Maldives crisis and India’s increasing regional supremacy

But why India then and why India now?

Maldives crisis is no more about the Maldivian Supreme Court’s one-week-old verdict that called for the overturning of criminal convictions against nine imprisoned opposition politicians. Nor is it about President Abdulla Yameen declaring a 15-day nationwide state of emergency and arresting former president Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom and two of the country’s four Supreme Court justices, namely Abdulla Saeed and Ali Hamid. The development that has rung alarm bells in the region, especially for Pakistan, is the Maldives’ exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed calling on India to intervene and “send an envoy, backed by its military” to resolve the crisis. In order to identify India’s stakes in the region, it is important to understand the crisis itself because it is the problem from which the factors of involvement originate.

The opening character of the story is Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom who served as the president of the Maldives from 1978 till 2008. With his support peaking at an unbelievable figure of 95.6 per cent as in 1983, his losing the 2008 election was, in fact, believable owing to his alleged involvement in human rights abuses and corruption, hence Mohamed Nasheed, a renowned human rights activist, becoming his successor. Being one of the founders of the Maldivian Democratic Party and then serving as the first democratically elected president of the country was not a cup of tea, as was proven later when Nasheed was ousted on charges of arresting a judge on allegations of non-compliance with on-going investigations of the police regarding a former cabinet minister’s detention in Dhoonidhoo in connection with massive opposition protests against Nasheed and his government.

The several issues that were taken up by the opposition parties against Nasheed included his policy of exempting spas and resort islands from the laws that prohibited consumption of alcohol and pork. The “flourishing of freedoms”, as many eye it, had a disturbing contribution in the spread of radical Islam, with the Maldives providing most recruits to the Islamic State, as pointed out by Gareth Price in his article published in The Independent. In words of Nasheed, the official charges against him were quite perplexing: “One time they said it was terrorism, another time they said it was acting against the constitution, another time they said it was alcohol.” It is pertinent to note that Nasheed is reported to have taken refuge in the Indian High Commission office in Malé following the issuance of his arrest warrant from a Maldivian court in February 2013.

Following Nasheed’s forced resignation, presidential elections were held in 2013 under a two-round system. The initial vote awarded an undisputed majority to Nasheed with him bagging 45.45 percent of the total votes. However, to make the cup of tea even hotter, the Supreme Court annulled the elections and cancelled the scheduled second round by a 4-3 verdict. The reason of annulment, as elaborated by Judge Ahmed Abdulla Didi, was a police report that claimed the participation of 5,623 ineligible people in the voting that included the dead and those under 18. The election was re-run on 9 November and produced similar results, with Nasheed winning 46.93 percent of the total votes. His contender, Abdulla Yameen, was the leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives who was given the hot seat after his paternal half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom declared that he would not participate in any further election. By managing to postpone the election and gaining time to campaign through the highest court’s verdict, Yameen made an easy mark and secured 51.39 per cent of the total votes.

Under Yameen’s rule in 2015, the People’s Majlis, the unicameral legislative institution of the Maldives, passed an amendment in the constitution whereby foreign ownership of territory within the country was given green signal

The twist in the plot is yet to come. Gayyoom and Nasheed ganged up against Yameen in March last year and called on India to intervene. While the first part of the preceding sentence is quite comprehendible given the history of the Maldivian politics, the second part is still queer.

The Maldives Supreme Court ruled last week to release nine political prisoners, including Nasheed, who had been convicted in charges of terrorism. Yameen, in turn, dispatched soldiers who arrested Gayyoom at his home and forced their way into the Supreme Court building to take two justices into custody. Yet again, during this period of political turmoil, Nasheed has asked for India’s “physical presence” in the country to iron out the crisis. The question is: Why India then and why India now?

Under Yameen’s rule in 2015, the People’s Majlis, the unicameral legislative institution of the Maldives, passed an amendment in the constitution whereby foreign ownership of territory within the country was given green signal. It allows foreigners who invest over one billion dollars to own land given that 70 percent of the purchased land is reclaimed from the sea, thus restricting the number of potential buyers. Here comes the keyword around which the entire plot revolves: China. China, along with Saudi Arabia, has not only expressed interest in developing infrastructure but is also looking forward to gain advantage of the aforementioned amendment. It is the unsaid backing of these two countries which is blamed to have encouraged Yameen to centralise power and repudiate opposition. Another brick that strengthened Sino-Maldivian understanding was China’s decision to sign a free trade agreement with the Maldives, becoming the second SAARC country (after Pakistan) to do so.

Jayanth Jacob identifies Sino-Maldivian proximity as one of the three reasons why India is worried about the current crisis. “China is rapidly expanding its footprint in the Maldives. […] President Xi Jingping’s visit gave a big push to the ties while the Maldives is the only SAARC country that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not visited,” he states in his article published in The Hindustan Times. China’s massive investment in developing the archipelago nation’s infrastructure such as a bridge linking Hulhule Island to Malé and its nationals accounting for the most tourists visiting the Atolls are the facts that are worrisome for India with approximately 22,000 of its citizens living in the country as expats. “The way the free-trade pact was pushed through parliament without any discussion was another example of Yameen’s keenness to strengthen relationship with Asia’s biggest economy.”

Jacob also highlights geographic proximity of India and the Maldives as a reason of concern for the former, since “a weakened Maldives could prove a fertile ground for extremism and religious fundamentalism, piracy, smuggling and drug trafficking – all major security worries for New Delhi”. It is not the first time India has shown such a concern regarding a Muslim-majority country in its neighbourhood or vicinity. The intriguing part in this case is India turning a blind eye to the spread of radical Islam during Nasheed’s tenure and it viewing the crisis only through the lens of its relations with China.

One thing, however, is certain that stability in the Indian Ocean region, which is most valued by India owing to 75 percent of its trade by value passing through the ocean, is dependent on India’s decision to choose between the options of remaining silent and intervening. While intervention surely is in contradiction with India’s proclaimed stance of not interfering in other states’ matters, the responsibility of endorsing the rule of law in the Maldives completely lies on the shoulders of India. As Abdulla Shahid, former speaker of the People’s Majlis puts it in words, “India is seen here as a beacon of hope and democracy.”

By: , This article was originally published in Daily Pakistan Observer. (AD-AN