On the night of 3rd November 1988, paratroopers from the elite 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, India’s only true-blue rapid deployment force, launched Operation Cactus in response to pleas for assistance from President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives who had been deposed in a coup, earlier in the day.
The importance of the Maldives lies in its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, astride three of the most important sea lanes of communication, through which most of India’s trade and oil requirements pass, apart from its close proximity to India.
The coup had been spearheaded by a group of Maldivians headed by Abdullah Lutufi, a businessman resident in Srilanka, with the support of about 150 Srilankan Tamil mercenaries. In a swift, surgical and well executed operation the intervention force of paratroopers recaptured Male, the capital city, within just twelve hours of the President’s appeal and restored him back in power. Incidentally, a power he continued to wield till street protests forced him to out and subsequent multi-party elections led to the elevation of Mr. Nasheed as President in 2008.
Now that Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit the Maldives in March it is well worth focusing the spotlight on this idyllic tropical island that is no longer the paradise of tourist brochures.
The Republic of Maldives comprises of 1190 islands, of which only 198 islands are permanently inhabited, covering a total area of 90,000 square kilometers. The chain of islands is confined to 820 kilometers in length and covers 130 kilometers in width and is about 400 Kms from the Indian mainland and just about 125 Kms from the Minicoy Islands, at its closest.I t has an estimated population of about 345,000with another 100,000 expatriate workers, mainly from India and Bangladesh. The importance of the Maldives lies in its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, astride three of the most important sea lanes of communication, through which most of India’s trade and oil requirements pass, apart from its close proximity to India.
The past few years have not been kind to the Maldivians, plagued by intense political rivalry between the three major parties, the present ruling Progressive Party (PPM), the major opposition, the former President Nasheed’s Democratic Party (MDP), and the Jumhooree Party (JP) that has swung from supporting the ruling party to adding to the opposition, thereby reducing the ruling party to a minority in Parliament. Among smaller parties the Sunni Islamist Adhaalath Party (AP) has become increasingly important for the influence it wields despite only one member in the Majlis (parliament).The judiciary and the Defence Forces have also not covered themselves with glory either for the manner in which they have interfered with governance and election issues, not least for forcing President Nasheed’s resignation and subsequently annulling the 2013 elections in which his party again getting the maximum votes. His recent arrest on charges of terrorism bodes ill for the polity.
The present Maldivian government has recently enthusiastically endorsed China’s proposal for the Maritime Silk Road and has offered Chinese companies land on lease…
The consequent deterioration in the law and order situation along with increased violence has been further exacerbated with radical Islam and drug trafficking having established their tentacles within civil society and more worryingly, within the political establishment and among members of the security establishment. There have been reports of numerous cases of religious intolerance within the country. In 2012 Islamic hardliners, many trained in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were suspected to be responsible for a raid on the national museum in which a priceless collection of ancient Buddhist artifacts was destroyed. In October the same year, a Member of Parliament was brutally murdered reported because he was an Islamic scholar with moderate views.
However, what has upset civil society the world over was the 2013 case where a 15-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather was sentenced to 100 lashes for “fornication”. Latest reports suggest that more the fifty youth have joined ISIS, that is in all likelihood more than have from India, and are involved in ongoing fighting in Iraq and Syria. Their return is bound to exacerbate the situation even more.
While these issues are of concern what has been most disturbing from the Indian view point is the increasing influence of China over the past few years. The present Maldivian government has recently enthusiastically endorsed China’s proposal for the Maritime Silk Road and has offered Chinese companies land on lease at the Special Economic Zones it is in the process of establishing. Incidentally, in 1999 the island of ‘Marao’ was leased to the Chinese to construct a maritime traffic management hub, but is now reportedly being used to monitor Indian and US warships in the Indian Ocean, and there are reports suggesting that there is every likelihood of it being developed into a submarine base in the near future. If this were to be true, its impact on operations of the Indian Navy is not difficult to predict.
In view of recent developments, especially the ill treatment and arrest of Nasheed Nazim, Modi has opted to cancel his visit, given the timing of the arrest…
While the recent election results in Srilanka have certainly been welcomed by the Indian establishment for its potential to transform Indo- Srilankan relations for the better, they have also been seen as a shot in the arm by the Maldivian opposition in their fight to preserve constitutional democracy and rule of law. In view of recent developments, especially the ill treatment and arrest of Mr. Nasheed and the former Defence Minister, Mr. Nazim, Mr. Modi has opted to cancel his visit, given the timing of the arrest that sends a clear message to the Indian establishment of its waning influence with the present government.
However, given that the opposition MDP unambiguously supports closer Indo- Maldivian ties and is clearly suspicious of the present Government’s moves towards closer cooperation with China, he would have been better served by meeting President Yameen and convincing him that internal peace and stability are of immense importance if the growth of Islamic radicalism is to be neutralized. For this, dialogue with the opposition, preservation of democratic values and non- politicization of the security establishment and the judiciary are prerequisites. Finally, Mr. Modi certainly needed to make it personally clear to the President that while an Eastward alignment for economic considerations is understandable, sensitivities of the Indian government must also be given due consideration. It would be in nobody’s interest if India’s legitimate concerns were to be ignored, least of all in President Yameen’s.