The visit to India of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, President of Maldives, on 10-11 April has turned focus to a delicate relationship in South Asia. Has this visit rekindled the traditionally close relationship between two neighbours and friends in the Indian Ocean region, discusses Rajiv Bhatia
Relations between Maldives and India, respectively the smallest and largest nations in South Asia, used to run on a stable trajectory of cordiality, consolidation and good neighbourliness. Especially because the two are linked through strong ties of religion, culture, history and shared heritage for millennia.
With a population of 0.34 million and an area of only 298 sq. km, Maldives has a unique geography. It has 1192 coral islands, grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls. It is perhaps the world’s most dispersed country and the lowest lying one, where the ground level is an average 1.5 meter above sea level. In fact, its position in the Indian Ocean is of considerable strategic significance.
This nation’s vicious internal politics, strategic location, and changing power equations in the Indian Ocean region have created a peculiar mix that impacts adversely on India-Maldives relations. It imparts them instability which neither side can afford.
Last year as Maldives celebrated 50 years of its independence, the Prime Minister of India was constrained to cancel a planned visit to it, causing widespread disappointment. Since that low point in March 2015, serious efforts have been underway to repair the damage.
But, let us first dissect briefly the internal political scene at the beginning of 2016. After several decades as the British protectorate (since 1887), Maldives gained independence in 1965 and became a republic in 1968 when the monarchy was dissolved. The ‘sultan’ returned in the form of an authoritarian ruler, clad in a democratic garb. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom served as the president for 30 years (from 1978 to 2008). Speaking at a recent think tank meeting in Delhi (where this author was present), Gayoom asserted that it was ‘true though difficult to believe’ that he ‘won’ all six elections arranged during this period. Well, he won…because no opposition was allowed.
Real democracy arrived in Maldives in November 2008 when Mohamed Nasheed, a liberal champion of human rights, was elected as the president. He had suffered much oppression during the Gayoom years, but operating in Mandela mode, he chose to forgive and forget the past and focus on the future. His initial years were exciting as he attracted world attention to the menace Maldives faced from climate change, including possible extinction due to rising sea levels. He presided over the world’s first under-water cabinet meeting in order to underline his country’s vulnerabilities. When asked what he hoped to achieve, Nasheed famously replied: ‘We hope not to die.’ His worldview was pro-India, much like Gayoom’s - in his time.
Soon Nasheed had to contend with serious opposition at home. He won power, but found it difficult to retain it. In the wake of rising agitations, he resigned in February 2012 and would claim later that his exit was the result of a coup against him. Nasheed created an awkward situation for India and himself by seeking refuge in the Indian High Commission in Male in February 2013, as the High Court upheld a lower court’s warrant to arrest him. He stayed at the High Commission for 11 days.
Following New Delhi’s ‘engagement’ with the authorities and ‘all stake holders’, it became possible for Nasheed to leave the diplomatic facility.
In the presidential elections in late 2013, Nasheed did well initially, but failed to prevail. Abdulla Yameen became the president, who is the half brother of former president Gayoom. After facing internal difficulties of its own, the present dispensation felt powerful enough to arrange Nasheed’s hurried trial which resulted in a jail sentence for 13 years. Presently Nasheed is on (unauthorised) medical leave in the UK, engaged in some political activities causing discomfiture to Male.
In recent years, fundamentalist Islamist tendencies have strengthened in Maldives. Ties with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Pakistan have consolidated. A sizable number of youth have joined radical organisations like ISIS. Above all, the present leadership has shown a gift to play the regional game cleverly by deepening Maldives ties with China.
The China factor
China’s formidable economic strength and its policy to strengthen linkages with South Asian nations as a tool to curb India’s space, has created new opportunities for Maldives. Xi Jinping’s visit in September 2014, the first by a Chinese president, symbolised this vividly. Maldives’ presidents have been regular visitors to Beijing, but, of late, they seem to receive a warmer welcome. Maldives is supportive of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiatives on which India continues to have reservations.
A Chinese company is now executing the modernisation project of Male airport. Earlier, GMR, an Indian company with good credentials, was engaged to handle it, but the contract was cancelled unilaterally, leading to much controversy and arbitration. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Maldives has increased dramatically. Besides, media reports frequently refer to China’s plans to buy one or more islands for commercial or even naval purposes.
These developments are monitored closely in Delhi and shape our policy response which is a continuing essay at calibration. India’s sensitivity about China’s actions in the Indian Ocean is far higher than elsewhere. After all, what happens next door is of direct concern. Our friends in Maldives may be well advised to remember that it would be unwise to hurt the vital interests of a benign neighbor.
The trajectory of bilateral relations reveals a series of ups and downs. In the earlier era, it used to be a smoother ride. As head of the concerned division in Ministry of External Affairs, I recall my several visits to the island nation in the early 1990s, each of which concluded with a call on President Gayoom. He was friendly towards India, and New Delhi invariably strove to strengthen this vital relationship.
Gayoom’s administration faced a severe emergency in November 1988 when Tamil militants surreptitiously landed in Male with a plan to stage a coup, and were close to dethrone him. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the bold decision to launch ‘Operation Cactus’ that saw India’s defense forces execute an impressive intervention at the request of a friendly government. The coup attempt was thwarted and Gayoom was saved.
Gratitude is alien to the realm of politics and diplomacy, but the people of Maldives cannot forget their own history. When tsunami hit them hard in 2004, India was the first country to send in relief supplies. In 2014 Male’s main water treatment plant was damaged. Once again, India rushed to help, dispatching water through planes and ships. India’s elaborate programme of development cooperation benefits Maldives immensely.
In this backdrop, seasoned observers note that fence-mending in India-Maldives relations has been taking time, but it is underway. New Delhi continues to persevere and advance patiently. Exclusion of Maldives from PM Modi’s journey to Indian Ocean states in March 2015 (which took him to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles) impelled South Block to initiate a special exercise to improve relations. Visits by the Foreign Secretary and the External Affairs Minister were arranged in the following months. During the latter’s visit, India highlighted its ‘Neighbours First’ policy, whereas President Yameen spoke of his ‘India First’ policy. Media reports, however, conveyed that behind this bonhomie lurked a continuing trust deficit.
President’s Yameen’s recent visit was a belated, though prudent, endeavour by Maldives to place the ties back on the rails. While he had visited India twice in 2014, this was his first visit since May 2014. He found a reason to thank India publicly i.e. for ‘protecting’ his government from possible punitive actions from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. He expressed ‘appreciation’ for India’s steadfast help and ‘hope’ for continued support in the future. Whether some understanding was reached about giving a fair treatment to former president Nasheed is not known, but the Maldives government announced that he could seek extension of his medical leave.
A positive feature was the signing of six new Agreements and MoUs. Two of the agreements reflect the sense of both past and future: through one, India agreed to help Maldives in the conservation and restoration of ancient mosques and through another, it was agreed to secure technical coordination concerning the ‘South Asia Satellite.’ Perhaps the most important of the documents signed was the ‘Action Plan’, designed to enhance bilateral defence cooperation. It will be worth watching how much time elapses before PM Modi pays a return visit to Maldives.
This in-depth analysis underscores two significant points.
Firstly, the Maldives government needs to regain the trust of Indian people and opinion makers. Its High Commission in Delhi should consider stepping up its public diplomacy drive.
Secondly, Indian media may introspect if it is paying excessive attention to only one neighbour – Pakistan – and ignoring the others. Our people deserve to know more as to what is happening in our entire neighbourhood.
-- Former Ambassador, Rajiv Bhatia, is Distinguished Fellow at Gateway House, Mumbai