Maldives crisis: Options for India

| | in Oped

The state of emergency in Maldives has brought Indian strategic interests to a point of reckoning. It is a tough decision for India

Political crisis in Maldives has deepened ever since President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency in the country for 15 days starting February 2 after the ruling of the Supreme Court to reinstate the 12 rebelled MPs and release political prisoners. While the Chief Justice and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom have been arrested, Yameen is trying to consolidate his dictatorial regime. To justify his brazen act, he accused the top court of acting hastily and said, “I declared the state of emergency because there was no way to hold these justices accountable.”

But, the ongoing political chaos is not a surprising development. In fact, things were moving in this direction since 2012, when the first democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed was ousted. With the election of Yameen as President in 2013, things turned worse as he launched a crackdown on civil liberties. Later, Nasheed was illegally sentenced to 13 years on charges of terrorism in 2015. Moreover, in the last five years, Yameen has abrogated a serious of democratic reforms, imprisoning or forcing into exile nearly every politician who opposes him. The boat bombing of September 28, in which the President escaped unhurt further empowered him to suppress voices of his opponents. This became evident when Vice President Ahmed Adeeb was arrested on unsubstantiated charges of plotting the attack on Yameen.

However, the recent order of the apex court posed a serious threat to the stability of the Yameen regime, given the fact that with the 12 legislatures getting back their seats, the Opposition would gain a majority in the 85-member Parliament. Since the top court ordered the release of Nasheed, Yameen was left to face a tough competition in the next general election, which is due later this year. These factors, along with enhanced ties with China and Saudi Arabia, emboldened Yameen to impose emergency in the country to acquire unlimited power to protect his regime. The ongoing political unrest has caught international attention, with Opposition leaders of Maldives requesting the international community to restore democracy. In particular, Nasheed, who is in exile in Sri Lanka, has requested India to send an envoy, backed by its military, to release the judges and political prisoners.

India is also closely watching the developments in Maldives, especially when relations between the two countries have remained very sticky since 2012 when President Mohammed Waheed Hassan cancelled the contract signed with GMR, an Indian company. Though India hosted President Yameen three times till 2016 and he also lauded the Modi Government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, Malé has not taken any concrete step to improvise with New Delhi. Instead, Yameen has shown interests in strengthening ties with China. This can be gauged from the fact that while an unprecedented rise in the number of Chinese travellers to Maldives has been recorded, Yameen has already endorsed China’s Maritime Silk Road, which is the part of the One Belt One Road. The two countries also signed the Free Trade Agreement in December 2017. It is also believed that the new law passed by Maldives, allowing absolute foreign ownership of land on the conditions that interested parties would make a minimum investment of one billion dollar and reclaim 70 per cent land from the sea, will greatly benefit China in expanding its foothold in the Indian Ocean. India’s concern is that China, with its strategic ally Pakistan, could use the Maldives as a strategic choke point for India if push came to shove. The threat from Pakistan-backed fundamentalists is no less threatening. Rapid inroads of Wahhabi Islam are taking place in Maldives and the growth of terror modules in that country have generated concerns among the Indian strategic community. Therefore, internal stability is not important just to Maldives, but also to the international community, and most of all, to India. Even now, while Yameen has announced to send envoys to friendly countries: China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, he did not find it fit to consult India, underscoring Yameen’s hatred against New Delhi.

Maldives has emerged as one of the most important neighbours of India in geo-strategic and economic terms. It is situated in a mid-way between Strait of Malacca and Suez, which are the world’s busiest trade routes and thousands of cargoes pass through these trade routes. At the same time, as Kerala and Lakshadweep are in close proximity to the Maldivian islands, there are always India’s concerns about the possible use of Maldives’ territory against it. These concerns get importance in the light of the fact that the November 2008 cross-border terrorist attack in Mumbai was made possible from across the sea. Maldives also occupies a special place in India’s foreign policy priority list because of increasing cases of piracy in the Indian Ocean near Somalia and Strait of Malacca, which has made the position of Maldives very important for establishing Naval bases for security in the Indian Ocean.

It was in this context that the Indian Government issued a strong statement saying, “We are disturbed by the declaration of a state of Emergency in the Maldives following the refusal of the Government to abide by the unanimous ruling of the full-bench of the Supreme Court on February 1, and also by the suspension of Constitutional Rights of the people of Maldives.” However, it is equally true that New Delhi may not like to take hard steps against Yameen because it will further enhance ties between China and Maldives. We also do not know how the Government in Malé, after a regime change, will behave with regard to Indian interests. Thus, the Modi Government has taken the right decision to put pressure on Yameen through diplomatic channels to revoke the state of emergency. Now, it has to be seen in a testing time like this how India manages to keep China at a distance, reinforcing its position of an ultimate security provider in the South Asia region.

(The writer is an ICSSR doctoral fellow, UGC Centre for Southern Asia Studies, Pondicherry University)

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