Radhakrishna Rao, Bangalore
The bruised bilateral relationship between India and the Indian ocean archipelago of Maldives remains far from healed. The newly elected Maldivian President Abdualla Yameen, the half brother of the Maldivian strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled this island nation for about three decades with an iron hand, is certainly not in a hurry to make a deal with India and amend the past mistakes. But his forthcoming visit to India in expected to bring some sort of soothing balm to the troubled ties between the two countries. Indeed, over the past two years persistent political instability and social unrest in this Indian Ocean island nation had provided a fertile ground for the anti India Islamic fundamentalist groups to thrive . There were reports to suggest that on the one hand Pakistani jihadi groups including al Qaida have started exerting influence on a section of the population, while China making inroads through tourism and business interests.
In particular, the younger generation of Maldivians are being urged to join the jihad and vanquish the enemies of Islam. And the recent utterances of Gayoom, laced with religious overtones, have only gone to strengthen the hands of radical Islamic outfits bent upon “freeing the country from Indian influence”. There are also reports to the effect that the Pakistan based extremist group LeT (Lashker-e-Toiba) has acquired a toe hold in one of the islands of Maldives through tis charitable front organisation. Many Maldivian youths with the exposure to the teachings of religious seminaries(Madrasas) in Pakistan. Pakistan based terrorist groups may find it easier to mount attack on India from Maldives in comparison to using the soil of Pakistan for this “devious purpose”. Moreover, many of the uninhabited islands in the Maldives archipelago could be used as the storehouses for piling up weapons and arms. For India Maldives is vitally important from the view point of ensuring maritime security in the Indian ocean region. Maldives, the smallest Asian country in terms of population and land area, lies below the sea level and as such has to live with the threat of getting inundated due to global warming.
As it is the political storm that accompanied the unceremonious exit of President Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected head of this atoll state had sent the diplomatic relations between the two countries into the tailspin. Incidentally, Nasheed was ousted in putsch stage managed by his political opponents including Gayoom in February 2012. After ousting Nasheed, known for is modern and reformist outlook, Mohammed Waheed Hassan was handpicked by Gayoom to serve as the President of this trouble torn island nation.
Not long ago, Maldives had toyed with the idea of allowing China to set up a submarine base in one of the islands. However, in the backdrop of intense Indian diplomatic pressure, the idea could not fructify. Similarly, thanks to India’s pro active role, the USA too was prevented from setting up a military base in Maldives. For New Delhi, Maldives is of vital importance as it straddles strategic sea lanes of communications in the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, India is using Maldives as a base to tackle the expanding menace of sea piracy and terrorism. Significantly, India continues to support Maldives in the task of setting up a network of ground radars on all its 26 atolls as well as bolstering cooperation in the field of military training, hydrography, maritime patrol and surveillance. This move was a sequel to this once moderate Islamic nation requesting India in 2009 to insulate it against the threat of terrorism. The Indian Coast Guard is carrying our regular Dornier sorties over the island nation to check for the suspicious movement of arms laden ships or armed terrorists. Moreover, the special economic package that India has been making available to Maldives has been a key factor in sustaining the economic health of the island nation. Maldives, whose major source of revenue is tourism, stand to benefit from Indian aid package in terms of infrastructure development, military training and economic growth as well as cultural and educational advancement.
Sometime back, Gayoom had projected the view that Male should keep distance from the West and India and mover closer to China. According to Gayoom the threat to the “peace and stability” in the Indian ocean region is emanates from USA and not China. It was the Indian assistance in 1988 that prevented Gayoom from being overthrown by a group of Sri Lankan rebels.
Meanwhile, Indian security agencies have expressed apprehension over the growing Chinese influence in Maldives. China has promised US$500-million package that could reduce Male’s economic dependence on India. China today sends more tourists to Maldives in two months than the number of India sends in a year. China has evinced interest in developing infrastructure in the island nation including communications and IT network. Further, China has also expressed its willingness to partner Maldives in the task of creating a space based capability for a variety of end uses. However media reports suggest that India did not make any attempt to offer Maldives assistance in building and launching a satellite through it was well within the Indian capability.
As it is, Gayoom had lent his staunch support to former President Waheed’s decision to annul the contract that the administration of Nasheed had awarded to a consortium led by the Bangalore based infrastructure major GMR group to upgrade and operate Ibrahim Nasir International Airport at Male. The twisted and snarled turn of events in the high voltage drama that eventually forced the GMR to call it quits was not a wholly unanticipated development in the context of the volatile and unstable political atmosphere building up in this atoll nation. And this development has sent wrong signals to investors keen on doing business and investing funds in Maldives. On their part, Indian corporates would need to carefully weigh options before foraying into the business landscape of the island nation.
A number of questions pop up while looking at the circumstances leading to the ouster of GMR led group from Maldives. Did GMR had to pay a price for the regime change in Male? Was there a foreign hand behind this development? Has Maldives become one more addition to China’s strategy of String of pearls that seeks to encircle India?
Pro Chinese sentiments seem to be making slow inroads into the political landscape of Maldives. For instance Adhaalath Party, a fundamentalist political grouping has been batting for growing Chinese participation in the infrastructure development programme of the island nation. ”We would rather give the airport contract to our friends in China who now make the majority of our tourist population,” is the refrain of this extremist political party.
All said and done, China could extract a price for its assistance to Maldives. For one it wants to strengthen its presence in this strategically located Indian ocean nation and help its business groups to develop infrastructure and tourist resorts in this island nation. More importantly, China is keen to replace India as the “most favoured partner” in the developmental saga of Maldives. China, which has already dug deep in the neighbouring Sri Lanka through its assistance to Hambantota port and Supremesat satellite project is looking at ways to diminish Indian influence in Maldives. “China’s foremost interest in Maldives is to protect its increasingly important supplies of energy that need to transit the Indian Ocean region,” says Major General Dipankar Banerjee, Mentor of the New Delhi based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS).
Perhaps the scurrilous campaign by the fringe groups bent upon strengthening a puritanical form of Islam in Maldives, did also create conditions conducive to the spread of anti India propaganda and the termination of the Male airport contract awarded to GMR led consortium. ”The attack on GMR contract is an Islamic fundamentalist issues,” was the observation of leading Maldivian politician Hussain Zaki who has warned India against the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in Maldives. The only saving grace is that unlike in Pakistan, where Wahabi philosophy calls the shots, the traditional form of Islam adhered to by Maldivians is neither rigid nor puritanical. Despite being adherents to Sunni Islam, a majority of Maldivians continue to believe in the spirit world and have a great respect for the tolerant Sufi mysticism. Sunni Islam was declared as the official state religion under the 1997 constitution and the propagation of religion other than Islam is forbidden in toto.
But in the long run, hard-line Islamic philosophy taking hold of Maldives can not be ruled out .Recent media reports suggest that due to the campaign by the fundamentalist groups, in some atolls of Maldives.
During the seventeenth SAARC summit held in Nov.2011 at Male, monuments depicting the “cultural heritage” of Pakistan and Sri Lanka were vandalised on the ground that they were idolatorous and anti Islamic.In Feb.2012, several Buddhist statures reflecting the pre Islamic Maldivian heritage on display at the Male Museum were destroyed by an unruly mob under the spell of radical Islam. Many Maldivians have described this act as reminiscent of Talibans destroying the priceless Bamiyana Buddhist sculptures of Afghanistan, which was once a stronghold of Buddhism.
Looking beyond the socio-religious and political issues, there is also a hunch that “behind the scene games” played by the Maldivian business interests could have queered the pitch for GMR led consortium. For the GMR’s grandiose proposal to construct a business centre cum shopping and entertainment area on the eastern side of the Hulhule island would have threatened the commercial interests of local businessmen. For the development on the eastern side of Hulhule on the scale planned by GMR had the potential wean away shoppers and tourists from Male while the second runway which would have enabled more tourist and economic growth was shelved.
The bitterness created by the unceremonious exit of GMR from the Male airport project, rapidly shifting political landscape watered by anti Indian elements, growing influence of Islamic fundamentalist philosophy along with the declining economic fortunes have created conditions conducive for China to make forays in Maldives. India should spruce up its act to prevent China from replacing India as the most favoured “ally and partner” of Maldives. For such an eventuality could have the potential to weaken India’s position in the strategically important Indian Ocean Region (IOR).