Ties with India: Differing views rattle Maldives

Despite the PPM-PNC Opposition combine of jailed former President Abdulla Yameen periodically re-launching their ‘India Out’ campaign, drawing the larger ocean neighbour into everyday Maldivian politics, the charge couldn’t be farther from the truth. The reason is straight and simple. New Delhi has a well-oiled, proven military machine to require a permanent military presence in Maldives.

At the annual Victory Day celebrations on November 3, Defence Minister Mariya Didi reiterated that India was not a threat to the nation’s independence. The commemoration is in memory of the Maldivian martyrs—eight soldiers and 11 civilians—who had laid down their lives, when Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries sought to overthrow President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, back in 1988. Called in by Gayoom from hiding, the Indian troops ended the coup-bid through ‘Operation Cactus’, arrested coup leaders mid-sea to stand trial in Maldivian courts.

New Indian High Commissioner to Maldives Munu Mahawar 
presenting his credentials to President Ibrahim Solih

In a television interview, the Defence Minister also reiterated that despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that India poses a danger to the nation. She referred to the presence of 75 Indian military personnel to fly and maintain the two helicopters and one Dornier fixed wing aircraft gifted by New Delhi for humanitarian operations, and asserted that they were unarmed, operated exclusively under the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).

“Despite how many doctors, pilots, mechanics, radiologists, and gynaecologists from the Indian military there are—they cannot even come here unless with express permission from the Maldivian government,” minister Mariya said. “The pilots will not take off … unless assigned tasks by MNDF…Even the duration of their stay is determined by us.” According to her, amongst the critics were big-time drug smugglers, who have suffered heavily after MNDF deployed the Dornier on sea-watch to record highest hauls in the past two years.

In his Victory Day message from Glasgow, where he was attending the UN climate conference on the day, President Ibrahim Solih too thanked India for securing the nation’s sovereignty. In his address to the nation to commemorate the day Maldives embraced Islam (falling on November 7 this year), he said that the spread of incorrect beliefs in the name of religion was one of the greatest issues facing the community, threatening lives, inciting violent attacks, and damaging properties.

Parliament Speaker and President Solih’s ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chief, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed was forthright in asserting the nation’s ‘India First’ policy. The MDP has never believed that India should not be involved in Maldivian affairs, he said, as if in response to anti-India critics in the country.

Foreign military presence

Timing their revived protest to government leaders’ gratitude for India, Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine launched a rally, ‘In defence of Independence’, where speakers constantly referred obliquely and otherwise to ‘foreign military presence’, meaning Indian pilots and technicians and also to the bilateral agreement for New Delhi to build a dockyard for Maldivian Coast Guard in UthuruThila Falhu island, also known as the UTF agreement.

As the main speaker, coalition leader Abdul Raheem Abulla (Adhurey) said that the government has created space for things that threaten the nation’s independence. As if to excite the uninitiated, he referred to the nation’s long history and said that “Maldivians very well understand what flows from foreign military presence in Hanimadhoo, Kadhdhoo, Addu and other places… that they threaten independence.”

More than the rest, it’s the presence and address by PPM Deputy Leader and Parliamentarian, Gassan Maumoon, son of former President Gayoom, that caused eyebrows to rise. “Maldivian people do not want any foreign military personnel to be stationed in Maldivian soil. The call of the Maldivians is that they will protect their independence themselves,” Gassan said. Like other loyalists, he said that the regime-change of 2018 owed to Yameen wanting to defend the nation’s independence. He also said that Yameen was being subjected to unjust harm in jail.

Another one of the India critics, Yameen’s estranged former Home Minister, Umar Naseer, an ex-police officer now heading the ‘Dhivehi National Action’ (DNA), said that Maldivians will not cower away from making any sacrifice for the nation’s independence.

Singing out of tune

India to develop a base for Maldives Coastguard at UTF 

In a significant departure from the ruling MDP’s consistent approach to the UTF issue, party chairman Hassan Latheef, sang a different tune when he called for the UTF agreement to be ‘disclosed’. In party affairs, Latheef is identified with Speaker Nasheed in party affairs. The Government should prove to the people that it was not doing anything secretive, Latheef tweeted. “It is also beneficial (for the people) to know how the government gets aid from India,” he said, without explaining the reasons for his more recent change of mind on the issue.

As if to end all further issues centred on the Indian neighbour, the Foreign Ministry in a statement reiterated the government’s condemnation of ‘India Out’ campaign and said, “The government firmly believes that these views are not the sentiments of the general public, but rather that of a small group of individuals with the objective of tarnishing the country’s long-standing cordial ties with India.” The fact that the statement coincided with new Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar presenting credentials to President Solih, too, did not go unnoticed.

Facts state otherwise

Independent of internal squabbles centred on non-existing constituency politics, there is nothing to suggest that India is a threat to Maldivian Independence, sovereignty and security. Through his five years in office, the Yameen leadership did not seem to have been able to dig out any records from the past, even when he wanted India to take back the two gifted helicopters towards the end of his term.

More importantly, Yameen was the brain behind the short-lived government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, which alone sought and obtained the choppers from India. It was also the Yameen Presidency (2013-18) that sought and obtained the Dornier, but did not seek training for Maldivian pilots. It happened under incumbent Solih government, with three MNDF personnel qualified recently. Likewise, in 2014, it was also the Yameen Presidency that had initiated the UTF agreement, once again to oppose it while in the Opposition now.

There is also no logic in the motivated assumption that India wanted a military base in Maldives. On two occasions in the last 40-plus years, Indian military personnel were in Maldives, but only at the expressed request of the host government, to help the nation face off the coup-bid, 1988, and the tsunami, 2004. In 2015, Indian Air Force and Navy rushed potable water for Male after a blow-out at the capital’s lone desalination plant—incidentally under Yameen regime.

On all four occasions, the Indian Armed Forces left immediately after accomplishing its assigned task. It clearly indicated that New Delhi has had no motives to park its military personnel on Maldivian territory. As experts pointed out, all four occasions also underscored the fact that India did not require a military base to rush aid to Maldives at short notice.

There is a longer history to India deploying and withdrawing military personnel when sought by host governments. Both in the Bangladesh War (1971) and in deploying the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in common neighbour Sri Lanka, New Delhi withdrew its troops either when the immediate purpose was served and/or when the host government felt as much.

What more, in the existing and evolving Indian Ocean security scenario, Maldives and Sri Lanka have traditionally formed the first line of defence, or offence, for and against India. It would not be in India’s interest to irritate even a small section of the local polity and/or population.

It is even more so when an adversarial China is knocking at its doors from all sides. New Delhi is more than alive to the possibilities in the immediate neighbourhood, exposing even the politically-motivated India-centred anxieties of a section of Maldivian polity for what it really is.

The Dornier Surveillance aircraft gifted to Maldives by India

– Observer Research Foundation 

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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