As Delhi puts troops on alert, remembering Indian officer who saved ex-Maldivian president

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom | Facebook page

Ex-Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is under siege again, now by his half-brother and current dictator. He has to be grateful to an Indian Naval officer for being alive.

In mid-March 2005, my reporter’s eye caught a small obituary notice, announcing the demise of Vice-Admiral Srinivasa Varadachari V. Gopalachari of the Indian Navy. The name, the face under the naval hat, figured in my memory somewhere.

Sure enough, a little checking confirmed that he was the master of frigate INS Godavari when it went chasing the Maldives coup leaders in the Indian Ocean in 1988. He died young at 59, due to kidney complications.

Maldives is back in the news again and some of the characters, notably former President and dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom are back in focus. It takes me back to that story and I can tell you exactly when Late Vice-Adm. Gopalachari (then Captain) and I were together in that chase, on the eve of Diwali in 1988.

The object of the chase was Abdullah Luthufi, the renegade Maldivian businessman-smuggler who had led a coup that nearly succeeded in dethroning President Gayoom, but was thwarted by the arrival of Indian paratroopers — along with some of us parachute journalists. Luthufi and his band of hired guns, mostly Sri Lankan Tamil fighters engaged by him as mercenaries, had escaped after the foiled coup on a commandeered ship.

The ship, Progress Light, was anchored at Male, with fresh supplies of crates of Johnnie Walker whisky for the Male duty-free shop when it was hijacked by Luthufi and his mercenaries. More seriously, he had taken along 27 hostages, including foreign tourists and members of the Maldivian cabinet.

Gopalachari, at this point, was nearly a thousand kilometres away, but sailing furiously for home. He had been on the high seas for 82 days and his wife’s birthday, 8 November, was approaching.

Naval headquarters found him and the Godavari closest to the Maldives, and he was to immediately change course and start looking for the rogue ship. How he, with the help of IL-38 and TU-142 aircraft, traced the ship, disabled it and caught the mercenaries who, to deter him, killed two of the hostages and dumped their bodies tied to buoys, is a long story, and ideally, Gopalachari should have been around to tell it. I only got to his ship after that operation was over and got a ride on the ship’s own Sea King helicopter, which was running ferries from the frigate to the island bringing back the hostages.

By the time I landed on the ship’s helipad, most of the hostages had gone home. But the mercenaries were there. Gopalachari offered to take me along for a chat with Luthufi, the man who thought he could be President of the Islamic Republic of Maldives. We went through many narrow corridors and steel spiral staircases and found Luthufi under one, tied, blind-folded and with two marine commandos watching him, fingers on the triggers of their carbines.

You could see they looked really keen he would make a false move — they had seen his thugs kill two hostages and dump their bodies in the sea. I sat down with Luthufi and asked him the question that had been bothering me: how could someone, in this time and age, imagine that he could take over a nation with a comic-book coup staged by a hundred soldiers of fortune and a junk-ship?

But Luthufi had his answer: “Why not? In a country like the Maldives, anybody can be President. If only luck had been with us. If only you Indians had come a little later.”

Anyway, I left in a few hours, and that is all the time I ever spent with (then) Capt. Gopalachari, who told me of the chase with surgical cool, of how they broke the mercenaries’ will, his own ship’s 30-mm anti-aircraft cannon breaking the swinging derrick on Progress Light, prising away its only speedboat, his 57-mm guns firing all around it spreading shrapnel, and his Sea King dropping anti-submarine depth charges close to the ship — not to damage it, but to bounce it violently.

Back in Male, the Maldivian capital, an island so small I could then run coast-to-coast in five minutes, India’s newly acquired, long-distance military muscle was on display. The red berets of the para battalion, led by Brigadier Farooq Balsara, were everywhere, and such was the gratitude of the government that it not only allowed the duty-free shops to remain open till late night, it even allowed them to sell to Indian troops in rupees, waiving foreign currency and passport requirements.

There had really been no combat except the cannon fire from INS Godavari and training ship INS Betwa, which had joined it. The only Indian casualty was a jawan who accidentally shot himself in the foot. There wasn’t such a big story to file — in my case, it was no longer a developing story.

Later in the evening, some of us reporters even went jogging around the island hotel of Kurumba Village Resort, with Tavleen Singh even running on bare feet (she had had no time to pack her jogging shoes) and shorts that she borrowed from me. This was, obviously, the cause of much banter among a hack-pack that found the excitement of the coup story fading rather fast.

We were all searching for and writing the same side-stories: on the fact that the republic’s armed forces then had a total strength of 1,400 soldiers who also acted as firefighters, policemen and the official, ceremonial band. That Gayoom had survived because when he fled his palace, he had the presence of mind to carry along his phone book with Rajiv Gandhi’s number in it. Remember, these were still pre-mobile phone days in the subcontinent. And note also, that last night, as he found himself under siege again, he appealed to the US Ambassador Atul Keshap (based in Colombo), and Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra on Twitter. Times change, so do technologies, but not tactics.

We did stories on how the republic had no prisons, so anybody who needed to be punished severely was banished to one of its many uninhabited islands. We heard the story of a famous German convict who his country’s diplomats reached, offering to take him back after a long “incarceration” on one such island. And he said no thanks; he was having such a splendid time in isolation.

One of the British reporters (Derek Brown of The Guardian) was playing a game of his own to keep himself busy, and the rest of us amused: he would walk up to any strolling band of paratroopers, introduce himself as Mark Tully, and then enjoy the warmest of handshakes. He even posed for pictures, pretending to be ‘Tully Saab’. I was later Brown’s tenant in London while on a six-month sabbatical in 1993.

A lot has changed in three decades, but some hasn’t. Gayoom survived that coup, but is once again facing a threat to his life, though as a dissident now. He had turned hostile to India for some time, but is now seeking its support.

As Manu Pubby reported in ThePrint Tuesday afternoon, Indian troops are ready. The diplomatic and strategic situation is now very different from 1988. Also, unlike then, the government of Maldives is not seeking Indian help. But there is an expectation, as India cannot be seen to be doing nothing. There are also varying views on this as you’d read in the #TalkPoint debate on the issue.

With his prompt intervention then, Rajiv Gandhi achieved a long-lasting notion of Indian influence in the Maldives. And while gratitude is not a virtue often found in international diplomacy, the fact that Gayoom then owed his life to Indian intervention, and enjoyed India’s support and affection, influences the nature of discussions even when he comes calling now, in another moment of crisis. The current regime ruling Maldives has tried to play China versus India, and is caught in a mess of its own making.

Meanwhile, look also at what else has changed in Maldives. The tiny island-airport of Hulhule, where we landed in the paratroopers’ IL-76 in 1988, has now given way to a marvellously efficient, modern and busy new airport, while our counterpart, Thiruvananthapuram, remains what it was, a CPWD/AAI monster. The Maldivian per capita income growth has beaten ours by a neat two percentage points most of the time since 1988, and an average Maldivian is now more than five times richer than an average Indian.

Tourist arrivals in Maldives were at around 1.3 million per annum in 2017, on a population of just 4.5 lakh, while ours have just about doubled.

On all social and economic indicators, the Maldives has beaten us, following liberal and open trading policies and keeping a relaxed Islamic outlook (except lately) that tolerates tourists, bikinis, bars, and so on. And while the size of its armed forces has increased, these are still small and poorly organised.

For many Maldivians, there is still the expectation that should things go really wrong, India will always be close by. As will be some other captain of the Indian Navy with another frigate or destroyer, happy to miss his wife’s birthday in the line of duty.

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