Instability in Maldives is a matter of concern not only for that country but for the region as a whole. India has the highest stakes in maintaining stability in Maldives. The country’s democratic structure has been torn asunder by the present regime, which can be best described as a ‘limpet’. Over the last about four years, the Yameen government has made the Maldivian Parliament irrelevant and has chosen to obey judicial orders only when convenient. It had convicted the former President Nasheed under the Anti-Terrorism Act of Maldives and sentenced him to a 13-year jail term for arresting the Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed. Now, however, Mr. Yameen has sacked the Chief Justice and anther judge of the Supreme Court, and his Attorney General has stated unambiguously that the Court’s decision to overturn the sentences of the opposition leaders, including that of Mr. Nasheed, and ordering their immediate release will not be obeyed. The Court had also removed the disqualification of the 12 parliamentarians who had defected from the Progressive Party of Maldives to which Yameen belongs. After altering the composition of the Supreme Court and obvious arm twisting, Mr. Yameen has obtained a reversal of the earlier order of the full bench of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s authority was not challenged when it had annulled the results of the 2013 Presidential elections and ordered a run-off vote between the two contestants following complaints of irregularities. The role of the Maldivian security forces has been questionable at best, all throughout. The polity is deeply fractured and fundamentalism is expanding its roots in society. Mr. Yameen has fallen out with most of his supporters, including Mr. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his half-brother and a former President, and his party ranks stand depleted. That speaks of his unpopularity. His desperation to cling to power has engendered instability that can only be harmful for the country.
No country has defended Mr. Yameen’s dictatorial and unlawful actions since these are so blatant and beyond justification on any ground. Many countries, including India, have advised Mr. Yameen to abide by the Maldivian Constitution but to no avail. Instead, he has taken brinkmanship to a different level by sending special envoys to his benefactors, to seek endorsement of his decisions, diplomatic support and, perhaps, to lobby for military assistance to ward off an external intervention. China has supported Mr. Yameen in return for favours such as rushing the China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement (FTA) through Parliament in an unconstitutional manner and the promise of lease of an island. It has expectedly warned against any external intervention.
Some commentators have drawn attention to India’s intervention in Maldives in 1988 to thwart a coup by mercenaries while at the same time pointing out the differences in the situation that existed then and the current one created by Mr. Yameen’s turn towards dictatorship. Further, they have opined that India also has to take care of its self-image as a votary of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. However, Maldives is just not any other country. For India, the internal stability of Maldives and preventing a hostile power from acquiring predominant influence in that country is of great importance since these directly impinge on its own security. Besides, the people of Maldives look up to India for support whenever faced with a crisis. Even the present regime has always had to maintain the façade of an ‘India First’ policy for reasons of geography, indivisible security and economic compact. Not intervening at this stage would be viewed by the people of Maldives as an abdication of responsibility by India. The international community has limited stakes in Maldives but would be keenly watching India’s response to the developments in its immediate neighbourhood. If India cannot even safeguard its primary interests so close to its mainland, then it can hardly be trusted to become a net security provider for the wider region.
Mr. Yameen’s continuation as President is now manifestly unconstitutional. His legitimacy stands totally eroded after the declaration of emergency, arrest of judges, refusal to abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court, employing the armed forces to discipline Members of Parliament and deliberately obstructing the proper functioning of Parliament. He is an illegitimate occupant of high office since he would stand impeached if Parliament were permitted to function. At the same time, after having travelled the distance, it is also difficult to imagine that he will back down and resign. The situation in Maldives is heading towards a point where outside intervention is becoming unavoidable. A diplomatic and military stability operation would not tantamount to overthrowing a democratically elected government.
But the situation in Maldives is likely to remain below the threshold of direct intervention by the UN and Western powers. China and Pakistan are also expected to try and prevent diplomatic pressure being exerted on Mr. Yameen for obvious reasons. But one may also expect military advisers from these countries to help the Maldivian security forces to organise defences against any military intervention. It is a different matter that this would only cause some delay and result in avoidable casualties. The stakes are the highest for India and it is but obvious that no country other than India will have to intervene decisively. The question before the policy makers is, when?
India can wait for the situation to deteriorate further. But that may result in avoidable losses in men and material. It may also afford an opportunity for India’s adversaries to stir the boiling pot further and strengthen anti-India sentiment amongst the Maldivian security forces personnel. To expect the Maldivian people at large to continue with their agitation in the face of brutal reprisals would be a mistake. Permitting the loss of lives in order to create a justification for intervention would be a wrong choice. Enough time has elapsed for consultation with important stakeholders such as Sri Lanka and other neighbours as well as the UN, EU, USA and Russia. The time to act has arrived. It would be better to read the riot act to Mr. Yameen to restore the situation as it existed on 31 January and obey the directions of the Supreme Court as mandated by the Constitution of Maldives, within the next 96 hours, or face consequences.
Decisive action will put paid to mischief being played in India’s backyard by its adversaries and will usher in stability in Maldives, so essential for India’s own security. If left unaddressed now, the situation may degenerate into a major crisis. An idealistic foreign policy is desirable but not at the cost of primary security and geopolitical interests. A nation’s will to act to safeguard its interests, even in the face of criticism in the short term, is the hall mark of a confident and dependable power.
But what after an intervention? This is a legitimate question to ask. India will find the correct answer just like it did during past interventions when it left not a day too late from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. An intervention in Maldives, which appears unavoidable, will have some similarities with the intervention in Bangladesh. The time to act is now. Diplomacy without the ability and willingness to enforce one’s will is a fruitless endeavour.