Indira Gandhi planned military intervention in 1983 to save Indian-origin leader

When President Pranab Mukherjee lands in Mauritius on Monday, he will be buttressing a relationship with an Indian Ocean nation that is so central to India’s security interests that it went to the extent of planning military intervention to ensure an Indian-origin Prime Minister remained in power there.

The Top Secret ‘Operation Lal Dora’ — which remains highly classified to this day — was conceived in 1983 with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s approval and called for the amphibious landing of troops from the 54th Division to help the Mauritian Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth fight off a challenge from his radical rival Paul Berenger which New Delhi feared might take the form of an attempted coup.

India’s military plans also included the deployment of major naval assets including as many as six destroyers with Alouette helicopters and MK 42C Sea Kings for slithering operations, according to the first detailed account of the events by Australian academic David Brewster and the former Director, Naval Intelligence, Ranjit Rai, in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Asian Security (‘Operation Lal Dora: India’s aborted military intervention in Mauritius’).

Mrs. Gandhi put the military part of the operation on hold after a squabble between the Navy and the Army over who would lead the intervention. Instead, she chose to task the Research and Analysis Wing’s then chief, Nowsher F. Suntook, with supervising a largely intelligence-led operation to reunite the Indian community whose fracturing along ideological and communal lines had allowed Mr. Berenger to mount a political challenge.

“The matter remains highly classified to this day,” a retired intelligence official familiar with the operation told The Hindu on condition of anonymity. “But it was a huge success. As a result, Jugnauth stayed on as PM for more than ten years. We produced this outcome by political means.”

A measure of this ‘huge success’ was Mr. Jugnauth’s subsequent decision to request India Gandhi for an Indian as his national security adviser. “He wanted an intelligence officer but we sent an army man, General J.N. Tamini, who remained there for many years,” the retired officer recalled.

India’s first military intervention in the Indian Ocean came four years later, first with INS Vindhyagiri helping to abort a coup in the Seychelles in 1986 (‘Operation Flowers are Blooming’) and then ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988 when commandos and naval ships were rushed to the Maldives after Sri Lankan Tamil militants sought to unseat the then President, Abdul Gayoom.

But India has never acknowledged its 1983 plans to save the Jugnauth government in Mauritius using military means. Indeed, there has been no public account of this operation till the article written by Prof. Brewster and Cmde Rai, which is based largely on interviews with retired Navy and Army officers. In his book on the external agency, Kaoboys of R&AW, former intelligence official B. Raman mentioned Suntook’s mission but did not name the country.

According to Dr. Brewster and Cmde Rai, the Indian military was divided on the planned operation with the then Navy Chief, Admiral O.S. Dawson backing the idea and General S.K. Sinha, who was the deputy Army chief at the time, telling Mrs Gandhi he did not have confidence in the planned operation. Though they document the concrete military preparations which got under way in Bombay at the time, the two scholars speculate that Mrs. Gandhi’s real aim may have been to spread the word in Mauritius — as a signal to the Berenger camp — that Indian military intervention was imminent.

Officials on the intelligence side don’t disagree. “[The situation in Mauritius] wasn’t really a military threat of the kind for which the Navy was asked to prepare [a plan] for. Actually, Jugnauth had requested that a senior R&AW official rush to Port Louis and help defuse the crisis. So the matter was taken out of the Navy’s hands and given over to the R&AW,” recalled a veteran intelligence officer.

Suntook passed away a few years ago but one officer who was around at that time told The Hindu that the operation was a “very fine piece” of intelligence and operational work by the R&AW chief who was pitchforked into Mauritius by Mrs. Gandhi on the very day he was to retire.

Soon after that operation, Mauritius became a listening post for the Indian Navy that bolstered a 1974 agreement for sending Indian defence officers on deputation to its coast guard and helicopter squadron. Today 35 to 40 Mauritian police officials train every year at Indian defence training academies.

Though eventually aborted, Operation Lal Dora has a special resonance today because of the Indian strategic community’s focus on promoting the Indian Navy’s role in the wider neighbourhood, especially the Indian Ocean. This call for a blue water navy has been helped by the improved budgetary allocation for the Navy to buy military hardware.

This article has been corrected for an editing error.