Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times
Article Courtesy: South Asia Monitor
The strategically located archipelago nation became excessively pro-China and anti-India during the time of President Abdulla Yameen. He extended unrestrained favours to China and worked against the interests of India. In fact, he fought 2018 presidential election and his party fought 2019 Maldives Parliamentary elections on anti-India rhetoric. Yameen who was said to be ‘pathologically’ anti-India thought that because of the increase of Islamic extremism and Chinese influence he will win elections on the anti-India plank, but he lost the elections to Mohamed Solih of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). In the same way, in the People’s Majlis elections held in April 2019, his rival party MDP won 65 out of 87 seats. Yameen on the behest of Chinese powerful and extremely secretive intelligence organisation Ministry of State Security (MSS) imprisoned all political leaders who were opposing him. However, it proved counterproductive and Yameen and his party lost the elections.
In his first tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all the South Asian nations, except the Maldives because of Yameen’s anti-India activities. Nevertheless, in November 2018 Modi attended the swearing-in ceremony of President Solih.
The influence of Wahhabism and Salafism enhanced so much in the country that a total of 423 Maldivian citizens tried to reach Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) while about 173 people actually joined the IS. Maldives has a total population of about 540,000 hence so many people planning to join IS indicates that the country has been radicalised. Although the radicalisation started in 1990, After the tsunami of 2004 there was a rash of construction of mosques and madrassas in the archipelago amid an influx of radical preachers from Saudi Arabia as well as from Pakistan. These extremist preachers radicalised the masses and destroyed the Sufi and Buddhist culture of the country.
The island nation is very important for India’s trade and security as both countries have age-old cordial relations. Modi visited the Maldives and Sri Lanka in June 2019 which was his first overseas visit after re-election. He addressed Parliament of Maldives inaugurated two defence projects and signed a few more agreements. The Maldives bestowed Rule of Nishan Izzuddeen to Modi which is the country’s highest honour given to a foreign dignitary.
Islamabad also constructed mosques and awarded scholarships to Maldivian students. A large number of the students who came back from Pakistan after religious education became Islamic fanatics.
Maldives owes $ 3.5 billion dollars loan to China while Maldivian GDP is about $ 5 billion only and it has to pay $ 700 million to China in 2022. Although such a large amount of loan and hefty instalment may ruin the economy of the island nation, it also indicates the tight grip of China over the Maldives.
The victory of Indian diplomacy
However, Indian diplomacy succeeded when on May 22, 2020, in the virtual meeting of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) United Nations envoys, Maldives Permanent Representative rejected the recommendation of Pakistan’s United Nations (UN) Ambassador Munir Akram to take action against India for encouraging Islamophobic agenda. Akram suggested constituting a small working group so that some action can be taken against India in the UN.
Thilmeeza Hussain, Permanent Representative of Maldives in the UN, stated that “Targeting a specific country will be like sidestepping the real issue. In this light, let me state that singling out India, the largest democracy in the world and multi-cultural society and home to over 200 million Muslims, alleging Islamophobia would be factually incorrect.” She further explained that “It would be detrimental to the religious harmony in the South Asian region. Islam has existed in India for centuries and it is the second-largest religion in India, with 14.2 percent of the country’s population. Isolated statements by motivated people and disinformation campaigns on social media should not be construed as representative of the feelings of 1.3 billion.” In last she added that “Maldives cannot support any action within the OIC, that singles-out or targets India.” She also suggested to Pakistan to be more accommodative.
The Maldivian open support against Pakistan in OIC is a victory of Indian diplomacy. Maldives import several essential items including rice, wheat, condiments, and pharmaceuticals from India. Recently, Delhi sent two medical teams, medicines, and 580 tonnes of food items from the Indian naval ship, Kesari. Once the Maldives supported New Delhi openly, other countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman also backed India. In the past, OIC criticised India on several issues especially on Kashmir on behest of Pakistan.
The Maldivian support came when a US panel and some UN members were criticising India on the issue of Islamophobia. Maldivian support in OIC against Pakistan is also important. The Maldives representative also reminded that India has strong ties with different Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Afghanistan and Palestine and these countries have conferred their highest civilian awards to Prime Minister Modi. It was also a veiled message to Pakistan that it should not take intra-regional issues into international organisations like OIC, UN, etc. On the other hand, Maldives joined other countries to condemn Israel. Hence Male made it clear that the cases of India and Israel are different. The Maldives also assured that the reference of Kashmir will be deleted from the summit records.
On one hand, India has to lessen Chinese influence, while on the other hand, rising radicalisation in the Maldives is also a problem. India should extend wholehearted assistance to the present government in its anti-terrorism and anti-radicalisation actions as it will be beneficial for both. India should emphasise in the Maldives that both countries have close ethnic, linguistic, religious and commercial relations and that India was among the first to recognise the Maldives and established diplomatic relations. Indian intelligence agencies should also be active to contradict the disinformation campaign launched by MSS. If feasible India should raise long-term assets which are helpful in creating public opinion in favour of India and should also project that China is an expansionist nation and after damaging the economy of the country may even try to capture some islands.
(The author is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst and a retired senior intelligence officer. He is also a member of USI and IDSA. The views expressed are personal. The author can be contacted at email@example.com)