blamed the failure on the man tasked with securing the army barracks.
MV Progress Light goes under water
Commenting on the situation after the arrival of Indian troops in Male, Luthufee said: “During gun battles we lost two PLOTE personnel, while several received gunshot injuries. We retreated towards Male harbour, as more Indian paratroopers landed in the capital. We didn’t have any other option other than to seize the Maldivian vessel, MV Progress Light. We got away at about 11.00 a.m. on Nov. 3, leaving behind the bodies of two PLOTE cadres killed in action. Three PLOTE personnel trying to get away in a rubber dingy were captured by the Indians.”
The retreating PLOTE group took a small group of hostages, including serving Transport Minister Ahmed Mujuthaba and his wife, and attempted to flee towards Java in Indonesia via waters between India and Sri Lanka.
“We believed the presence of hostages, particularly a minister and his wife, gave us an advantage over those pursuing us. An Indian helicopter maintained constant surveillance, while we proceeded towards Java. But on the following day at about 4:30 p.m., our radar picked up two objects, and we knew the Indian navy was on its way to intercept us. One of the vessels, subsequently identified as INS Gadavari, fired at our ship, though it didn’t cause any serious damage. We kept on course. They contacted us over the ship’s radio and demanded the immediate surrender or face the consequences. A five-member Maldivian defence team, including Major Adam Saheer, was on the Indian warship.”
“The Indian warship demanded that ‘Progress Light’ change course to either an Indian or Maldivian port.
“We refused to give in. We demanded mid-sea negotiations to settle the dispute. The Indians started firing at our ship at the behest of the Maldivians onboard their vessel. The PLOTE commander got in touch with their headquarters in Sri Lanka and sought instructions. They received instructions to execute one hostage and throw his body into the sea. In spite of the Maldivian minister in captivity making a desperate bid to avoid the execution of one of the hostages, the PLOTE took one person out the deck and shot him. They threw the body [overboard] and the Indians recovered it. The remaining hostages volunteered to come onto the main deck in a bid to discourage the Indians from firing at us. But the Maldivians onboard the Indian warship wanted all of us killed.”
“INS Gadavari gave us three hours to surrender unconditionally or face the consequences.”
“We didn’t stop but proceeded towards Sri Lankan waters. Then the Indians opened up with big guns. The minister was among the persons hit during the initial fire. We couldn’t fire back as the Indian ships were out of range of our guns. I directed the Filipino engineer on board ‘Progress Light’ to stop the engine. As I was watching him killing the engine, he was hit by the Indians. We were ordered to jump into the sea and were rescued by the Indians immediately after we raised a white flag.”
Luthufee told The Island he had been blindfolded and locked in a toilet on board the Indian vessel as the warships turned towards Male leaving the MV Progress Light to sink behind them.
“Had everything gone according to our plan, India wouldn’t have time and space to intervene,” Luthufee said.
How did PLOTE manage to keep its clandestine effort to remove Gayoom secret until the raiding party reached Male? Both India and Sri Lanka denied any knowledge of the PLOTE-Luthufee conspiracy. Although action was taken against the PLOTE contingent involved in the coup, the group didn’t face any punitive action. In fact, the PLOTE continued in Sri Lanka as if nothing had happened. India worked closely with the PLOTE. Sri Lanka didn’t even bother to conduct an investigation into the PLOTE’s role in the conspiracy to overthrow a founding member of SAARC. Interestingly, the Maldives too, remained silent as regards the responsibility on the part of India in forming irregular fighting formations, which could have posed a threat not only to a particular country, but destabilised regional security as well.
Due to the failure on the part of successive Sri Lankan governments, there is confusion as regards some issues, including the attempt made by Sri Lankan mercenaries to overthrow Gayoom’s administration. Ikram Sehgal, Publisher and Chief Editor, Defence Journal, Karachi, wrongly blamed the EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front) for the raid on Male. The accusation was made at a presentation made in Colombo on Feb 23, 2005, jointly organised by the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad and Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) Sehgal’s statement meant that even 17 years after the attack on Male, the identity of the perpetrators could still be mixed up. Nothing could be as important as setting the record straight at the end of the conflict. Sehgal alleged that 200 EPRLF cadres had been involved in the operation, while speculating on the possibility of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) being aware of Luthufee’s adventure. Citing swift Indian intervention in support of Gayoom, Sehgal asserted that India could have allowed the raid to take place to secure the Maldivian president’s confidence. But that allegation has never been substantiated.
Close on the heels of the Maldivian adventure, an unidentified gunman assassinated PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran on July 16, 1989. Maheswaran, formerly of the LTTE was one of those who had received military training not only in India but in other parts of the world as well. Although the LTTE was the prime suspect in the Maheswaran killing, the possibility of some other party ordering his assassination cannot be ruled out. Maheswaran was killed during the Premadasa-LTTE honeymoon (April/May 1989 to June 11, 1990).