The Maldives has been generating bad news for some time. On February 12, former president Nasheed refused to honour court summons and threatened with arrest, sought refuge in the Indian embassy. India was in a quandary.
India wants democracy to take root in the Maldives and Nasheed was the only democratically elected president of the country.
His arrest and conviction would disqualify him from participating in the upcoming elections. Indian diplomacy went into overdrive to ensure participative elections that would require Nasheed’s participation as a free man. Nasheed expected Indian support but India could not be seen to be partisan.
The government in Male has for the time being desisted from arresting and trying Nasheed but the reprieve is only for a month and there are signs that an agreement to this effect, if one exists, may not after all, be honoured. If that happens, Waheed and Gayoom will have a cake walk. Democracy will lose out.
India’s leverage with Male does not appear to be working and there lies the rub.
Like many other Islamic countries, the Maldives has had a long history of autocratic rule interspersed with political conspiracies, coups and counter coups.
In March 1975, Nasir arrested the newly elected prime minister Zaki in a bloodless coup and banished him to a remote atoll. Nasir himself fled to Singapore in 1978 reportedly with millions of dollars from the treasury which have not yet been traced or recovered.
In 1980, a small group of mercenaries instigated by Gayoom’s brother-in-law attempted a coup but failed to carry out the mission because Gayoom had been tipped. In 1983, local shipping businessman Reeko Ibrahim Maniku made a bid to win the parliamentary nomination by offering bribes to members of parliament and to high court judges.
In early 1990s Gayoom was opposed by Islamists who wanted to impose a religious way of life. Over 100 armed Tamil mercenaries landed in Male. Although the mercenaries quickly gained the nearby airport on Hulule, they failed to capture president Gayoom. India had to dispatch 1,600 troops by air to restore normalcy.
After a spell of autocratic rule by Ibrahim Nasir and Abdul Gayoom lasting nearly 45 years, Nesheed became the first elected president of the country in 2008. In January 2012, Nasheed ordered the arrest of Abdullah Mohammad, Chief of Criminal Court who was accused of blocking legitimate legal action against Gayoom. Nasheed was forced to resign at gun point in what was for all purposes, a coup.
It is not too far fetched to imagine that last year’s coup against Nasheed and current efforts to neutralise him as a potential presidential candidate through a judicial verdict could well be a conspiracy by Islamists and others to ensure that democracy does not stabilise and terrorists get the required political patronage.
The Maldives is the smallest country in our immediate neighbourhood situated some 350 km South West of India. It is also the most dispersed and thinly populated country in Asia with a population of just 3.28 Lakh spread over an area of 90,000 sq km comprising 1,192 small islands of which only 192 are inhabited. It is well within the beat of African pirates.
The Maldives was a Budhist state since emperor Ashoka’s time but gradually turned Islamic under the influence of traders from Arab countries. It has been ruled as an independent Islamic sultanate from 1153 to 1968. The British controlled its defence and foreign policy in exchange for an annual tribute just like any other princely states of British India. The Sultan was all powerful.
There are persistent and serious reports that Sunni fundamentalists have been hugely encouraged and are having a free run in the Maldives which is reported to be developing into a haven for potential terrorists with unhindered supply of guns and RDX.
Developments in Male have to be seen in the context of similar loss of Indian influence in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh — not to talk of Pakistan apparently getting the better of India in a deal with the US in Afghanistan and the Chinese strengthening their influence in Nepal and Myanmar. With our difficulties vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, India stands isolated within its immediate neighbourhood. India has reason to be very worried while China and Pakistan could be laughing up their sleeves.
Maldives is strategically vital for India in the matter of security in the Indian Ocean region.
India has traditionally been the main defence provider for Seychelles providing armaments and training to its defence forces. India had extended a $50 million line of credit and $25 million grant to Seychelles in 2012. India’s strategic and economic stakes in Mauritius are equally important.
Chinese challenge to India’s pre-eminence in South Asia has now been extended to small island nations dotting the Indian Ocean. The first shock came when the Maldivian government unilaterally terminated an agreement with India’s GMR Infrastructure Ltd to operate and modernise Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Male, the radical Islamic Adhaalath Party, made it clear that it would rather give the airport contract to their friends in China.
The second shock came last year when Seychelles reportedly made an offer to China for a relief and resupply base for the Chinese Navy.
Though promptly denied by Beijing, the offer underscored the changing balance of power in the region. Beijing now participates in training its military and provides military hardware. These developments have sinister implications that India can not afford to ignore. Our International diplomacy needs to get its act together.