Any talk of Maldives and the images conjured are of luxurious resorts and hotels in the ocean, each trying to woo customers through advertisements promising peace and tranquillity. Yet, a nation that runs its economy on tourism has hardly been doing anything to promote it; on the contrary, Maldives has been a nation in political disorder for long, leading to many nations issuing a travel advisory to its citizens.
The string of twenty six atolls, comprising of about 1190 coral islets, stretching in a north-south direction, about 460 km off the south-west coast of India and having a mean elevation of about 1.5 m above sea level, is also of strategic concern to India, for which an understanding of its history and location is essential.
The country is a Presidential Republic which gained its independence from United Kingdom, in 1965. A study of the demographics of Maldives indicates a strong cultural and linguistic links with India and Sri Lanka, with Dravidians from Kerala as the most probable early settlers. There are also some signs of Arab inhabitants mostly in the southernmost atolls. Buddhism came to the Maldives at the time of Emperor Ashoka’s expansion and became the dominant religion of the people of the Maldives until the 12th century AD. The conversion to Islam is mentioned in the ancient documents written in copper plates from the end of the 12th century AD. Over the centuries, the islands have been visited, and their development influenced, by sailors and traders from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate from 1153 to 1968, the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until 1965, when it gained its independence.
Political chaos in Maldives is not a new occurrence. Upheavals in the political system commenced after independence and have been happening during every presidency, though with a little more frequency on the turn of the century. After independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another three years till 1968 when, after a popular referendum, the monarchy was abolished and replaced by a republic. The changeover was cosmetic, without any significant alteration in the structures of governance, as the king had held little real power. The official name of the country was changed from Maldive Islands to the Maldives, under the leadership of President Ibrahim Nasir.
President Nasir is credited for modernising the islands, introducing Maldives to the world by encouraging tourism with the opening of the international airport at Hulule, an island adjoining Male, and developing the fishing and shipping industries. Even though tourism was developed as the mainstay of the economy, a decline set in the 1970s, when the British decided to close its airfield in one of the southern atolls of Gan. Political infighting added to the country’s woes. President Nasir, the political leader from 1968 found his popularity waning and fled the country in 1978, reportedly with millions of dollars from the treasury. He was replaced by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ushered in an era of political stability and economic development in his 30-year rule despite repeated coup attempts by supporters of the ex-President Nasir. The last coup attempt of November 1998 was the most serious and was thwarted with the help of assistance from the Indian Government.
President Gayoom’s long tenure was marked by numerous allegations of autocracy, corruption, and human rights abuses. During the later part of his presidency, independent political movements emerged in Maldives, which challenged the then-ruling political party (Maldivian People’s Party, MPP) and demanded democratic reforms. Since 2003, a dissident journalist, Mohamed Nasheed rose to challenge the autocratic rule of President Gayoom and led demonstrations calling for political reforms, more freedom, and an end to oppression; Nasheed was imprisoned a total of 16 times in President Gayoom’s rule, but persisted in his activism; to avoid further arrests, he went into a self-imposed exile in 2003 and founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). His activism, as well as civil unrest, combined with international pressure, compelled President Gayoom into allowing for gradual political reforms with political parties being permitted to function in 2005. The protests brought about political restructuring, with a new Constitution being ratified in August 2008 and, for the first time ever, a multi-party presidential election being conducted two months later, leading to Mohamed Nasheed winning the elections and being appointed president.
The government of President Nasheed faced many challenges from the very beginning of his tenure; there were the usual problems of corruption and unemployment, and a huge debt left by the previous government, which probably followed an economic downturn due to the 2004 tsunami when many of the tourist resorts were damaged or destroyed. President Nasheed, however, managed to divert the attention of the population to adverse effects of climate change that could alter the geography of Maldives by inundating the low-lying islands. He proposed the creation of a sovereign fund to purchase land in Sri Lanka and India to resettle the people, should the flood become realty. The people, however, were not convinced and demonstrations, initially peaceful, broke out in May 2011, protesting against mismanagement of the economy, rising prices, and calling for the dismissal of the President. The government of President Nasheed was dismissed under disputed circumstances in February 2012, following clashes between the Maldives Army on one side, and the Police and the people on the other. President Nasheed claimed that he was forced to tender his resignation at gunpoint, an issue denied by the supporters of the Vice President, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who took over the reins of the government.
The woes of Nasheed did not end with his presidency; he was indicted on varied counts, the most serious of which was under the country’s terrorism laws for ordering the detention of a corrupt judge, and sentenced to jail for 13 years. While Nasheed was in jail, fresh elections were announced by President Hassan and conducted in late 2013. Nasheed, the former president, won most of the votes in the first round, but the Supreme Court annulled the elections citing irregularities. Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of the former president Gayoom, was later declared elected as the new president, when the opposition combined to gain a majority.
Grievances and paranoia come naturally to the president. President Yameen has survived an assassination attempt in September 2015; he has had his Vice President, Ahmed Adheeb, removed on grounds of stealing $79 million and suspicion of being involved in the unsuccessful attempt on his life; he has also hounded the leaders of the opposition and his own coalition and intimidated members of what has been left of a free press. President Yameen has transformed from an elected president into a full-scale dictator, with major changes in the foreign policy of Maldives, having befriended China and Saudi Arabia, much to India’s chagrin. In the current political turmoil of February 2018, the President has portrayed himself as a victim of an attempted coup by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and other nefarious forces; the Supreme Court order of 01 February has called for the release of nine political prisoners, including the self-exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, and the reinstating of 12 members of Majlis (the Maldivian parliament), who had defected to the opposition from the President’s coalition.
India – Maldives Bilateral Relations
The Maldives is an important neighbour for India; realising the geo-strategic importance of Maldives, India moved to establish diplomatic relations with it, immediately after the end of the British rule. Since then, the two nations have developed close strategic, military, economic and cultural relations with India continuously contributing towards maintaining security on the island nation and forging an alliance to protect its interests in the Indian Ocean. Maldives’ policy to steer clear of regional issues and struggles also had the tacit approval of India. Both nations are founder members of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and South Asian Economic Union. Leaders of both nations have maintained close contact and liaison with each other, on matters concerning the region. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called Maldives as “a valued partner in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood” and said that India-Maldives “ties are built on a very strong foundation,” the contours of which “are defined by shared strategic, security, economic and developmental goals.” However, the bilateral ties are not without irritants, which can be seen in two broad areas: political and strategic.
Politically, India has always consciously avoided interfering in the Maldives’ internal affairs despite being invited to do so on several occasions, by various actors in the island nation. India’s major concern has been the impact of political instability in Maldives, on its security and development. The February 2015 arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed, on charges of terrorism and the ensuing political crisis posed a diplomatic test for India’s non-interference policy. Expressing concern over the arrest and reported manhandling, India urged the political parties to maintain calm and resolve their differences within the constitutional and legal framework. As a result of the incumbent government’s stubbornness in heeding India’s appeal, Prime Minister Modi was forced to change his itinerary and drop Maldives from his four-nation Indian Ocean tour in March 2015. The cancellation sent an evident signal about Indian disappointment with the developments, which were undermining political stability in the Maldives. However, Maldives too sent out a clear message for India to comply with the principle of Panchsheel and not intervene in its domestic politics. In diplomatic parlance, Panchsheel is generally used in the Sino-Indian context; this, therefore was construed to indicate China’s influence in the country’s policies and on the issue of non-interference in internal affairs of other nations. Notwithstanding the hiccups, President Yameen has visited India three times since assuming power in 2013; during his last visit in April 2016, President Yameen echoed Maldives’ ‘India first policy’ and signed six agreements ranging from defence to taxation!