India has made it clear that it would not put the Maldivian crisis under the carpet. This was apparent when New Delhi turned down Male’s request to allow president Abdulla Yameen’s special envoy and foreign minister Mohamed Asim to visit the Indian capital to put in perspective the situation in the island nation.
The refusal was brought to light by the Maldivian government itself. Media reports said Yameen had decided to send envoys to explain the situation to friendly countries like China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- but not India. The Maldivian embassy in Delhi reacted: “The first stop of special envoy of the president was India. Foreign minister of Maldives Mohamed Asim, the designated special envoy of the president, was scheduled for a February 8 visit to India, but the visit was cancelled on the request of the government of India.” The announcement for sending envoys had come from Yameen’s office hours after China, in an obvious reference to India, warned against military intervention in the Maldives, which it said would “complicate matters”. China’s warning itself came after former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, who is in self-exile in Sri Lanka, called upon India to use its military to end the political turmoil.
India has no plans to conduct an Operation Cactus-like military intervention. In the 1988 operation, Indian troops had landed in Male to repel Tamil mercenaries who were helping president Abdul Gayoom’s opponents overthrow his government. However, New Delhi said it’s “disturbed” by the emergency imposed by Yameen.
On February 5, instead of implementing the island country’s Supreme Court order quashing terrorism charges against some political prisoners and Nasheed (who’s in exile), the Yameen government imposed emergency on the country for 15 days and had the judges arrested. Some say chief justice Abdulla Saeed and judge Ali Hameed, who annulled the charges against the opposition leaders, are close to former president Gayoom Abdul Gayoom, estranged half-brother of Yameen.
India’s statement after declaration of emergency in the Maldives was categorical: “We are disturbed by the declaration of a state of emergency in 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. The arrest of the Supreme Court chief justice and political figures are also reasons for concern.” Former foreign secretary Shashank interprets it as a message that “India would not sit in rest if its backyard is burning”.
India is monitoring the situation and is in touch with the US, the UK, and European Union. They plan to impose economic sanctions on the Maldives if the situation worsens. Maldives also figured in a February 8 telephone conversation between Indian prime minister Narendra Modia and US president Donald Trump. The White House stated: “The US president and the Indian prime minister expressed concern about the political crisis in Maldives and [talked about] the importance of respect for democratic institutions and rule of law.” The two leaders agreed to work together to maintain security in the Indo-Pacific region. Foreign experts say there is reason to believe sanctions against Male aren’t far away. Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal says, “The Maldives, you know, sustains on tourism. If India, the US, the UK and the EU manage to bring economic pressure on Maldives by imposing sanctions, Male will not be able to afford to defy the world anymore.”
At the same time, South Block mandarins also want to use time-tested diplomatic engagement with other countries that might be able to bring the Maldivian government to its senses. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who began a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia on February 6, is learnt to have broached the Maldivian crisis with the Saudi leadership. It should be noted that Riyadh wields religious as well as economic influence over the island country. It has made sizable investments in resorts and infrastructure projects there.
India, according to diplomatic sources, wants Riyadh to use its influence on the Maldives and persuade Yameen to step down so that normalcy could return before presidential elections, due in September. The supreme court had annulled the first round of presidential polls in September, 2013, after opposition parties alleged serious irregularities. A fresh election was held in November the same year. Five years on, Maldivians fear that they would be in for another rigged election, given the government’s defiance of the court ruling, the muzzling of the press, and disregard for democratic values.
TV channels have gone off the air, newspapers shut down, journalists arrested. Among those arrested is an Indian journalist working for a foreign agency. There are rumours, too, that India may engineer a coup. But the external affairs ministry has dismissed such a possibility but said, “We should keep patience and should avoid jumping the gun at the moment.”
In the light of warm relation enjoyed by Indian and Maldivian armed forces, sources say, the possibility of a military coup against Yameen could not be ruled out. In the 1970s, New Delhi helped the island country set up its largest military school in Male. Many Maldivian defence officials, including its current chief of armed forces have attended military training programmes at Officers Training Academies (OTAs) in Chennai and Gaya. They have also been part of joint exercises.
Yameen, meanwhile, sought support from China to secure Chinese projects in the archipelago. India has responded sharply. External affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said: “We note that China has said the Maldives government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in Maldives. We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in Maldives, instead of doing the opposite.”
Significantly, China, which signed a free trade agreement with the Maldives during Yameen’s recent visit to Beijing, has avoided asking Male to implement the court order; nor has it said anything about the imposition of emergency. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on February 6: “China has been closely following the situation in Maldives. We hope various parties of Maldives will properly resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation, resume the normal order as soon as possible and maintain national and social stability. We believe the Maldives government, political parties and people have the wisdom and capabilities to cope with the current situation independently.”
China is involved in several infrastructure projects in the Maldives, including the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, connecting Male with Hulhamale, where the Velana airport is located. It’s an airport a Chinese company upgraded, India’s GMR having lost out after selection with the Yameen government taking charge in 2013. GMR took the case to the international tribunal; the verdict was in favour of the Indian company, and the Maldivian government was told to pay $270 million in compensation, which Male promptly did.
Under the current Maldivian government, China’s influence has grown. In August 2017, Male permitted three Chinese warships to dock at its port. In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives’s strategic significance can be assessed from the fact that it is a close to international sea lanes through which two-thirds of the world’s fuels annually pass. The country is also located merely 700 km from India’s Lakshadweep island chain and around 1,200 km from the Indian mainland. As such, spurt in political turmoil in Maldives has triggered concern among strategic and diplomatic fraternity in India. Yet New Delhi wants to keep itself engaged in sending messages to Male which has turned out to be a bigger challenge for Indian diplomacy ever since the pro-China Yameen government came to power. In the South Asian region, Maldives is the only country where Prime Minister Modi has not yet visited, speaking volumes of mutual understanding and trust enjoyed by the two countries.