Foreign policy

Anti-India activities are rising in the Maldives, and India needs to pause them

The Indian authorities and foreign policy gurus must read the writing on the wall. More so after witnessing the present economic and political situation in Sri Lanka and the ongoing "India out Campaign" in the Maldives

Anti-India activities are rising in the Maldives, and India needs to pause them
Rioters disrupt yoga day celebrations in Maldives on June 21

New Delhi: On June 21, some hundred plus rioters carrying sticks, stones and flags, shouting "anti-Indian" slogans gate crashed the Maldives national football ground. They attacked participants at the 'Yoga Day event organized by the Indian High Commission and the Maldivian government.

Video footage made viral on social media of the incident showed angry men carrying sticks and flags, some masked and attacking participants seated on the ground on yoga mats. The Maldives police force arrived and tackled the mob, allowing the event to resume. Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih called it a matter of "serious concern". 

Some dozen persons were arrested. The Maldives Police said that the attackers were from the Opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives, led by former President Abdulla Yameen, who is currently spearheading an 'India Out' campaign.

Maldives domestic politics are getting dirtier by the day. Alleged China's involvement and activities through local politicians are now visible and felt on the streets of Maldives. Earlier, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (allegedly supported by India), on April 21, 2022, issued a decree banning the 'India Out' campaign, led by former President Abdulla Yameen (allegedly supported by China), terming it as a "threat to national security." The Presidential order said the campaign against India "exploited" the freedoms and "intends to disrupt" the long-standing bilateral relations between the Maldives and India and efforts to maintain peace and security in the region.

The 'India Out' campaign, started and sustained by critics of the President Solih administration, gained prominence in recent months. The campaign accuses the Maldivian government of "allowing" Indian military presence in the island nation – the government has repeatedly denied it. President Solih has opted for an 'India first' foreign policy and has said he is unapologetic about Male's close ties with New Delhi.

Opposing the ruling government Abdulla Yameen, former President of the Maldives, said "it strongly condemns the unconstitutional executive order" by President Solih, "suspending" people's right to freedom of expression opposing "the illegal stationing of Indian Military forces" in the Maldives. "This marks a dark day in the history of the Maldives as for the first time a sitting President has actively elected to abandon his people and protect the interests of a foreign military." 

India in the Maldives

The Indian embassy in the Maldives is perhaps one of the most significant buildings in Male. India signed four MOUs with the Maldivian government. Two MoUs for "high impact" community development projects and another for the U.S. $100 million grant, part of India's "$500 million packages" for the Greater Male Connectivity Project, is constructing a bridge between two atolls. In March 2022, the two governments inked a deal for a $400 million line of credit from the Exim Bank of India. In September 2020, India extended the U.S. $250 million support to the Maldives to overcome the economic impact of Covid-19. Dozens of Indian doctors and teachers are working in the Maldives. Some of the Maldivians live in the Kerala State of India, and hence some direct relations continue to strengthen bonds at the people-to-people level.

On his visit to the Maldives, India's foreign minister Dr Jaishankar announced seven new Maldives projects funded under the Indian High Impact Community Development Project (HICDP) grant assistance scheme. The new project covers healthcare, youth development, and heritage conservation, estimated to cost MVR 27 million. The projects are spread across seven Atolls of the Maldives. The total number of projects funded by India in the Maldives increased to 27.

China in the Maldives

The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, built with $200 million primarily funded by Beijing, is among many Chinese projects in the Maldives. China's expanding footprint in the Maldives has unsettled India, which views the region as part of its traditional sphere of influence -- and at risk of being pulled away from its orbit. The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge is the flagship project of China's infrastructure boom in the Maldives. Chinese have built several housing colonies on Airport Island, reclaimed land, and extended the beach. The infrastructure race is escalating geopolitical rivalry between India and China. Tension has been building in the Indian Ocean, with New Delhi wary of Beijing's inroads into its backyard.

Under its former President, Abdulla Yameen, who took power in 2013, the Maldives turned away from New Delhi. It grew closer to Beijing, receiving millions of Chinese funds for development. But Yameen's election defeat in late 2018 allowed India to mend relations with the Maldives, which owes China between $1.5 billion and $3 billion.

Role of radicals in the Maldives

The Maldives, with a Sunni Muslim population of around 800,000, are slowly getting radicalized. No citizen of any other religion or Shia Muslim can become Maldivian. The population is slowly but surely getting radicalized. More so with the return of the Maldivians after working in Gulf countries. 

ISIS in Maldives

The Maldives has the highest per capita number globally of foreign fighters who have travelled to take up arms and fight in Syria and Afghanistan. Reports suggest that some 200 Maldivians travelled to Syria and Afghanistan to fight the Jihad. Last year, a 35-year-old man identified as a leader of ISIS in the Maldives by the U.S. authorities was arrested for allegedly leading ISIS recruitment in the Maldives. In 2021, ISIS came out with an article in their mouthpiece magazine on the Maldives.

However, the Maldivian government claims that the situation is under control, but the Country's sleeper cells are worrisome. The 10th issue of "The Voice of Hind", the representative magazine of ISIS, had an extended focus on the Maldives, perhaps for the second time. The magazine in English had more than a page on the Maldives questioning Maldivian people "Will you do not prepare yourself while Allah prepares for his land?" The magazine asks the local population of the Maldives to rise above the occasion and be ready for Jihad.

Without mentioning India, the magazine piece articulates, "Do you not see the disgusting Hindus who worship everything but Allah slowly taking control and influence from north to the south Maldives? Do you not see their military base being built in Addu, a base that doesn't even compare to Maldives military bases? Does it not concern you even a bit about their agreements and negotiations, which are bringing their military vessels and planes to surveillance and monitor Muslim land? "

Return of the Maldivian Foreign Fighters

Given the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, the Maldives are now faced with the return of Maldivian nationals who fought abroad in Iraq and Syria. However, the Country is unwilling to repatriate the children of over 200 Maldivian ISIS fighters due to the central government's unwillingness to negotiate with any entity other than a formal government. According to the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF), one of the most significant security concerns is the threat of returning foreign fighters propagating their extremist views, potentially influencing and recruiting additional fighters for violent extremist organizations. Some Maldivians died fighting in Afghanistan.

Maldives - a small republic of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, amongst the world's most beautiful countries with splashing turquoise extended waters full of corals and prettiness, is getting attraction by nearly all world powers.

Shakespeare once said, "Beauty Bites – the evil eye destroys the beauty!" Perhaps the Maldives is witnessing the effects of its beauty and the evil eye. The Maldives is traditionally a peaceful tourist place, with most locals taking their security and stability for granted. The recent visit of Chinese, U.S., and Indian officials and several other countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Malaysia have built their foothold in the Maldives. Several political upheavals and four government changes in the last decade in the Maldives speak about the muddling domestic politics and the influence of international actors.

Conclusions

India and China continue their trail on the Island. Maldives is at the cross-sea lanes between the QUAD's Indo-Pacific strategy and the China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan collation in the Indian Ocean. Ninety per cent of commercial and defence ships pass through the strait of the Indian Ocean, osculating Maldives.

The Indian authorities and foreign policy gurus must read the writing on the wall. More so after witnessing the present economic and political situation in Sri Lanka and the ongoing "India out Campaign" in the Maldives. 

Analysts observing the political activities in the Maldives feel that it is time for India to spot the situation in the Island country and have some counter-narrative to arrest the opposition campaign. Without any Indian strategy, the opposition will twitch, and exploit the anti-India sentiments amongst the masses to bring the Chinese-supported opposition back into power next year.

Late 2022 and early 2023 will witness increasing political exercises and a new combination of political leaders and parties for the forthcoming national elections. The street gang war may surge. More arrests under counterterrorism may take place. Three former Presidents, Gayoom, Nasheed and Yameen, will play a significant role with the support of India, China, or some proxy country on their behalf. The United States and Japan, who keep an eye on the Island, may further add their indirect support. Equally, the separatist organization may also flex their muscle to show their presence on the Island and few militant/violence-related incidents are not ruled out.