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Once Upon A Time in the Maldives...

February 20, 2018 09:56 IST

30 years ago, after India sent in troops to resolve a crisis in the Maldives, Ambassador B S Prakash was part of an Indian government team assigned to the islands to help the then president.
This is what he discovered. A Must Read!
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Maldives is in the news again.

A domestic crisis with at least regional -- if not international -- ramifications. I dutifully read the news and the op-ed pieces on what India should or should not do -- a different question from what India can or cannot do.

Opinions predictably range from exhortations to intervene and 'restore democracy' to not-interfere and respect Maldivian 'sovereignty'. And ten other shades in between.

 

My mind goes back to 1988, another crisis in the islands where I too was a participant- observer. I was a middle level officer in the foreign ministry dealing with the region: Sri Lanka was our principal headache in those years and Maldives, a blip on our radar.

What happened then in the Maldives is now well known and well documented. A group of Sri Lankan Tamil militants attacked the capital Male one morning with the intention of capturing an atoll for their purposes; the fear of them overthrowing the government of then President Gayoom; the assessment that if they were to take over the only airport in Hulhule, the situation may become irretrievable; the appeal to then PM Rajiv Gandhi to intervene and secure the regime.

The story of how India responded within 24 hours and dispatched our troops by air has also been told by our air force personnel and others. It is a success story and has many fathers.

Did I see it unfold? Yes, hour by hour, but from some distance with my boss as a direct actor coordinating our response.

My reminiscences start a little later. Soon after he was 'secured', President Gayoom requested India for some specialist advice.

A team was put together to assess how Maldives could be made safer and avoid another possible take over like what had been witnessed.

This team of security specialists had a senior officer each from our army, navy and air force, an intelligence officer and yours truly as the secretary to the group from the ministry of external affairs.

I was the only non-uniformed officer (as the faujis call us), although all of us left for Male dressed in formal suits, befitting the gravity of the situation!

If memory serves me right, this was about a week after the event.

Landing at the airport, our first assessment was that we were ridiculously dressed. Male, the capital was oppressively hot and we were drenched in sweat in no time. Besides, all around us were jeans or bikini-clad foreigners who gazed at us wonderingly.

Our Maldivian hosts were also in formal attire, of course, but for some reason did not perspire. In any case, in no time at all, we were transferred to one of their beautiful resort islands, with our official mission to start the next day. (Meanwhile we had assessed the security of the airport, by then very secure with Indian troops manning it).

At the hotel, we started our internal confabulations in earnestness, preparatory to our consultations with the Maldivian side. I watched with fascination as to how a piece of territory is viewed differently by strategic experts.

'It is basically a marine environment and hence both its security challenge and protection should have a predominantly maritime component,' the naval officer emphasised, regretting that we did not have a coast guard representative in our team, as the 'bloody fiancé chaps had shot it down'.

'But the principal rescue was with our planes landing and thus air lift capability is the key,' pointed out our air force colleague forcefully.

'But, what can you do without boots on the ground?' trumped the brigadier.

The intelligence officer and myself did not really have territories or turf to defend, but dutifully projected our indispensable roles, which should remain 'Top Secret'.

Working late into the night, we reached an approach as to what the Maldives should do and how to discuss this issue with them.

Later in the night we disguised ourselves in beach clothes and mingled with the rest of the tourists on that island.

It was a bit of a discomfiture to learn that most of them were not even aware that there had been a crisis in the capital, Male, a separate island.

Some talked excitedly of a Tamil film that was being shot in the capital, a few days back, and of the lungi-clad men running around on the streets with guns.

We could not tell them that what they had seen was actually the attempted coup that had been foiled and of our connected mission.

The local Maldivian staff in the resort seemed so inscrutable and stoic that to this day, I do not know whether they knew that something had happened in their nation.

Next day, boarding the boats in suits and with briefcases -- to the great bemusement of tourists in shorts lounging lazily at the shore -- we reached the capital and started our talks and assessments.

Different contingencies were visualised -- attack from the sea, by choppers, armed insurrection, unarmed rebellion -- and suitable counter measures planned.

Did we discuss, the scenario of the reigning president sacking the supreme court and sending half his cabinet to jail? I cannot reveal.

In any case, much of what was discussed cannot be disclosed for operational reasons, as they say, but a few nuggets come to mind that are no longer 'State secrets'.

The first task was about how to 'imprison' the Tamil militants (the word 'terrorist' was not the default description, those days).

Maldives had no conventional prison at that time. The solution was simple: Find an uninhabited island and drop them there! The boat could go once in a while to supply rations.

Longer discussions were on the reorganisation of national defence.

As the talks proceeded, fairly soon -- after all we were intelligent and experienced professionals -- we realised that the idea of a separate army, coast guard and aerial power would not be realistic for the Maldives.

'Human resources' were a constraint, it was agreed euphemistically. Models were thought of to incorporate all these elements into an integrated defence force.

But the imperative to differentiate between defence and policing was insisted upon both by our armed forces and our intelligence colleague. Surely, this is self-evident?

The Maldivians nodded, but looked doubtful. Our police officer then explained that one other distinction had to be observed.

The men who maintain public law and order and catch an occasional thief in Male -- or in other words the police in its conventional sense -- he said, cannot be relied upon to covertly watch the subversives or identify the enemies of the State.

It is a cardinal principle that the police in uniforms are separate from intelligence operatives in civvies, he insisted. The point was duly understood and noted by our counterparts, but as the discussions progressed something seemed to be troubling them.

'I think we can identify a capable officer for the Intelligence,' said their principal security official, who had been tasked to finalise the reorganisation.

'I believe Mr... is right for the job,' he told the minister.

Doubts seem to crease the minister's brow.

'Well... but he is also the Band Master of the national band,' the minister replied.

'But, Minister, surely in moments of national crisis, intelligence has to take priority over the band...' we said collectively.

'OK. but in the evenings.... well, he is also our football coach,' said the minister. 'Surely, that is a national priority.'

B S Prakash is a retired Ambassador and a long-standing Rediff.com columnist.

B S Prakash