Skip to comments.Inside a comic-book coup(Maldives coup of 1988)
Posted on 03/18/2005 11:19:06 PM PST by sukhoi-30mki
Inside a comic-book coup
Why the Maldivian president needs to be eternally grateful to an unsung Indian frigate captain
Posted online: Saturday, March 19, 2005 at 0213 hours IST
Earlier this week some newspapers carried 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 and, 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 last week, young at 59, due to kidney complications.
I can tell you exactly when we were together in that chase, on the very eve of Diwali. 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 though, unlike John Simpson of the BBC in Kabul, we would claim no credit for saving the Maldives. Luthufi and his band of hired guns, mostly Sri Lankan Tamil fighters engaged by him as mercenaries, had escaped on a commandeered ship,
Progress Light the ship was anchored at Male, with fresh supplies of crates of Johnnie Walker whiskey (is Renuka Chowdhury reading this?) for the Male duty-free shop when it was hijacked. What was worse, 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 wifes birthday, November 8, 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-38s 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 he should have been around to tell it. I only got to his ship after that operation was concluded and I got a ride on his ships 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 ships 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 up, blind-folded with two marine commandos watching him, fingers on the triggers of their carbines. And 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 all along: 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? 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 with surgical cool of the chase, of how they broke the mercenaries will, his own ships 30-mm anti-aircraft cannon breaking the swinging derrick on Progress Light, prising away its only speedboat, his 57-mm guns firing all around the quarry spreading shrapnel, and his Sea King dropping anti-submarine depth charges around 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, Indias newly acquired, long-distance military muscle was on display. The red berets of the para battalion, led by Brigadier Furooq 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 frigate 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 wasnt such a big story to file in my case it was no longer a moving, coup-type story. Later in the evening some of us reporters even went jogging around the island hotel of Kurumba Village Resort, with Tavleen Singh, now one of the most popular Indian Express columnists, even running on bare feet (she had had no time to pack her jogging shoes) and shorts that she borrowed from me and 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 republics armed forces 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 Gandhis number in it. Remember, these were still pre-mobile phone days in the subcontinent. Or on how the republic had no prisons, so anybody who needed to be punished really severely was banished to one of its many uninhabited islands. One of the British reporters 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 paras and introduce himself as Mark Tully and then enjoy the warmest of handshakes. He even posed for pictures.
A lot has changed in 17 years, but some hasnt. Gayoom survived that coup but is once again facing a challenge to his authority. Just this week he abrogated all powers of his cabinet and took total control. Now he is coming to Delhi, obviously looking for support. He does not need the paras any more but if there is one thing Rajiv Gandhi achieved with his prompt intervention then is 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 has enjoyed Indias support and affection ever since will influence the nature of discussions even when he comes calling now, in another moment of crisis.
And look at what else has changed meanwhile. The tiny island-airport of Hulule 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 monster. The Maldivian per capita income growth has beaten ours by a neat two percentage points each year since 1988 and an average Maldivian is now nearly five times richer than an average Indian. Maldives tourist arrivals have nearly quadrupled nearly seven lakhs estimated (on a total population of two lakhs!) in 2004 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 that tolerates tourists, bikinis, bars, and so on. And while I am not sure if the size of its armed forces has increased meanwhile, the fact is, should things go wrong at some point again, India will always be round the corner. As will be some other captain of the Indian Navy with some other frigate or destroyer, happy to miss his wifes birthday in the line of duty.
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This is something Bollywood need to make a movie of. Such a comedy!
unlike John Simpson of the BBC in Kabul, we would claim no credit for saving the Maldives
That was so funny! I had almost forgotten about it.