How Maldives became new thorn in India’s foreign policy

Who is India’s biggest ‘enemy’? Well, I know most of you would answer Pakistan or its iron brother China. But, if you have been following geopolitical developments lately, the newest entrant on the list is Maldives. Yes, a country which is one-tenth of the size of Goa and is not even clearly visible on the map (no offence intended). Now, here enemy is not meant in the literal sense, but a set of political developments have taken place in the last six months, that has not just strained the ties between New Delhi and Male, but has given a whole new spin to geopolitics in the region.

Significance of Maldives

The Maldives, having a population of roughly 4,00,000 people spanned over less than 300 sq km and has over 1000 small islands, with the most significant one being the capital of Male. It is very well, an Islamic country (by constitution) with 95% of its population following Islam. But, even with this small profile, Maldives holds important strategic value.

Firstly, it is located in the very area connecting important trade routes such as the Gulf of Aden — from where most of India’s oil imports travel. Secondly, it is also considered an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) having possession of a lot of rare earth minerals. Finally, the strategic location of Maldives is also important keeping in mind, the competitive interests of India and China in the Indian Ocean, as both want substantial influence in the region including with Maldives.

Operation Cactus: The Day India Saved the Maldives

India assisted Maldives dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom during a military coup (Photo: The Quint)

History and Ties with India

Maldives too was a British colony, which gained independence in 1965. India always supported its independence and was the first country to recognise it. But, Maldives was not a democracy from the beginning. In 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the dictator and ruled the country for the next 30 years. But, fortunately, under his rule, India and Maldives maintained robust ties.

In a notable episode, when the Maldives army was planning a coup on Gayoom, he dialled India’s PMO for help. The Rajiv Gandhi government sent 1,600 paratroopers to Male within 12 hours and diffused the tensions in what is called Operation Cactus.

Additionally, India has always granted soft assistance to Maldives both during times of crisis as well as in its budgetary allocations. Even when it transitioned into a democracy in 2008, India extended its help by providing EVMs and training the electoral officers.

Pres Yameen should be 'able to seek election', says Nasheed

The Maldivian politics has changed colours sharply under the two aisles of Mohamed Nasheed and Abdullah Yameen (Photo:

Political Turnarounds

Maldives Democratic Party led by Mohamed Nasheed went on to win the 2008 polls in the first democratic election. He too continued with the pro-Indiastance of Maldives. Under his tenure, the Indian Coast Guard was allowed to patrol Maldivian waters and Indian coastal radars conducted hydrographic surveys of its territorial water.

But, slowly Nasheed’s authoritarian tendency started drawing ire from his own countrymen. It reached its peak when he ordered the arrest of a senior judge. This created a huge uproar in the country, with people taking to the streets, officials resigning and the Opposition coming together against the President. Nasheed’ was ousted and his deputy, Mohamed Waheed took over as President.

At this point in time, China entered the game. Soon after taking office, Waheed went to Beijing and met then-premier Wen Jiabao. China announced huge investment projects in Maldives. Days later, Waheed changed colours and ordered the arrest of his predecessor from his own party, Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed, banking on his close ties with India, took refuge at the Indian High Commission. But as soon as he came out, he was arrested in a very rough manner, where he could be seen being dragged on the streets.

The Chinese influence was visible in Maldives’ other policies too. Waheed cancelled the airport infrastructure project with India’s GMR. Though Nasheed was released a year later, he lost the 2013 polls. Abdullah Yameen of the Progressive People’s Party was made the new Maldivian President.

Notably, this was also the time when China, under Xi Jinping launched its dream project Belt and Road Initiative, where Beijing gave financial and technical assistance to countries in developing huge infrastructure projects, while also aiming to gain substantial control in the region. Using this very means, China gained control of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Gwadar Port in Pakistan and Djibouti Port in Africa. Beijing is even accused of “debt-trapping” poor countries while gaining access to their territories.

Amid prospering friendships between Male and Beijing, Yameen invited Xi to the Maldives. During the visit, Yameen referred to China as “one of Maldives’ closest friends, most-trusted allies, and the most dependable development partners.” However, under the plethora of Chinese loans, the Maldivian debt (worth of $9 billion) soared to $1.4 billion. Despite all this, India continued its ‘friendly’ approach with the Maldives. It was seen when India came ahead in assisting the island nation during the flood, or even during the water crisis in 2014.

Maldives reverses its stance: Island nation to continue using Dhruv  helicopters - IBTimes India

Dhruv ALH helicopters, whish assists in carrying out medvac services in Maldives (Photo: IB Times India)

The Fiasco of Indian Aviation Platforms

The latest entrant in the strained ties between India and Maldives was the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH). India gave two of them to Maldives in 2010 and 2015 along with a Dornier aircraft. The primary purpose of these aviation platforms was to carry out weather surveillance, rescue operation and medical evacuation (medvac) services in the island nation. The Dornier aircraft also monitored the Maldivian waters against illegal vessels, especially the Chinese ones. Now, since these aircraft were of military use, a certain number of Indian troops (77) were posted in Maldives to train local officers. But the very presence of Indian troops on a foreign land was going to be fodder for a new campaign.

Under prospering Chinese influence, Yameen and its government asked India to take the helicopters back, a request India ‘refused’. In 2016, China decided to install an ocean observatory near Male, and not far from Lakshadweep. On expected lines, it did raise concerns on India’s part as there were speculations of military purposes too under these projects.

Amid the uncertainty, Yameen announced the next elections in 2018. Since Nasheed was in exile in Sri Lanka, Yameen was riding high on confidence that there was no big challenger and that he would retain power easily. But, there came another twist in the tale as Yameen lost against a united opposition bloc led by Nasheed’s close ally Ibrahim Solih. With Solih’s helm, there was another sharp twist in the Maldives’ foreign policy. Solih switched back to the ‘India First’ policy, renewed the helicopter pact with India and called New Delhi a “reliable partner through thick and thin” adding that the security of the two countries is interlinked.

Now, the next twist was going to come from India’s side. As Maldives was reeling under high debt, India offered it cheaper loans to improve its financial condition, but on two conditions; first, it had to move away from China, second, it would pave the way for a “permanent Indian military presence in Maldives”. This again, gave fodder to a whole new bloc against India. Meanwhile, Abdullah Yameen had multiple corruption cases against him getting lined up. So, in a way to counter that, he started building on the ‘India Out’ campaign.

Here, India signed another deal with the Maldives, the UTF Harbour Project, under which New Delhi would have constructed a coastguard harbour and a dockyard near Male aiming to enhance defence cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. However, some reports surfaced in local media outlets that this UTF project has nothing to do with the dockyard but will only pave the way for India’s naval base there. The anti-India sentiment started rising sharply across the country, so much so that the Indian High Commission there had to request increased security.

In another surprising episode, when the Indian High Commission decided to celebrate International Yoga Day in 2021, a violent mob rocked inside and disrupted the program calling it “un-Islamic”.

Mohamed Muizzu unveils 'India-Out' vision to near-empty Maldivian Parliament

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu has again titled his country’s policies away from India towards China (Photo: The Print)

Mohamed Muizzu’s rise to the Presidency

In the 2023 elections, as Yameen was also in exile due to corruption charges, again a joint opposition, this time led by Male Governor Mohamed Muizzu of People’s National Congress ran its way to the presidency. Muizzu, himself was one of the fiercest advocates of the ‘India Out’ campaign with one of his core agendas being that all the Indian troops should leave the island nation. After assuming the presidency, he made the formal request for the same. Keeping in mind, the ‘unfavourable’ statements that the Indian representative could receive, India sent perhaps one of its most ‘un-important’ ministers Kiren Rijiju (Minister of Earth Sciences) to the swearing-in ceremony.

Additionally, Muizzu also cancelled the hydrography pact with India. He also broke an age-old tradition, where the Maldivian President made the first foreign visit to India. Muizzu, on the other hand, went to Turkey followed by China. Reports say that Chinese vessels have also arrived in Maldives. Though, Maldives has said that it is only for ‘research’ purposes and not ‘military’, when needs to take every statement with a ‘pinch of salt’ when China is involved in such matters.

Did you search Lakshadweep this week? Thanks to PM Modi: How India's  smallest Union Territory topped the trend | Mint

Prime Minister visited Lakshadweep aiming to promote domestic tourism, a move many speculate was his stern reply to Maldives (Photo: Mint)

Row over Lakshadweep

The India-Maldives ties were getting strained on expected lines. But, it took an even ugly turn after some Maldivian ministers — Marium Shiuna, Maaiz Mahmood and Zahid Rameez — and several other prominent names there made derogatory comments on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s post of Lakshadweep’s visit.

A pertinent point is, that nowhere in PM Modi’s post, or in any official channel was Maldives even named. It was just the Indian social media users making comparisons between the Lakshadweep and Maldives calling for the promotion of Indian tourism destinations. So, it was completely foolish and uncalled for on the part of Maldivian leaders to create a row. The ministers were later suspended and the Maldives government distanced itself from the remarks. But, the diplomatic row is for everyone to see.

Where does the future of India-Maldives relations lie

So, here is how things stand. Although the tension has been calmed, there are several aspects that will be brewing bigger impacts. Firstly, India has been asked to withdraw its troops from Maldives. After much negotiations, it has been agreed that the military personnel will be replaced by civilian personnel so that the Indian aviation platforms can continue to operate there without Male’s objections. And, for the sake of ties and impression, it would only be better that India withdraws ita troops if the country doesn’t want it to be there.

Now, we need to understand a couple of things. Maldives is a sovereign nation and it has all the rights to take its own decision. Whether for their good or bad, it is for them to decide. India can give its suggestions, provide assistance and try its best to maintain healthy relations, but after thing, it’s not in our control. And if attempts are made to forcibly get things done, it might further deteriorate the situation. Muizzu, as the elected leader of Maldives, has the right to make his decisions. If one looks from his point, asking for the withdrawal of foreign troops and aiming for autonomy is not an overboard demand from a sovereign nation. Also, just because India has strategic interests in the region, does not mean that Maldives will always act as India’s ‘pawn’.

Also, while I always appreciate the foreign policy of this BJP government, I found it a little too overboard on this issue. The way, IT cell and social media launched the campaign against Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu even using the ‘religion’ angle was pathetic. The negative media coverage of Maldives like is being done today (showcasing distressed economy, angry opposition and unrelated concerns) is also going to be of no use. Also, India’s official statement on the issue has always been dicey and clouded with doubt. I think a little bit of clarity would have been better.

I don’t find this acceptable if India somehow wants a “permanent military presence” on foreign land and refuses to take back its helicopters even on being asked. Things like these will further bring Maldives closer to China and give Beijing fodder to carry propaganda and negative impression of India among other neighbouring countries. I think, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar rightly pointed out the situation, “Politics is politics. We can’t guarantee every country will support or agree with India every time.”



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