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  Opinion   Columnists  21 Oct 2023  Manish Tewari | It’s high time to rethink our strategy in Maldives

Manish Tewari | It’s high time to rethink our strategy in Maldives

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Oct 22, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Oct 22, 2023, 12:05 am IST

Dr Mohamed Muizzu’s anti-Indiaism has created a rather unnecessary geopolitical situation and presents a clear challenge to Indian influence

Dr Mohamed Muizzu. (Image : Twitter)
 Dr Mohamed Muizzu. (Image : Twitter)

The  elections in Maldives, resulting in the victory of Dr Mohamed Muizzu, an overtly pro-China and unfortunately anti-India politician, is a stark reminder of how much has changed in Indo-Maldivian relations since the swash buckling  Operation Cactus carried out by India on November 3, 1988.

Thirty five years back, it was India’s surgical intervention that not only preserved  democracy in Maldives but neutralised the coup d’ etat by Abdullah Luthufi and his hired band of Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries who was seeking to overthrow President Abdul Gayoom.

Despite Cold War tensions in 1988 and a bitter domestic divide internally, the operation executed at the personal instance of Prime Minister Late Rajiv Gandhi garnered critical international acclaim from the West, particularly from leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom commended India’s proactive response to prevent the subversion of democracy.

Pro-China does not necessarily have to be anti-India. It is not a binary or a linear equation. However, in Dr Muizzu’s case, that is what it ostensibly it seems to be for the moment, going by reports in the public domain.

Dr Mohamed Muizzu’s anti-Indiaism has created a rather unnecessary geopolitical situation and presents a clear challenge to Indian influence in the Indian Ocean — our strategic backyard.

India and Maldives share close ethnic, linguistic, cultural and commercial ties. The name Maldives derives from the Sanskrit word: mālā (garland), and dvīpa (island). Moreover, the official language of Maldives, Dhivehi, has strong ties to Indic languages such as Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tamil.

When the Maldives became independent from the British on July 26, 1965, India was among the first countries to recognise the archipelago. In 1981, the two countries signed a Comprehensive Trade Agreement that cemented decades of commercial relations. Both nations are founding members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) and the South Asian Economic Union (SAEU). During the unprecedented tsunami of 2004, India was one of the first responders to send relief to the Maldives. Under Operation Vaccine Maitri, Maldives was the first country to receive the Covid-19 vaccine as a grant from India.

However, hardline anti-India and Islamist elements in the Maldavian polity has used these ties to build an anti-India narrative.  They have sought to exploit India’s benign presence in the Maldives and even politicised the well-meaning help and aid provided by India to the Maldives.

These narratives can be traced back to 2010 and 11 when India gifted Maldives surveillance helicopters, and the two sides signed a defence cooperation agreement for joint surveillance in the Indian Ocean. The then Opposition led by people such as Abdulla Yameen criticised this agreement as an attempt by India to infringe upon Maldivian sovereignty, and enhance its hegemony over the island state.

Similarly, in December 2012, a controversy was manufactured to oust GMR-GMIAL (GMR Male International Airport Private Limited) that had won a concession worth $511 million for 25 years for upgrading and operating the Male international airport. The obtuse basis that was made the ground for kicking out GMR was that a $25 airport development charge levied per person for using the airport was a tax and not a user fee and, therefore, illegal, since it had not been approved by the Maldivan Parliament.

As a consequence of these various campaigns of calumny in 2013, Abdulla Yameen came to power and departed from the traditional pro-India stance that was virtually the default setting of Maldives. He furthered intensified the anti-India rhetoric in an attempt to whip up a xenophobic and jingoistic nationalist sentiments and consequently leveraged these manufactured narratives to increase proximity to Beijing. As a result, the Maldives became a member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and invited Chinese investment into the region to offset India.

In 2018, when Ibrahim Solih replaced him as the President; he immediately rectified the wrongs done by his predecessor and sought to improve ties with India by initiating an "India First" policy. This policy prioritised India for economic and defence partnerships and was sensitive to India’s concerns regarding the growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean.

In response, the Opposition coalition, which included the People’s National Congress (the party to which Dr Muizzu belongs) and the Progressive Party of Maldives, launched a policy called the “India Out” campaign. The campaign aimed to remove Indian military presence in the Maldives, which, in reality, consists of a mere 75 Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives to assist the operation of the Dornier aircraft and two helicopters gifted by the Indian government.

 Another aspect that fuelled anti-Indian sentiment in Maldives was the majoritarianism intrinsic to the DNA of the current ruling dispensation in Delhi.

Maldives is a very conservative society with Islam as its state religion; therefore, instances of pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from India were used by the Maldivian Opposition coalition (now in office) to polarise society and build its voter base on an anti-Indian platform.

Maldives is strategically important to India. It overlooks critical Sea Lanes of Commerce (SLOC’s) connecting Asia with Europ and, therefore, serves as a crucial buffer to pre-empt the spread of Chinese influence from the South China Sea to the Northern Indian Ocean and beyond. Given that the Gwadar and Hambantota ports are already controlled by the Chinese, a pro-China Maldives could furthermore augment their access if not ability to project power in the Indian Ocean. This has clear implications on India's sphere of influence — its Monroe doctrine.

Unfortunately, Mohamed Muizzu is not making it easy, for India and by implication for himself, by walking his anti-India rhetoric. He reiterated his campaign bombast of removing Indian troops from the first day of taking charge and also stated that he would exonerate the anti-India former President Abdulla Yameen, who was then released from prison and  placed under house arrest.

Additionally, Dr Muizzu’s strict adherence to Salafism, a radical school of Islam, is at odds with the comparatively liberal Deobandi Islam and the permissive Sufi Islam that characterise the Muslim ethos of the subcontinent.

Moreover, radicalism and extremist ideologies are finding increasing resonance among the youth in Maldives. Certain reports suggest that Maldives contributes the highest number of cadre per-capita to the ranks of the Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Consequently, India-Maldives relations are expected to face challenging times, and India can anticipate both an increased Chinese presence in its strategic backyard as well a greater proliferation of radicalism in its neighbhorhood. The funds of atheism would fuel the extreme frings of religion. It is, therefore, imperative that India deeply rethink its strategy qua the Maldives.

Tags: china-maldives relations, indian ocean region, manish tewari