What’s at Stake for India in the Ongoing Maldives Crisis
A fractured political party, a disempowered judiciary and a rebel ex-president set the stage for an India versus China power play in the Indian Ocean.
The island nation was plunged into political crisis after a top court ordered nine jailed opposition members to be released. This would’ve given the opposition the numbers to vote out President Abdulla Yameen, who immediately imposed a state of emergency for 15 days. President Abdulla Yameen also ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice, another Judge of the court, and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose son Faris was among the opposition leaders who had been exonerated by the supreme court in cases related to corruption.
Incidentally, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and President Abdulla Yameen are half-brothers. In 2011, when Gayoom (who ruled Maldives for 30 years from 1978 to 2008) founded the Progressive Party of Maldives, Yameen was nominated as the Presidential nominee while he remained the head of the party. The two are believed to have fallen out after a disagreement over a 2016 Bill to allow the government to lease islands for development as resorts without competitive bidding. Former President Gayoom was against the bill and his son Faria was expelled from the party for voting against the government, and his daughter Dunya Maumoon had resigned as Foreign Minister.
The other important leader in the list of nine opposition leaders whose release was ordered, was President Mohammad Nasheed. Nasheed had founded the Maldivian Democratic Party and was the country’s first democratically elected President in 2008. In 2011, he resigned under disputed circumstances. Mohammad Nasheed claimed that former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s loyalists had orchestrated a coup d’état against him and, aided by the police and military, forced him to resign “at gunpoint”.
This version was, however, not supported by the Maldives Commission of National Inquiry and in 2015 he was convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Act of Maldives and sentenced to 13 years in prison. A year later, Mohammad Nasheed was given political asylum by the UK, where he had gone for medical treatment.
What’s at Stake
It has everything to do with Maldives’ geographical location. The country is essentially an archipelago of 1,192 islands (of which 199 are inhabited) in the Indian Ocean. It is strategically located near sea lanes through which two-thirds of the world’s oil and half its container ships pass – the Malacca Strait. It is just 700 kms from India’s Lakshadweep Islands and around 1,200 kms from the Indian mainland.
India has Helped Stabilise Maldives Politically and Economically
Although India’s relationship with Maldives dates back to centuries, the partnership emerged stronger after Madives emerged from colonial rule in 1965. India was among the first countries to recognise it as an independent nation and establish diplomatic relations with it. Since then, almost all Prime Ministers of India have visited Maldives.
In 1988, when a Maldivian group led by Abdullah Luthufi attempted to overthrow the government, the then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom escaped capture and requested military intervention from several countries, including India. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi responded, deploying paratroopers and naval warships to the island nation. India’s military intervention was codenamed Operation Cactus. On international platforms, Maldives has consistently favoured India’s stand, be it at the United Nations, the Commonwealth or the SAARC.
The most visible symbol of India’s assistance to Maldives was the establishment of a medical complex, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. The 200-bed hospital, agreed upon during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Male in 1986, was built at a cost Rs 42.5 crore and was inaugurated in 2005. Maldives’ first institute of Technical Education was also set up as a grant-in-aid project of India in 1996.
In December 2004, when the tsunami hit Maldives, India was among the first countries to rush relief and aid to the island nation. Two Indian Air Force Avros and a Coast Guard Dornier dropped relief materials and stayed back to continue relief operations. INS Mysore, INS Udaygiri and INS Aditya were also dispatched to help provide medical aid, food packets, and conduct search and rescue operations. India had at the time also extended financial aid to the government of Maldives to help it tide over the crisis it faced in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami.
Maldives is Crucial to India’s Internal Security
For India, the strategic importance of Maldives increased post 9/11 and especially after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai after it came to light that extremists were using sea routes to enter the country. Maldives, by virtue of its proximity to India, was assessed to be a possible launching pad for terrorists. In 2009, the two countries signed a bilateral pact during the Defence Minister AK Antonys’s visit. As per the pact, the two countries agreed to bolster defence cooperation, setting up of 26 radars to be linked to the Indian coastal command. In addition, India was to establish an air force station from where surveillance flights would be carried out by Dornier aircraft and also host Indian military helicopters.
An analysis published for the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) portal by Balaji Chandramohan traces how evidence of extremism had emerged in Maldives in 2007, including the bombing of tourist resorts in Male’s Sutlan Park and the establishment of a Sharia-based mini-state on the island of Himandhoo.
In addition, Indian intelligence agencies have come across information that Faisal Haroun, a top Lashkar-e–Taiba operative who earlier oversaw the group’s India-focused operations from Bangladesh, had been attempting to set up an Indian Ocean base for the group. Along with a Male-based Maldives resident, Ali Assham, Haroun has studied how to use a deserted Indian Ocean island to build a weapons storehouse, from where they could be moved to Kerala and then on to the rest of India.
More recently, attempts by the Islamic State to gain a foothold in Maldives has emerged as a security concern for India. According to a classified Intelligence Bureau report accessed by the Deccan Chronicle in 2016, the IS falsely claimed credit for the attack on an upmarket restaurant in Dhaka the same year, to increase its footprint in the Indian subcontinent. The report said that IS has as many as 500 sympathisers in Maldives, but the terror group has not yet been able to establish contact or create a formidable network in the country.
In fact, it is estimated that out of a population of 400,000, about 200 young Maldivians had travelled to Syria to train and fight for the IS. The killing of a 29-year-old liberal blogger Yameen Rashid who wrote about increasing radicalisation in the Maldives amplified security concerns not just in the Indian security establishment, but also for the tourism industry which forms the backbone of the Maldivian economy.
The Sharp Tilt Towards China
India’s interest in Maldives is imperative also because of China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean. Until 2011, Maldives did not figure high on China’s list of diplomatic priorities. At the time, Beijing did not even have an embassy in Maldives. But this changed dramatically after President Xi Jinping’s visit to Male in 2014 – the first time a Chinese head of state visited the island nation since the two countries established contact in 1972.
Since then, the two countries have entered into bilateral agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) that have enhanced cooperation between the two countries in the fields of education, health, tourism, technology and climate change.
However, President Mohammad Nasheed’s ouster in February was a turning point in Indian-Maldivian ties. The new regime brought an obvious tilt towards China. An agreement signed between India’s GMR Infrastructure to upgrade the Male airport was abruptly terminated in November 2012 by Nasheed’s successor and the contract was awarded to a state-owned Chinese company.
In 2015, when the Maldivian Parliament enacted a law allowing foreigners to own land in Maldives provided they invest over $1billion in a project, and since 70% of the project is on reclaimed land, it led to concerns that it would allow China to build a base on a Maldivian island. Incidentally, this law is believed to have been passed despite internal opposition from members of the government.
In December 2017, Maldives became the second South Asian country after Pakistan to sign a Free Trade Agreement with China. The agreement covers trade in goods and services, investment and economic and technical cooperation. Most of China’s industrial products and agricultural products such as flowers, plants and vegetables exported to Maldives will benefit from this.
Additionally, Maldives also signed an MoU that brings it into the Maritime Silk Road, a component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which seeks to connect China with countries in Asia and Africa.
In August 2017, Maldives permitted three Chinese warships to dock in Male and promptly despatched Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim to allay India’s fears and reaffirm his government’s “India First” policy.
After ex-president Mohammed Nasheed sought India’s diplomatic and military aid to restore order in Maldives, China responded with a warning against any outside interference.
The Global Times, a publication of the ruling Communist Party of China, came out with an editorial, stating:
On 8 February, the Yameen Abdul Gayoom government announced that it had sent special envoys to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. When asked why an envoy was not sent to India, the embassy in Delhi issued a statement to say that India had denied permission for the envoy to visit.
For now, India has taken a hard stand on the current Maldivian regime and has also placed the military on standby for evacuation of Indian tourists, if necessary.