“This too shall pass” seems to be New Delhi’s unstated reaction to the Maldives’ President-elect Mohamed Muizzu’s assertion that he will start the process of removing “Indian troops” from the archipelago no sooner he takes charge on 17 November.
Within days of Muizzu announcing his plans to hurriedly implement his election promise, External Affairs Ministry spokesman, Arindam Bagchi, was asked by reporters at the weekly press briefing to respond to Muizzu’s provocative stand on Indian troops.
Bagchi, however, took no cognizance of the pointed question and instead dwelt on India’s long-standing partnership with the Maldives, and flagged how Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the “first leader” to congratulate Muizzu on his victory.
But, obviously, all’s not well on India’s Maldives front after Muizzu, who captured power largely due to his “India Out” campaign, said at the very first public rally organised to celebrate his victory that as the “sovereignty” and “independence” of the Maldives are of paramount importance, “the people don’t want Indian troops to stay in the Maldives and they cannot be here against our sentiments and against our will.”
The Quint asked defense experts to evaluate whether Muizzu is likely to follow through and, even more importantly, how India would cope with the rather extraordinary situation in its backyard if it ultimately comes to that.
The indian Military's Role in the Maldives
According to retired Vice Admiral Anil Chawla, the usage of the term “Indian troops” creates the impression that we have boots on the ground when it is not so.
Chawla, who was Flag Officer Commanding in Chief of the Southern Naval Command in Cochin from 2018 to 2021, said: “It’s incorrect to describe the technical staff and pilots training Maldivians as troops. They are not armed. Troops have an offensive connotation. They are essentially there for the maintenance of aircraft and not for combat”.
In November 2021, chief of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), General Abdullah Shamaal, and Defence Minister, Mariya Ahmed Didi, had admitted before a Parliamentary Committee on Security Services that 75 Indian military personnel are stationed in the Maldives. Mainly pilots and technicians, they are stationed on Laamu and Addu islands since 2013 to operate a Dornier aircraft and two Dhruv helicopters provided by India for monitoring Maldivian waters.
India also enjoys a naval presence and has installed 10 coastal surveillance radars. In May 2023, Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, inaugurated the construction of a coast guard harbour in the Uthuru Thila Falhu island and handed over to the MNDF a Fast Patrol vessel and a Landing Craft Assault ship.
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar wholeheartedly endorsed Chawla, saying that India’s military presence would not qualify as a case of India stationing “troops” in the Maldives.
Bhaskar, director of the independent think tank, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), said: “India's military presence in the Maldives has one objective - to enhance the island nation's own security capacity to deal with its own distinctive small-island-state challenges and threats. This includes disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, and training the MNDF. The helicopters India has stationed in the Maldives are few in number; and the personnel there are for keeping these platforms operational.”
Chawla said that in the worst case scenario of Muizzu telling New Delhi to take back the defence personnel and “they are ultimately evacuated, it would mean that the aircraft would also have to be brought back as there will be nobody to operate and service them, which will of course hamper the Maldives’ maritime security and well- being.”
“It is the Maldives’ sovereign right to take a decision and we will withdraw the personnel and the assets and comply with their decision. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does then being a democratic and law-abiding country we will comply with their request,” he added.
'A Continuation of Muizzu’s Poll Campaign'
Additionally, Chawla, who sees Muizzu’s announcement as a “political statement”, said: “He is yet to take charge as the President. The Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) of Ibrahim Solih, who lost to Muizzu, still has a majority in the Parliament. Parliamentary elections are due in six months. So there is a lot that’s up in the air. What he is saying after winning the elections is a continuation of his poll campaign. Realisation might dawn on him when he sees how our men and machines are there to help the Maldives.”
Bhaskar argued, “having a government in the Maldives that is sensitive and empathetic to India's own security challenges and concerns is desirable”. He remarked that the domestic politics of the Maldives has spawned a China constituency and this is a reality that New Delhi will have to factor in. And, according to him, New Delhi has many avenues for addressing any “actions by the Maldives that are detrimental to India’s core interests”.
Although Muizzu hasn’t raked up the issue of radars that India has set up in the Maldives, Krishnendra Meena, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, said that India should explore alternative sites for its radars too if it has to move out the defence personnel and other assets.
Meena, who is also secretary general of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies, told Times of India that the radars and other assets and defence personnel can be relocated to one of the islands on the Laccadive Ridge. Chawla, who has direct knowledge of the area, however said that India already has a radar chain in place; moreover Laccadive Ridge doesn’t have an airbase – it only has a civilian airfield.
A big plus for India, despite Muizzu serving notice about removing Indian troops as soon as he can, is Muizzu’s plans to make New Delhi his first port of call after taking charge. It’s a long-standing tradition of Maldivian Presidents to fly to India before going to any other country. It’s however left to be seen if he will be swayed by the Modi government’s hospitality-cum-generosity or stick to his guns.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)