Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 04, 2021
Is there a revival of anti-India sentiments in troubled Maldives?

After two issues in a row surfaced, the once receding ‘India Out’ campaign has started gaining new traction in Maldives, to the embarrassment of President Mohamed Solih, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and others in the country who wanted further momentum in the bilateral ties between India and Maldives. The ‘Lakshadweep row’, which is considered to be a domestic issue in India, and New Delhi’s premature media alert on the opening of a consulate at Addu City in the sensitive south, have both  pushed the targeted bomb-attack on Speaker Mohammed Nasheed out from the limelight.

Public and political opinion in India is at best divided over Lakshadweep Administrator Praful Koda Patel’s developmental decisions. Apart from civil society organisations, national-level political leaders like Rahul Gandhi (Congress), Sharad Pawar (NCP), M K Stalin (DMK, Tamil Nadu chief minister) and Lakshadweep MP, Mohmmed Faizal (NCP) have contested Patel’s idea of developing resort tourism in the island-group after banning beef-eating, in Lakshadweep. The Kerala assembly has since passed a unanimous resolution—moved by the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan—for recalling the administrator, whom they have charged with pushing an ‘anti-Muslim Hindutva agenda’.

Resisted temptations

In the Maldivian context, migrants from the nation’s north and the south, with continuing live-contacts with native islands, form a substantial part of the capital Malé’s residents, which in turn accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s population and electorate. Successive governments have hence been sensitive to the sentiments of these sections, both on domestic and foreign policy issues.

Traditionally, the Maldivian rulers also have inherent security concerns in the peripheries to worry about, given the nation’s geography and perennial resource-crunch, starting with human resources. India too has been alive to the possibilities and has, thus, far resisted temptations, including those occasionally     emanating from Malé, to open up the Lakshadweep islands to resort tourism of the Maldivian kind, which is what administrator Patel has outlined.

Traditionally, the Maldivian rulers also have inherent security concerns in the peripheries to worry about, given the nation’s geography and perennial resource-crunch, starting with human resources. India too has been alive to the possibilities and has, thus, far resisted temptations, including those occasionally     emanating from Malé, to open up the Lakshadweep islands to resort tourism of the Maldivian kind

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in particular, has walked the extra mile, as part of the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, through India-funded development projects on the one hand and intelligence-gathering and sharing, on the other. Viz Maldives’ north, India at the height of COVID-19 first wave last September, also launched a direct cargo ferry service between Kulhudhuffushi and south Indian ports of Thoothukudy and Kochi, to save time and add-on freight charges for goods and services for local Maldivians.

In the overall context, not necessarily specific to any region in the country, the Indian security assistance has covered both the ocean front and domestic concerns of Maldives, where selective Islamic orthodoxy has now acquired terrorist tendencies. The 6 May targeted bomb-attack on Speaker Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically-elected President, is only the latest, but need not be the last.

Not religion-centric

Some, if not all, of it may have come unstuck, with the announcement of the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR), last month. Maldivian media, like their overseas counterparts, see it as an attempt at ‘ethnic cleansing’ and/or ‘land grab’ to fatten tourism corporates from the mainland. Joining the group who have taken issue with administrator Patel, Maldivian critics have argued that the ‘Maldivian model’ cannot be replicated in Lakshadweep. They also argue that India’s large economic base did not require jeopardising the lives and livelihoods of people in the outermost southern periphery.

Maldivian interest in and concerns about Lakshadweep cannot be overlooked as a ‘religion-centric pin-prick’, which it may be up to a point. It goes far beyond. Emotionally, for instance, the people of  Lakshadweep  continue to identify the ‘National Day’ back when the Thakurufaanu brothers from the North of Maldives liberated the nation from the Portuguese in the second half of the 16th century. To Maldives, Lakshadweep is not only a geographical extension of the Maldivian North but also a place with which they share real historic linkages, though distanced by time.

To Maldives, Lakshadweep is not only a geographical extension of the Maldivian North but also a place with which they share real historic linkages, though distanced by time

Historically, Maldivian kings had issued edicts that covered Maliku, or Minicoy, even when the island was under the suzerainty of the Kolathiri Raja of Chirakkal, Kerala, or later under European colonials. The suzerainty over Lakshadweep, including Minicoy, passed on to the British colonial masters of India in the 16th century and to the Union of India at Independence in 1947. The section that voted against the merger with India, in the 1956 plebiscite organised by New Delhi in Minicoy was naturally opposed to the idea, but then the majority was in favour—which no one contested, then or since.

The continuing social and linguistic linkages, going beyond Islamic commonalities, are some of the other factors. In light of the current developments, a Maldivian media outlet has put out an on-the-spot news story, claiming that ‘India, the greatest democracy in the world, gears up to impose autocratic rule in Minicoy’. They have sought to exploit local sentiments, which reportedly wants the people to be left to their own devices even while unquestionably sticking to the merger decision.

Given the religious commonality and continuing people-to-people contacts with Maldives, public opinion in Lakshadweep is reportedly unsure if the ongoing top-down approach to island development without a convincing consultation process has the potential to backfire in more ways than one. There are also questions about developing big-ticket resort tourism, patronised by foreigners, when Prime Minister Modi has announced the construction of an air-base in the island-group, upgrading the Navy’s full-fledged INS Dweeprakshak base at Kavaratti, Lakshadweep’s capital, inaugurated in 2012.

Premature publicity

The second issue flows from New Delhi’s premature publicity to the Union Cabinet granting approval for opening a consulate in Addu. When opened, the consulate would help southern Maldivians’ save money and time travelling to capital Malé for visas, even during medical emergencies. The south also has a more recent history, of a rebel ‘United Suvadive Republic’, successfully challenging Malé’s authority, 1958-63.

The news release from the Press Information Bureau (PIB)—a job generally reserved for the Ministry of External Affairs—announcing the Addu consulate proposal, was out before the host-government had been formally informed and its approval obtained following the normal diplomatic course. In such critical times in the bilateral ties, the press release also deployed domestic political phrases like ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabhka Vikas’, ‘Neighbourhood First’ and half-understood ‘SAGAR’.

Further trouble followed in the form of President Solih’s matter-of-fact response at a news conference that they had not been informed of the Indian proposal, and would take a decision when approached. Local critics, including civil society organisations, claimed it tantamount to an absence of prior consent, and hence, called it an ‘Indian occupation’, and that New Delhi was treating Maldives as a part of India. Some have made mischievous linkages to the ruling BJP’s ‘Hindutva agenda’ and have seemingly sought to address the larger ‘Islamic umma’ in the Gulf-Arab region, with which Maldives has development and religious links, more so after its independence in 1965.

Prominent amongst the critics of India is presidential aspirant, Umar Naseer, who along with jailed former President Abdulla Yameen and others, successfully spear-headed the GMR-centric, ‘Islamic nationalist’ ‘anti-India’ protests that culminated in the early exit of President Nasheed, now Speaker. Though in different political camps now, Naseer, President Yameen’s Home Minister before quitting, had also quit from the latter camp’s ‘India Out’ campaign last year.

Umar Naseer too has likened the consulate proposal to an ‘Indian occupation’, claiming that it would ‘act as a part of an Indian military facility’, which, however, is a diplomatic incongruity. Using the occasion to launch his presidential poll campaign for 2023, he told Maldivians to vote for his ‘Dhivehi National Action’ (DNA), founded with former Foreign Minister, Dunya Maumoon, daughter of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was the Maldivian President for 30 years (1978-2008), if they wanted to defeat the consulate proposal.

In an infrequent intervention by a member of the Maldivian diaspora, Dr Hassan Ugail, an Addu native who is now at the University of Bradford, UK, wanted authorities to convincingly establish the linkages between future business prospects and an Indian consulate before going ahead with the project. In the meantime, an Indian High Commission statement in Malé has sought to silence uninformed critics, partly at least, by declaring the likelihood of early commercial flights between Addu and India, which would benefit southern citizenry, including traders and businessmen.

In contrast to the local critics, Ali Nizar, the recently-elected MDP mayor of Addu City Council, has whole-heartedly welcomed the consulate idea. He has referred to the ease of obtaining Indian visas for southerners and also to the ongoing US $200-million India-funded projects in the city. As if in response to of ex-Minister Umar Naseer, a veteran police officer himself, Nizar had clarified that the consulate will not come up on the India-funded Police Academy premises, as claimed by a section of the social media.

Other heavyweights, including MDP parliamentary group deputy leader, Ilyas Labeeb from Addu, have also welcomed the Indian proposal for similar reasons. Incidentally, as far back as January, Speaker Nasheed, who is also the ruling MDP Chief, campaigning for the local council polls held in April, had declared that with party leaders at the helm, Addu ‘will open to the world’.

Delinking blast probe

In the midst of the twin-developments, which anti-India critics in Maldives are taking pains to link up to the common Malé ruler in the middle, the police probe into the 6 May bomb-blast targeting Speaker Nasheed seems to have slowed down, though there is no connection between them. President Solih has also ordered changes in the top rungs of the army’s ‘Special Protection Group’ (SPG), tasked with VVIP security, to silence critics, especially from within his party, who have been constantly going public, as has been their wont all along.

The police have since urged people against rumour-mongering, after social media posts,  including those of Nasheed’s daughter and brother, and a third one, an open letter by his maternal aunt settled in New Zealand, pressurising the police to share the information on the investigations. Of the three, daughter Mira Laila’s tweet in local language, Dhivehi, was the most damaging. She was “convinced 90 per cent that it was an ‘insider-job’, held Defence Minister Mariya Didi and Home Minister Imran Abdulla accountable, and wanted them to resign”.

The aunt of the Speaker, wanted the Solih government to share details of the investigations with the victim’s family. In in a loaded tweet, the Speaker’s brother, Dr Ibrahim Nashid, came out with an out-of-turn statement that Nasheed felt more safe and secure during his days in prison (under inimical governments?). If the implication was that security was lacking for the nation’s single-most popular leader under his own party-led government and President, Nasheed’s brother did not stress on it.

The police have since arrested four more terrorists from suburban Hulhumale island, but their links, if any, to the ‘Nasheed attack’ are yet to be established. At the same time, a criminal court has since freed five of the seven men arrested post-blast in Addu, indicating the multiple issues and concerns that the investigators and prosecutors are facing. The Prosecutor-General’s office has since announced its decision to appeal the court order.

Morale restored

The police, however, had their morale restored when Mohamed Aslam, Chairman of Parliament’s constitutionally-mandated ‘241 Committee’ on national security, said they were pleased with the investigations, and promised not to intervene or overlap with their work. Instead, the committee will look into additional legal framework and resources to be made available to the agencies handling VVIP security.

Separately, Parliament is also considering MDP member, Hissan Hussain’s proposed amendment to the penal code, listing out ‘hate crimes’. A group of orthodox religious groups, however, reacted instantly to Hissan’s proposal for punishing those that condemn fellow Muslims as ‘khafirs’. The group claimed that her idea was aimed at taking the nation back to the ‘secular Maldives’ era of the 80s, under President Gayoom. The group’s attack otherwise aimed at Nasheed, who has always favoured opening up ‘Maldivian Islam’ and also to the US and Israel, which is a no-no to the orthodox groups in the country.

Alongside, 241-Committee Chair Aslam, responding to media representations, about an MDP request from the Nasheed camp for probing a web journal over the source for one of the follow-up analysis on the blast, has promised not to drag them into their probe. Referring to the analysis that Nasheed had turned down the SPG’s advice that his parental house, where he was staying, was not the best place from a security perspective, the MDP seemingly sought to deflect the issue and wanted to know the ‘insider’ who had violated the code and spoken to the media.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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