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Island Diplomacy

Can Prime Minister Narendra Modi uploading a few visuals of his whistlestop trip to Lakshadweep on social media push the troubled India-Maldives relations further into the deep?

By Col R Hariharan

India-Maldives relations have undergone a sea change after Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu came to power with an “India out” agenda. Chinese philosopher Lao Tse says: “While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge and Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing.” The inveterate, pithy social blogger Harsh Goenka @hvgoenka summed up the galloping events in Lao Tse style: PM visits #Lakshadweep, social media uproar, Indian tourists boycott #Maldives, Maldivian ministers suspended, 5-star hotels and an airport coming up in Lakshadweep. All in lightning speed. This is the way the new India works – it cannot be undermined, it will fight back and hard. There is, however, much more to it now. In the midst of the diplomatic row with India over derogatory remarks made by some Maldivian ministers, President Muizzu and his wife have just returned from a visit to Beijing. President Xi Jinping held in-depth talks with the visiting Maldivian president on January 10, following which the two countries signed 20 agreements. The agreements signed include tourism cooperation, disaster risk reduction, blue economy, and strengthening investment in the digital economy. The most far reaching of them is the agreement to elevate their bilateral relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership (CSCP). 

China’s foreign policy terminology uses specific terms to indicate the level of strategic partnership it enjoys with various countries. On top of the heap are Russia and Pakistan, which enjoy Beijing’s highest level of strategic partnership. With Russia, China has signed the Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership for the New Era agreement. In the case of Pakistan, the agreement is called All Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership. Maldives will be the 19th country with which China has signed the CSCP agreement. Apparently, China reckons its relationship with Maldives will be on par with ASEAN countries. It is a level above India, which has signed a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership agreement with Beijing, like seven other countries, including Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

There are international, strategic security and internal narratives in India’s relations with Maldives which took a beating after Modi’s trip to Lakshadweep. To set the record straight, Modi never mentioned Maldives; he only said “I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands and the incredible warmth of its people. I had the opportunity to interact with people in Agatti, Bangaram and Kavaratti” and the warm welcome he received from the people. In their response to PM’s message Indian netizens, including a few who were worked up over President Muizzu’s “India out” call, saw Lakshadweep as a substitute destination for Maldives. That was the red rag for Maldivian anti-India lobby, which retaliated with invectives on Indian PM and India.

Three junior Maldivian ministers of youth affairs—Malsha Shareef, Mariam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid posted a range of offensive X messages against the Indian PM. Shiuna called Modi a clown and an Israeli puppet and there were anti-Indian racist remarks too. In a damage control mode, Maldives government suspended the ministers. A Maldivian politician Zahid Rameez, a council member of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), scorned the idea of competition with Maldives, calling it delusional. “How can they provide the service we offer? How can they be so clean? The permanent smell in the rooms will be the biggest downfall.” These invectives are indicative of the mindset of those in power in Maldives. In an Indian TV interview, former Maldivian defence minister Mariya Didi called the ministers conduct as very irresponsible, “totally unprovoked, uncalled for something that you should not as ministers do with the closest neighbour, from whom we have had time immemorial relationships that are so close.”

In her interview, Didi, apparently referring to the suspended minister Abdulla Mahzoom Majid, said: “It is sad that one of them, the gentleman there, was a member of the armed forces and he had made remarks on social media that was not in line with the armed forces policy on social media. This was why he was dismissed from the armed forces.” She added: “because he [Majid] says something that they want to hear, he was brought in as a minister. The sad thing is, the same thing happens in the defence forces today. How are they going to maintain discipline there?” These remarks point to some serious issues as many Maldivian Defence Forces (MDF) personnel are trained in Indian defence institutions and take part in joint exercises and operations. If this arrangement is to be continued, India will have to carefully vet the MDF trainees to exclude radical Islamic elements among them. Will it be possible to do so without the cooperation of Maldivian authorities?

As a country steeped in conservative Islam, Maldives has a long history of links with fundamentalist sections of the religion. Pakistan has built madrasas and mosques in Maldives; it offers liberal scholarships to students from Maldives for religious education in Pakistan. When Pakistani security forces raided the Red Mosque to smoke out the Islamic militants accused of promoting terrorism in July 2007, some of the Maldivian students escaped from the mosque and returned home. Some of them were arrested by Maldivian authorities for suspected radical activity. The Red Mosque incident is considered one of the factors that contributed to the rise of Islamic radicalisation and militancy posing a serious threat to the government in the island nation.

At present, the Adalat party (Justice Party) and some NGOs, including Jamiyyathu Salaf (JS) and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives (IFM) imbued with fundamentalist beliefs are also responsible for spreading extremism in the country. In 2014, former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed revealed that up to 200 Maldivians were engaged in fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. According to him, there were close links between the jihadist groups and the country’s military and the police force. Commissioner of Police Mohamed Hameed in a briefing for councillors in December 2019 revealed there were close to 1,400 Maldivians across the country, who have “fallen into extremist ideology to the point where they would not hesitate to take the life of the person next to them” According to him, out of 423 Maldivians who attempted to join jihadi terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq, 173 entered the war zone. Hundreds of local extremists also travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan before the Syrian civil war. On returning to Maldives, some of them have been spreading radical ideologies among the people.

There is evidence of IS jihadi elements operating in Maldives even now. Following are some of the recent incidents and activities involving IS Jihadi terrorists in Maldives:

  • On January 6, 2022, the FBI and two European Union nations in a joint operation nabbed Hood Mohamed Zahir in Vilimalé. Zahir was a suspected senior ISIS operative who ran media campaigns to incite terror attacks in Europe.
  • On May 6, 2021, an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated outside of the home of former President Mohamed Nasheed in Malé. He and four others were injured in the incident. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in its Arabic weekly newsletter al-Naba.
  • On April 17, 2020, ISIS claimed responsibility for exploding five bombs at Mahibadhoo harbour, destroying a sea ambulance, four speedboats, and two dinghies. ISIS stated that the boats belonged to the “apostate Maldivian Government and its loyalists.” This was the first attack carried out by ISIS in the Maldives.
  • On February 4, 2020, a group of ISIS-inspired assailants stabbed and injured three foreign nationals near the Hulhumale Red­bull Park Ground in North Male Atoll. An extremist media outlet called al-Mustaqim confirmed the attack.
  • Some of the local jihadist affiliates in Maldives include soldiers of the Khilafah in the Maldives, Dot and al Mustaqim Media.
  • In 2021, the US Department of the Treasury designated 20 key leaders and financial facilitators of ISIS and al-Qa’ida in Maldives.

Counter terrorism cooperation between India and Maldives is an important aspect of their bilateral relations. These include sharing of information and intelligence on terrorists and their networks, capacity building of security and law enforcement forces, establishing Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism and Countering Violent Extremism and De-Radicalisation and coordinate their actions. Counter terrorism cooperation with India is important for Maldives as it not only provides security, but also gives confidence to international tourists, who are the main source of income for the country.

At the strategic level, Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), a trilateral initiative of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives at the National Security Advisor level was revived in 2020. The CSC covers four areas of cooperation—marine safety and security, terrorism and radicalisation, trafficking and organised crime and cyber security. It involves regular dialogues and joint exercises among the top security officials of the three countries. The CSC is poised to expand its membership to include Mauritius, Bangladesh and Seychelles as partners or observers. Navies of India and Sri Lanka along with MDF have been jointly patrolling to ensure their large EEZ is not exploited by foreign elements. It will be interesting to see how President Muizzu is going to handle this challenge.

Didi in her interview also raised the issue of (apparently MDF) using a Cessna aircraft instead of the IAF-manned Dornier aircraft in a recent search for a boy missing in the sea. If this news is correct, it would indicate MDF is not using the IAF crew and aircraft any more. Is MDF already implementing the President’s mandate of “India Out”? Probably, this issue came up when MDF chief Lt General Abdul Raheem Abdul Latheef met Indian Ambassador to Maldives Munu Mahawar in Male on December 25. India’s Defence Attache Capt Deepak Bali was also present at the discussion. According to a report on the Maldivian news site sun.mov. they “held discussions with India on enhancing existing defence cooperation between the two nations.” It further quoted the General saying that during the discussion the ongoing defence cooperation activities were reviewed, while avenues to move forward with military-to-military engagements were also considered.

Regardless of further developments in India’s relations with Maldives, India will have to consciously develop its security set up in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep archipelago of 36 islands. It has a population of around 70,000 Malayalam speaking Muslims living in the 10 inhabited islands. Lakshadweep gives India 20,000 sq km of territorial waters and 400,000 sq km of EEZ. It dominates the SLOCS of Nine Degree Channel through which thousands of ships cross every day. This makes it strategically as important as Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

At present the Indian Navy (IN) has a naval base INS Dweeprakshak, in Kavaratti island. Coast Guard stations exist in Kavaratti, Minicoy and Androth islands. Multiple efforts are on to develop the defence capabilities of the Islands. The Agatti airstrip is being extended to 3,200m (from 1,000m) to allow larger aircraft to take off. Navy plans to expand its infrastructure and operations on other islands such as Agatti and Minicoy to counter potential threats from piracy, terrorism and foreign naval intrusions.

By signing the CSCP agreement with China, President Muizzu has sent a clear signal to India that Maldives’dealings with India will be on a different plane than before. In his interview to The Times of India on January 4, Muizzu stressed that the majority of the sea routes of the Indian Ocean pass through or in proximity to Maldives. He said: “Securing sea lanes of communication is as vital to the Maldives and its stability and prosperity, as it is to the wider Indian Ocean region, global trade and commerce.” He wants Maldives to be contributing to the discussions and discourses on Indian Ocean security, not as an observer, “but an active partner in upholding rule based international order.”

In short, he wants Maldives to be treated on par with big powers, India and China. India should have no problem with this. But it will be interesting to watch how China, known for trampling smaller powers, treats its new found comprehensive strategic cooperative partner, if and when it comes in a big way in Maldives. Equally interesting will be how Muizzu will take forward his India narrative, as Maldives is dependent upon India for fresh vegetables, food stuff and construction material including sand. At times India had to step in to supply even fresh water to Male.

During his Beijing trip, President Muizzu praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Maldives, saying “they delivered the most significant infrastructure projects in Maldivian history”. Apparently, stung by the negative reaction to Maldives from Indian tourism, he appealed to China to send more tourists to Maldives, as before the Covid pandemic. President Muizzu during his trip to China has said he will be implementing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China. He has also invited Chinese investment for completing the billion-dollar Velana international airport project. So we can expect to see more Chinese footfalls in Maldives. As long as they do not trample India’s interests it should be welcomed, after all a prosperous Maldives is in India’s interest. In any case, India should develop Lakshadweep’s tourism infrastructure while keeping its powder dry. 

—The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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