Maldives Crisis Not Like Operation Cactus, India Can’t Oust Yameen

An emergency was declared in Maldives for 15 days on Monday, 5 February. 

5 min read
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(Hours after this story was published, President Yameen imposed emergency in the Maldives for approximately 15 days. Yameen, who a few days ago had said there had never been a more difficult 5-year term in the history of the Maldives, has said that he is working together with Supreme Court Justices on the implementation of the apex court's 1 February order.)

India doesn’t have too many options to intervene in the ongoing Maldivian crisis directly or indirectly, although there are many in the Maldivian Opposition camp who have been clamouring for ‘decisive Indian action in Maldives’.

India did precisely that nearly three decades ago, when New Delhi launched Operation Cactus on the night of 3 November 1988, foiled an attempted coup, and reinstalled the government of the then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Revisiting Operation Cactus

But citing Operation Cactus to justify a similar action by India in the Maldives today is acutely flawed and erroneous. There are several reasons for that.

  • It was a band of armed militants of the People’s Liberation Organisation (PLOTE) who had come from Sri Lanka and seized control over vital installations in Maldives. However, they were unable to lay their hands on President Gayoom who cleverly shifted his hiding bases for hours and promptly requested the then Indian government of PM Rajiv Gandhi for immediate military help. Rajiv Gandhi dispatched 1,600 soldiers within nine hours and thereafter, it took just a few hours for the Indian forces to restore order and reinstall the Gayoom government. But that case was starkly different, as it was a group of militants who had run over the Maldivian government.
  • Because it was a group of militants, the Indian government won the international community’s praise for its quick and effective action.
  • The entire population of Maldives was shocked by the militants' action and was squarely behind the Gayoom government and India.
  • Last and foremost, the Indian government had been approached by none other than the President of Maldives, requesting military intervention.

This time, however, the situation is different, and none of the above parameters is applicable. Yameen Abdul Gayoom is the President of Maldives, a sovereign nation — India cannot interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign neighbouring country in the name of ‘saving democracy’, no matter how grave the crisis.


What the MEA Had to Say

The Ministry of External Affairs issued a rare but strongly-worded statement on 2 February 2018 as follows:

We have seen last night’s order of the Supreme Court of Maldives releasing all political prisoners. In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court. We also hope that the safety and security of the Indian expatriates in Maldives will be ensured by the Maldivian authorities under all circumstances. As a close and friendly neighbour, India wishes to see a stable, peaceful and prosperous Maldives. We are closely monitoring the evolving situation.

This is as far as the Government of India can go in dealing with the Maldivian crisis.


India’s ‘Covert Options’

The Maldivian Opposition has long been hoping for India to launch some sort of covert action and dethrone the Yameen government for the sake of restoring democracy in the Maldives.

But on what basis can India launch such a covert mission? India would get in China’s crosshairs if it were to do that, and it cannot afford to enrage China by launching such a covert mission, which will be fraught with dangerous implications in the long term.

Why should India alone ‘bell the cat’ and give its foreign policy an adventurist dimension? Yet there have been some reports in the Western media which talk of this covert option by India in the Maldives.

Covert options, if at all they are being considered by India in the Maldives, have to be long-term in nature.


Does India Need to Intervene at All?

Can India approach the United Nations and seek its intervention in Maldives to ensure that the Supreme Court justices are not harmed or removed? Of course it can, but there is no need to do so as the UN has directly taken cognisance of the matter. On 3 February, UN Secretary-General António Guterres waded into the Maldivian crisis.

Following the decision of Maldivian Supreme Court ordering the release of convicted Opposition leaders and the reinstatement of 12 parliamentarians, Guterres expressed the world body’s continued readiness to facilitate all-party talks in finding a solution to the political stalemate in Maldives.

“The Secretary-General takes note of the important ruling by the Supreme Court” and “calls on the Government to respect it,” said a statement issued by his spokesman Stéphane Dujarric.

Earlier, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had also urged the Maldivian government to fully respect the apex court’s decision, which also overturned the conviction of former President Mohamed Nasheed and ordered to retry his case.

“We are concerned by what appears to be an initial heavy-handed reaction by security forces in the capital Malé against people celebrating the Court's decision,” Spokesperson Rupert Colville said at a press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, urging the Yameen government to show understanding and restraint, and to act in full accordance with international laws governing the policing of protests and other forms of public assembly.

As for India’s option to rally for US support, US Ambassador in Sri Lanka and Maldives, Atul Keshap, an American of Indian origin, has been more proactive than India, as is clear from his tweets:

India Can’t Change President Yameen’s Ways

Yes, President Yameen has throttled democracy in his country. Yes, the entire international community, barring China and Saudi Arabia, have censured Yameen’s actions. Despite all this, no foreign country can exercise overt or covert methods to make him more democratic.

India can only wait for the presidential elections in the Maldives, which are due in the next six months, though there is a strong possibility that President Yameen may defer these elections or hold the elections in an opaque manner so that his victory is assured.

A lot depends on Yameen's plans with regard to the presidential elections due in August. As for now, he has further tightened his iron grip. Under the current circumstances, India has no option but to wait and watch.

(Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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