It was pitch-dark and, after a short run, the IL came to a standstill, the aft-end ramp was lowered and in no time the 150 men and two jeeps were out. It was 9.48 p.m.
‘So far so good,’ Bulsara thought.
Bhatia believes that this was the most critical part of the operation. He and his boss, Bulsara, could never be sure that the person at the Hulhule ATC had not been compromised or coerced by the rebels or that they were not walking into a trap laid by the Tamil mercenaries. The army was at that time beset with stories of the Tamil Tigers cunningly leading soldiers into a trap, often resulting in heavy casualties. That context shaped their fears, even as Bulsara boldly chose to come in the first aircraft and then to land at Hulhule airport.
As the aircraft was being emptied quickly to allow the second aircraft to land, Malik asked Banerjee whether he would like to return with him on the plane to Bangalore or remain in the Maldives.
‘I didn’t hesitate. I said that he could go back but I was going to stay,’ Banerjee recalls. ‘In my mind, I was clear; I had returned to my charge where in my absence there had been an attempted coup, and the matter still needed attention and I was going to be part of this action.’
The eagle had landed. A flight of four hours and forty-four minutes from wheels up at Agra to the runway at Hulhule had safely touched down, within just sixteen hours of the first phone call being received in Delhi from the Maldives. It was time for some live action.
The Indian high commissioner by his side, Bulsara was now in the thick of the action. There were sounds of sporadic gunfire and the occasional thud of high explosives coming from a distance. In the melee of soldiers rushing out, he had been separated from Bhatia. The other officers, thoroughly briefed, were all on their way to their assigned tasks. The initial parties fanned out to secure the airport and the terminal. As the first aircraft turned around and took off, the second IL-76 landed, and took off less than five minutes later. The troops from the second plane secured the ATC, jetty, fuel jetty and the northern and southern ends of the airfield.
Through some tall grass and broken ground, Bulsara headed for the terminal building along with his batman and the radio operator. He found Bhatia there, along with the officers who had landed in the second aircraft.
Bhatia informed Bulsara that one of their teams had just beaten a group of mercenaries to the jetty, who were even then attempting to land there and take control of the boats.
This was one of the what-ifs that had worried Bulsara and his team—the journey to Malé. What if there were no dhonis at Hulhule, or what if there were no boatmen? They would then have had to wait for the army boats to fetch up in one of the later flights. That would have delayed the operation and handed over the advantage to the mercenaries.
Chordia, who had got down along with another colleague to guide a paradrop over a dropping zone if required later, moved to the ATC. As soon as the troops had control of the ATC, they tried to establish radio contact with the president at his secret location in Malé. This was done through a loyal Maldivian official at the ATC who had transmitted the password to the IL-76 and switched on the runway lights for landing.
Banerjee was the first to speak to the president. ‘I greeted the president briefly, and informed him that India had taken immediate steps to come forward to help him in response to his urgent appeal. I then handed the mike to Brigadier Bulsara.’
The president implored Bulsara to hurry up, as the rebels had surrounded his safe house and he could hear firing close by. Bulsara told the president, ‘Mr President, the Indian army has arrived and will do its best.’
In that short conversation, Bulsara had actually underplayed his determination to save the president. ‘I was not about to go through what I had these past ten hours, fly 3000 kilometres, and then lose him to a bunch of ragtag mercenaries.’
He was determined to have the troops move quickly to Malé and Banerjee’s presence turned out to be of great help there. Some Maldivian National Security Service officials who had secured the airport during the day but had discarded their uniforms to merge with the crowd now emerged from the darkness. Banerjee recognized a couple of them who were normally deployed at the president’s office and the ministry of foreign affairs. More important, several of them recognized Banerjee and that made the paratroopers’ task easier, as they arranged dhonis from the jetty and also acted as guides and boatmen for the route to Malé.
Every successful military operation requires more than a dose of luck, and the Para Brigade had been lucky with a couple of things so far. The rebels had not thought of capturing Hulhule airport, and dhonis were available at Hulhule to take the soldiers to Malé. In addition, Banerjee’s presence had helped them find guides and boatmen.
Excerpted from Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military (Rs80) by Sushant Singh, with permission from Juggernaut Books.
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