Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 15, 2018
The Maldivian reaction to Indian initiatives on Maldivian democracy was not totally unexpected.
Maldives minister’s ‘K-talk’: More than a snub on India?

By drawing a parallel between the Kashmir issue and the current democracy issue in Maldives, the Yameen presidency may have administered more than an anticipated snub on India. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could well imply that the Yameen Government would not be averse to conferring legitimacy on Kashmir groups, militant or otherwise, the same way India has related to the Joint Opposition (JO) in Maldives.

Interacting with visiting foreign journalists, that too at the President’s Office, Maldives Fisheries Minister Dr. Mohammed Shainee, however, delivered a positive rendering of what was otherwise a negative approach to India. Leading the government delegation for the continually aborted all-party talks, Dr. Shainee said that Maldives did not interfere with India’s Kashmir problem, and expected India, too, not to interference in the internal affairs of his country.

The Maldivian reaction to Indian initiatives on Maldivian democracy was not totally unexpected, not when Yameen was in power, as I had said in one of my earlier article. If anything, unlike jailed-yet-self-exiled former president and opposition MDP leader, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, Yameen was not unknown to react the way his government has done since, but only after making sure that the other side was wearing the shoe on the wrong foot(!).

In political terms, it might only be Yameen’s way of telling his cadres in the country that he was powerful enough to take on the larger Indian neighbour. In diplomatic terms, the consequences of such a confrontationist approach could undo South Asia and South Asian unity (barring, of course, Pakistan) in more ways than one. Leaving aside the India-Pakistan tangle since the latter’s creation seven decades back, the Shainee statement is fraught with greater dangers than possibly acknowledged.

In political terms, it might only be Yameen’s way of telling his cadres in the country that he was powerful enough to take on the larger Indian neighbour.

‘Official recognition’

Despite their various and wavering approaches, no nation has conferred ‘official recognition’ on any or many of the separatist groups. That includes Pakistan, which wants Jammu and Kashmir merged in its entirety, and not as a separate nation. Even before the emerging neo-Cold War centred on the region, and the hot war of 1962, China too is circumspect on this score. Beijing recognises the ‘Uighur Islamic separatism’ in Xinjiang Province, as much in diplomatic terms as it is unwilling to accept it as a domestic political issue for it to try and sort out without force (alone).

In Sri Lanka too, the dreaded LTTE had tried at the height of its occupation of territory creation of symbols of a state structure, including courts, currency and standing navy in the ‘Sea Tigers’ without official recognition by an acknowledged nation-state. When reports claimed that the LTTE was working on Eritrea, a sovereign nation in the Horn of Africa, the war-time Rajapaksa Government in Colombo intervened effectively, and put all such efforts at naught.

Any such Maldivian construct implied in the Shainee statement has two sides to the same. As with other Yameen interpretations of New Delhi’s concerns over the need for political stability, and hence democracy, in Maldives, the ‘K-reference’ implies that the Male dispensation may have already concluded forgoing its diplomatic recognition by such other recognised nation-states, including India.

Differing ‘self-interest’

The Indian concerns over democracy in Maldives flows from the ground reality that there still exists a substantial voter-following for Nasheed and his MDP on the one hand, and much more for the four-party JO. Through the past years of the Yameen Government and ahead of his ascendancy to power through elections 2009, India was seeking only free and fair elections after ensuring a level playing field for the Maldivian Opposition, starting with Nasheed, for the very same reasons and justification.

It is also not about China, as some may want to interpret. It is much more about avoidable instability in the vast and varied Indian Ocean neighbourhood especially, and India just cannot afford it — and hence, not allow it, either. While sovereignty matters in such cases, when looked at from the Maldivian standpoint, ‘supreme national self-interest’ matters as much for India.

Modern-day foreign policy theories do acknowledge the latter as much as the former. For decades now, the India-Maldivian relations have been fraught with problems of the kind. Whichever government has been in power in New Delhi, India has been talking and acting with ‘supreme national self-interest’ in mind.

In the uneven power-projections of South Asia (barring Pakistan in context), Indian ‘self-interest’, especially in geostrategic terms, translates also into ‘supreme regional self-interest.’ In the case of Maldives, it has invariably remained as self-interest of the ruler of the day, whoever he was/is. Contrary to professions, the list should include Nasheed, too.

For decades now, the India-Maldivian relations have been fraught with problems of the kind. Whichever government has been in power in New Delhi, India has been talking and acting with ‘supreme national self-interest’ in mind.

India-China equations

In the immediate context, India may have engaged with Maldives in the ways it has done even without China, though the immediate concerns have got identified with the Yameen administration signing the China FTA, accompanied by avoidable secrecy. Even without China as forceful in Maldivian affairs as it is now, India had sought free and fair elections when Nasheed’s successor, President Waheed Hassan Manik was in office.

In doing so, India was known to work closely with Yameen, who was also one of the many political leaders of the time in the country. What more, India readily conferred recognition on Yameen’s presidency when Elections-2013 threw him up as the winner, though under very controversial circumstances.

Earlier, India was the first and foremost nation to recognise the Waheed Government after President Nasheed resigned in a huff and Parliament went through motions of elevating the Vice-President, under the provisions of the 2008 Constitution. This was so despite Nasheed retracting his earlier position, claimed that it was not resignation, and criticised India for recognising what he claimed was a coup as constitutional succession.

Male-based Miadhu has since indicated that India had offered to send an intermediary but the Yameen Government had declined the same. However, The Times of India quoted Minister Shainee from Male that the Yameen Government had kept the UN and the EU posted on its negotiation efforts. “A third party is willing to negotiate on the issue,” the Indian daily quoted Minister as saying, but refusing to specify if it was an international body or a country. “It is neither China nor India.” Asked about China’s big brother role, Shainee said: “India, not China, is the big brother in the region. And we will continue our India-first policy.”

On-again, off-again

The world has once again got busy with itself otherwise after initial and at time disproportionate reaction to the 1 February Supreme Court order. It was only to be expected, and Yameen was/is not the one to miss the mark. The government has since revived the on-again, off-again call for all-party talks. The JO has once again declined to hold talks unless it is held under UN facilitation and participation.

In inviting the opposition parties for talks, Minister Shainee, when he met the foreign media, also disclosed that the government had previously held secret talks with Nasheed through third parties. He did not say when those talks were held or why they did not progress. Nor has the Nasheed camp reacted to the government’s claim.

The idea seems to be for the government to sow seeds of suspicions in the minds of the other three JO constituents, including jailed ex-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. However, the work in the opposition’s hands is so overwhelming that they may now not have the time or inclination to squabble over ‘such small things’, especially when aware of the motives behind such disclosures.

Independent of international intervention or facilitation of any future talks, the JO may be in no mood for any interaction of the kind with the Yameen leadership until Gayoom, the President’s half-brother and one-time party boss, was freed from jail. Should it happen, suspicions of family ties and consequent favouritism would be sought to be sworn in the minds of other opposition parties, with or without success, however partial.

For starters, religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) boss, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, would have to be freed from his long, court-ordered prison-term, on terrorism charges. MDP’s Nasheed and and Jumhooree Party (JP) boss, Gasim Ibrahim, have purportedly jumped jail, both flowing from local court orders, and living in self-exile, overseas. The opposition too may not want to yield without freedom for jailed Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and brother-judge Ali Hameed, charged with plotting a coup against bribery, along with Gayoom and the latter’s parliamentarian son, Faaris Maumoon.

After sending out confusing signals when the government first sent out the invitation not long after the 5 February emergency proclamation, the Yameen leadership has since categorically ruled against UN participation or facilitation. By extension, such a bar could include India, which is the most suited of all players to undertake such a job, balancing all interest and stakeholders, including those of the Maldivian State and Government leadership.

Ahead of all this, the Yameen Government had taken on the other neighbour, Sri Lanka. Even while waiting to present his credentials to Sri Lankan President Maithiripala Sirisena some months ago, the Maldivian Ambassador-designate, Mohammed Hussain Shareed ‘Mundhu’ told media persons that he would seek Colombo’s cooperation to have Nasheed sent back to Male (to face courts and prison authorities), if he was asked to do so. However, less and less of him has been heard since his assuming office.

Interestingly, the present Sri Lankan Government, which had reacted relatively strongly, to Nasheed’s trial and arrest in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’ and related issues, has been maintaining relative silence since the Supreme Court’s controversial order of 1 February and the subsequent proclamation of emergency in Maldives, other than a solo statement in general terms. This was long after then British Prime Minister David Cameron had told the House of Commons that Sri Lanka was the ‘frontline State’ in dealing with Yameen’s Maldives.

If it was the reason and if it was also to provoke India into taking more than the customary passive position in non-Pakistani neighbourhood affairs, it did not happen then and there — not at least when Cameron was in power. Already, India, along with Sri Lanka, had worked on the Yameen administration, to let a jailed Nasheed go to the UK or medical treatment. But then British overtures of the kind also seemed to have silenced Sri Lanka, since viz. Maldives, though not to levels Amb Shareef ‘Mundhu’ would have liked.

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