Winning the election on the ‘India Out’ platform in September, the newly elected President of the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, has demanded the withdrawal of Indian military personnel from the island nation. On 19 November, a day after being sworn in, Muizzu personally conveyed his demand to India’s minister of earth sciences, Kiren Rijiju, who was representing New Delhi at the swearing in ceremony.
This demand comes as a sharp departure from the policies set forth by his predecessor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. We may recall that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone to Male when Solih was sworn in as president in 2018. Solih proclaimed a policy of ‘India First’ and implemented it to a considerable extent, to the chagrin of China which was looking for an opportunity to regain its position in the Indian Ocean region through Maldives.
Solih had succeeded Abdullah Yameen (2013-18), who had pursued a policy of deepening relations with China and sidelining India. Therefore, we should take note that the policy pendulum has been shifting from one extreme to another at least for the past 10 years.
Such periodical shifts are likely to continue for a while till Male masters the art of maintaining good relations with both India and China, and recognizes that India is geographically and strategically closer, and therefore no external power should be permitted to engage in activities prejudicial to India’s security. It is obvious that the archipelago falls within the security perimeter of India while the same cannot be said about China. In short, the Maldives cannot be a part of China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy to intimidate India.
Muizzu was put up as a candidate only because Yameen was disqualified by a court after he was convicted of serious corruption charges. He garnered attention after he mobilized public opinion against India during the International Yoga Day celebrations on 21 June. As the Indian embassy organized a grand celebration, Muizzu and his followers saw this as an opportunity to sway public opinion against India, arguing that yoga involved the worship of sun in violation of Islam’s teachings. Islam is the state religion in the Maldives and non-Muslims are not eligible for citizenship. The yoga event, which was attended by government officials and global dignitaries, was attacked by a mob. The Solih government charged the attackers as ‘terrorists’.
Muizzu’s ‘India Out’ slogan during the election campaign was a continuation of his rhetoric against India, which has been a key partner of the Maldives on all fronts. The new government has also announced its intention to review over 100 agreements signed with India when Solih was president.
At the meeting with Rijiju, Muizzu conveyed that the Maldivian people had given him a “strong mandate to make the request to India and expressed the hope that India will honor the democratic will of the people of the Maldives.”
The demand for the withdrawal of Indian personnel gives the impression that there is a sizable Indian military presence in the Maldives, which is not true. There is only a small contingent of 77 personnel, who take care of the two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft that India has put at the disposal of the Maldives for medical emergencies. They have been used mainly for medical emergencies to fly both Maldivians and foreign tourists from islands to hospitals in the country, and when necessary, to hospitals in south India. India’s aid in managing medical emergencies has been crucial, accounting for around 100 such cases annually.
Can the Maldives afford to send back the helicopters? If word spreads that the Maldives has no arrangement for medical emergencies, it may impact its ability to attract foreign tourists.
Can the Maldives replace India with China for medical assistance? Flying all the way to China for a medical emergency is impractical, and if Male intends to transport medical emergency cases to India using helicopters operated by Chinese personnel, India may deny them entry. In essence, Male heavily relies on Indian assistance during medical emergencies.
It is evident that Muizzu’s public demand for India to withdraw its military personnel is partly to appease China. The Maldives and China established formal diplomatic relations in 1972, with Male opening its embassy in Beijing in 2009, reciprocated by China’s embassy in Male in 2011. After coming to power, Yameen took a series of decisions seen as pro-China and anti-India. In 2016, he joined China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative and canceled the contract awarded to an Indian company to upgrade the Male airport and gave it to a Chinese company. India heaved a sigh of relief when Yameen was succeeded by Solih in 2018.
India needs to be firm while deploying tactful diplomacy in dealing with the new Maldives president. Given that Moizzu has to deliver on his promise, India could consider replacing the present arrangement for the helicopters with an alternative, perhaps through a private Indian company.
The core message is clear: India will not permit Maldives to align with China’s strategic ‘pearl of string’ concept. It is pertinent for Male to recall that in 1988, it was India that sent its military to thwart a coup that had almost succeeded. Notably, it was the US state department which had alerted the Indian Embassy of the coup attempt at night, prompting a message to the ministry of external affairs and a swift action by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
India can again seek support from the United States in addressing the challenge posed by China. An iron hand works better with a velvet glove.
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