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Written by Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch
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In November 1988, an attempted coup in the Maldives nearly succeeded. The ramifications of such an eventuality would have been staggering. It was carried out by mercenaries from the PLOTE (People’s Liberation Army of Tamil Eelam), an armed outfit fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka but it never became clear what the new government would have given to the PLOTE leadership if the coup had been successful. At the very minimum, the outfit would most certainly have got the use of one or more of the Maldivian Islands as a quid pro quo which they could have used as safe bases from where to launch attacks against the Sri Lankan armed forces. This would have vitiated the security atmosphere in the region, the impact of which we would probably still be feeling today.

It was fortunate that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom went into hiding and evaded capture by the plotters. He sent an urgent message to India for help, which resulted in one of the most daring rescue missions ever launched, code named Operation Cactus. In a lightning operation, the likes of which have rarely been seen in history, Indian para commandos were landed by the Indian Air Force in pitch darkness over a runway that no one had secured. And then the troops got into action and quickly seizing control, neutralised the opposition.

All these details have been well sketched out in this amazing book. However, things were not as simple as that. It is apparent that like many instances in the past, the force carrying out the operation had to make do without maps, without intelligence and most glaringly, without adequate equipment. The troops had also not been prepared or trained for such a contingency. Yet they delivered, which simply points to the brilliant leadership of the Commander, 50 (I) Para Brigade, Brig F. F. C. Bulsara and the grit and courage of the officers and men from the Army and Air Force who took part in the operation.

Why is the Indian military so often short changed that it has to go into operations in such a manner? Perhaps it has something to do with the higher structural organisation of the Ministry of Defence, wherein the babus have power without accountability and the military is left holding the baby. That remains our weakness till date.

An important aspect of Operation Cactus was the role of leadership. Brig Bulsara was given a plan by the VCOAS, which he thought was unworkable. He had the courage of his convictions to oppose the plan which would have been an unmitigated disaster had it been implemented. The Vice Chief was abusive and crass when he spoke to Bulsara over the telephone, but the Commander held firm. It is generally not well known that on completion of operations, Brig. Bulsara, while waiting at the airport for the flight back home, wrote a hand written note to Gen. Rodrigues. In this note, Brig Bulsara informed the Vice Chief that the operation had been successfully completed. He then expressed his anguish at the crude and abusive language used by the VCOAS in the run up to the operation, stating “While issuing instructions for the Operation, you did not speak to a formation commander appropriately. May I request you to refrain from speaking to Formation commanders the way you did,”or words to that effect. And lastly,he stated that should he ever be asked to go into battle again, he would not like to do so under Rodrigues.

The VCOAS replied in a hand written note stating that he said things under the heat of the moment, and that he harboured no ill will towards Bulsara. Be that as it may, it is tragic that the man who gave India victory at Maldives, did not get his next rank. The Vice Chief however rose to become the Chief!

This is a book that should be read by all officers of the Armed Forces. The Maldives operation should also be a compulsory subject for promotion examination in India’s Armed Forces and should be studied to understand the role that leadership plays in war.


There could be no better advertisement for the Indian Army, and indeed for the Indian Armed Forces than this book by General Baljit Singh. A melange of 101 short stories, written with consummate passion and skill, takes the reader to places very few have been privileged to see and brings forth vivid experiences of life in uniform, in all its resplendent multi-coloured hues. Only a person as erudite as the General, with his love for nature, his passion for the uniform and his literary skills could have put forth his experiences in such a unique manner.

The very first story, “Two Voices from Kargil Battlefield”, gets the reader hooked to the book. Told with charming simplicity, the first of the ‘voices’ was a telephone call from his erstwhile sevadaar in 198284, who had by 1999, risen to the rank of Havildar. Over the telephone, he proudly related how he had led his team of soldiers from 3/3 GR to capture the feature assigned to them in the Dras Sector, during the Kargil conflict in 1999. The second voice was another telephone call, this time from a young captain, who had directed artillery fire on to the enemy positions, while perched at a height of 15,000 feet atop an exposed mountain top! “You fire a round at him and sure enough, you can expect him on your location in precisely one minute”, said the young Captain with disarming candour. Somewhere in the middle of the book is an equally gripping story titled, The Long Road to Siachen, which gives out a vivid account of the race to the Siachen Glacier, which culminated in the capture of the Qaid post by Sub Bana Singh, who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for this feat, the Qaid post thereafter being renamed as ‘Bana Post’.

Equally compelling are the stories penned of famous personalities. The authors meeting with General Jameel Mehmood, when the latter visited him in his retirement home in the pristine forests of the Adivasis, making the locals wonder what the strange bird was that had landed in their midst, throwing up a cloud of dust! Or of his account of the life and times of Brigadier Sir John Smyth, which gives the reader a peep into history and of life in the Army a century ago. The short story of Adela Florence Nicholson (1865-1904) also makes for fascinating reading. Adela was the first woman, admittedly not a native but Indian domiciled, who published poetry in english, long before Sarojini Naidu!

The personalities covered in the book are diverse. Subedar Major Umrao Singh, a Victoria Cross winner, the indomitable Air Commodore Mehar Singh, DSO, MVC, who flew the first Dakota in to Ladakh, landing at Leh on an unprepared surface, along with General Thimaya, to “ prevent the fall of Leh”, are but two heroes written about in this book. Also cov-ered is the life of General EF Norton (18841954), a great soldier and an iconic mountaineer, a story on Queen Elizabeth, another on General Jacob and a most captivating story of India’s beloved President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

But the book is not just about famous personalities. It is also replete with stories which bring out the authors love affair with nature and wild life. His abiding commitment to the promotion of nature conservation in general, but more so both within and by the Armed Forces found recognition, when he was invited to serve on the Board of Trustees, of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s India Chapter. Anecdotes of the authors travels are interspersed in the book, which make for delightful reading. These include visits to the Kanha National park and stories of a variety of birds and animals, butterflies and other tales of wildlife. Being in the Army gives a soldier a myriad number of opportunities to interact with nature, but one does need a discerning eye and a passion to truly revel in its beauty.

There are also stories of a general nature, interspersed in the book. The topics are diverse - from talking about ‘Siachen Allowance to Soldiers’, the author shifts to ‘India’s Vanishing Birds’, and then on to ‘Earliest Dalliances with Everest’ followed by ‘Vignettes from the Swat Valley’. This is what makes the book endearing. It is a collection of stories written by the author over a period of time, some of which have now found their way into this book. A most interesting potpourri, which the reader can flavour from whichever page she or he chooses to open.

Priced at Rs 2995 in hard cover, the book is perhaps out of reach for the young reader and would most likely find a place only in libraries. This is a book which will be enjoyed by the veterans and those in uniform, and also by India’s youth, which will enable them to see the personnel of their Armed Forces in a different light.

Read 100 timesLast modified on Saturday, 07 July 2018 11:17
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