Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 06, 2020
Maldives, a proven model for India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy Coming as it does in the immediate footsteps of the $ 500-m, 6.7-km sea-bridge, the single largest infra project in Maldives, the more recent Indian assistance package to the Indian Ocean archipelago-nation is turning out to be an exemplary model in bilateral relations between two disproportionately-sized neighbours. Expanded to individual neighbours both in a bilateral and multilateral format, where desired by the stake-holder nations concerned, the Indian initiative can go a long way in integrating the South Asian economy more than ever, sending out a clear message that New Delhi is ever ready to discharge its historic responsibilities imposed by geography, without any pre-conditions or expectations. The Male-Thilafushi sea-bridge, connecting two more islands en route was a part of a larger package India announced recently. Other elements in the package covered specific community infrastructure projects for the sparsely-populated islands that are afar, but whose residents should not suffer again for their geographical locational disadvantage. With an open-minded administration of incumbent MDP President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih reversing the adversarial attitude of predecessor Abdulla Yameen, jailed for corruption, Indian aid-flow has reached unprecedented proportions and pace. Included in the post-bridge offers is a $ 250-m budget-support, a $ 800-m airport expansion and development project in northern Kulhudhufushi, a cargo ferry service connecting Maldives’ northern population-centre to Male on the one side and India’s Kochi and Tuticorin ports on the other. Though on the anvil for a decade now, the Maldivian Government efforts to develop the nation’s northern atolls in comparable terms to central Male, the nation’s capital, and southern Addu Atoll, where the presence of British Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the Second World War and beyond, had left its developmental imprint. Upon the anvil is the construction of a 100-bed cancer hospital and a 22,000-seater cricket stadium, on the reclamation island of Hulhumale with land-linkage to the airport island, Hulhule. Both projects are funded from the $ 800-m line-of-credit, already sanctioned by India. The stadium project was announced as a part of India’s cricketing diplomacy, given that President Solih, among others, is an avid lover of the game. A nation of football-lovers, Maldives began looking at cricket when President Solih led a local team for exhibition match with an Air India team, led by former Test cricketers Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh. He flew in to Bengaluru last year to watch an IPL match. At their meeting last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also gifted a cricket bat signed by the official Indian team to President Solih, a cricket lover.

Developing the North

Northern Maldives is closer to the Indian shores, with Kochi being the closest port-city. However, compared to the rest of the archipelago, it has been lagging behind in development, or whatever has been possible under the resource constraints of the times. Hence simultaneous development of the North, and linking it as much to the Indian neighbour as the maritime gateway between the two has assumed added significance. MDP’s former President and present-day Parliament Speaker, Mohammed Nasheed, had flagged the need when in office (2008-12). Historically, the North is from where the Maldivian uprising against the Portuguese invaders, based out of Goa, India, was successfully launched in the 16th century. The Portuguese, based in Male, also tried to force Christianity on Maldivians, as they had successfully done in neighbouring Sri Lanka – but failed here. The South, in turn, was the centre of the more recent secessionist rebellion for a ‘United Suvadive Republic’ (1959-63) purportedly with the backing of the British, until President Ibrahim Nasir’s Government quelled the rebellion. President Nasir got the RAF quit the nation after the British objected to his Government developing the Male airport to receive larger civilian aircraft, to boost international tourism. Thus, 1965 became the year of Maldivian Independence though the nation was never actually ruled by a foreign country in a thousand years and more. was his idea that successor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom implemented through his 30-year long rule (1978-2008), using the resultant revenue to convert the nation of sleepy fishing island with its proud people, into an emerging modern State.

Security concerns

The fast-tracked growth and development, with attendant exposure to the outside world, where some Maldivians too see the ‘Islamic ulema’ being targeted has created internal security concerns for the nation, over the past decade. The Presidential Commission appointed by incumbent Solih reported that both Al Qaeda and IS have associates in the country. During the past decade, especially during the Yameen presidency (2013-18), the Government periodically reported that Maldivians, some of them with their wife and infant child, had joined the ISIS in Syria. From time to time, the terror group also posted pictures of some Maldivians who had ‘martyred’ in the battle-field. On the larger geo-political front, the developments involving an aggressive China seeking to expand its footprints as much militarily as through perceived development funding, leading often to debt-traps, has been a global cause for geo-strategic concerns. Recently, Maldives and the US signed a ‘Framework Agreement’ for military cooperation, aimed at ensuring a ‘rules-based’, peaceful maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific, an American initiative in the post-Cold War era. As a small archipelago-nation with limited resources, including human resources, Maldives is alive to multiple possibilities on the security front. The earlier perception seemed that the nation would be able to manage internal security issues while it was inherently stymied on the external security front. However, the acknowledged presence of Al Qaeda and IS elements had flared fresh concerns on that score as well. In this overall background, India has since gifted a Dornier fixed-wing aircraft for Maldives to scan its EEZ in the Indian Ocean, both to guard against third-party misuse of its waters, and more so from internal and external security threats. The aircraft, like the two helicopters earlier gifted by India, will be managed by the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), the nation’s multi-disciplinary army with naval and coast guard wings. India continues to pick all operations and maintenance bills, starting with fuel. The erstwhile Yameen regime was the first to seek the Dornier from India in 2016, again to scan its waters against outsider exploitation and for security reasons. However, when India took an unprecedently tough position on the democracy front, the Yameen Government began demanding that India take back the two helicopters. His ministers however continue to reiterate that they still wanted the Dornier. In recent weeks, to camouflage Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine demand for his immediate freedom, they launched nation-wide ‘India out’ campaign, arguing against infra projects funded by New Delhi, and even more to end ‘Indian military presence’. The reference was to the presence of pilots and technical personnel of Indian Navy and Coast Guard, operating and maintain the helicopters. According to Maldivian officials, the deployment of the helicopters, again under MNDF care, has saved the lives of around 250 Maldivians, who could be rushed to hospitals for emergency medical care from their isolated islands. Though India played down Yameen’s demand, the helicopters continue to engage exclusively in humanitarian operations of the kind, since the return of the MDP regime, this time under President Solih. Interestingly, the Yameen camp has not commented on the Solih Government signing what possibly is the nation’s first substantive military cooperation agreement with the US. Earlier agreements of the kind, especially with India, are limited to military training and weaponizing. India has also established a stellar neighbourhood behaviour of its military overstaying its welcome. In the case of Maldives, it related to two episodes, distanced by nearly two decades. In 1988, India rushed para-troopers, under ‘Operation Cactus’ to secure Maldives after President Gayoom sought help to abort a coup by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries, hired to overthrow his regime. Later, when the Asian tsunami devasted Maldives in end-2004, the Indian troops who on a rescue and rehabilitation mission, left the nation once their assignment was met. It was equally so, more recently, when under President Yameen, Indian Navy rushed drinking water, when the sole desalination plant for Male city was gutted in a fire accident. Thus, through a combination of project funding for schemes identified exclusively by the elected Maldivian Government of the day, and non-lethal military assistance, especially of the technical kind. India’s approach continues to be accompanied by great circumspection and respect for the sovereignty of the recipient-nation, and New Delhi has set a very healthy precedent in its relations with Maldives in more recent years than was possible earlier. With this, India has also injected a new meaning to the occasional global discourse on ‘R2P, or ‘Responsibility to Protect’, which western nations that coined the phrase have applied only to identifiable human rights violations in individual nations, involving their rulers. This is a model India can now successfully employ in other neighbouring nations, and prove India’s altruism in the matter to heir peoples as much as to their respective ruling classes, taking the Maldivian example as a successful model in this regard.
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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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