The Maldives and India have always shared a friendly relationship. New Delhi and Male closely cooperate in economic, defense, and strategic areas. Despite such close ties, anti-India sentiments have been brewing in the island nation of late.
A vicious “India Out” campaign has been doing the rounds on social media, asking the government to remove the Indian military presence from the Maldives.
Sunjay Sudhir, India’s Ambassador to the archipelagic country, was so upset by anti-India rhetorics that he appealed to the Maldives’ Foreign Ministry demanding more protection for his diplomatic staff.
In a letter dated June 24, 2021, he said that the “vicious and increasingly personal” threats were intended to incite hate and violence against India and its diplomats, citing clauses of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that require host countries to safeguard foreign envoys.
The Maldives’ Foreign Ministry then issued a statement on July 2, 2021, urging local media outlets not to propagate misinformation that may harm foreign diplomats’ reputations and put them in danger. Following that, the Ibrahim Solih government increased security for India’s diplomatic staff.
On December 19, lawmaker Ahmed Shiam, from the Progressive Party of Maldives, tweeted, “We can never expect the current government of India to respect our Constitution and internal matters.” He posted this tweet attaching a video of a press conference addressed by former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, in which the latter had criticized India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
We should never expect the current Indian government to respect our constitution and our domestic matters when they've always failed to uphold their laws and respect their own citizens esp the minority? We can't afford to lose our independence for few kgs of🧅#IndiaMilitaryOut https://t.co/cxxnOFYcpV
— Ahmed Shiyam (@Shiyamaldives) December 19, 2021
Anti-India sentiments have been brewing in the Maldives for over a decade, dating back to when Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party (PPM) was elected president in 2013.
The campaign has grown after Yameen’s conviction in a money-laundering and embezzlement case was overturned in November 2021 by the Supreme Court of the Maldives.
He was able to return to politics as a result of the change. During the tenure of Yameen, who was close to China, relations between India and the Maldives were at an all-time low. The “India Out” campaign is based on unproven claims that India is looking to establish a military base in the Maldives through continued security cooperation.
The claims are based on actions made during the Yameen administration, such as the repatriation of two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) helicopters. The helicopters, which were stationed at Addu Atoll and Hanimaadhoo, were utilized for missions such as ocean search and rescue and maritime weather surveillance.
When domestic politics became unstable and former President Mohammed Nasheed requested India’s involvement, the Yameen administration then denounced India’s intent for military intervention, calling it “a disrespect to its sovereignty”, and accused New Delhi of having ambitions to swallow the island.
“This is unacceptable. We want to know what exact riot the police are saying that we have planned here. This is a peaceful rally, we want our voices to be heard, the world should know that we want Indian military in the Maldives to leave our country” – @Shayaan_mv #IndiaOut pic.twitter.com/ePzSWNBoKt
— PPM Youth Movement – Official (@ppmyouths) December 19, 2021
In 2016, the Maldives government asked India to take back the helicopters and declined to extend the agreement’s length, which would have allowed them to stay in the nation. When the government changed two years later, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih reversed the directives, prolonged the stay, and continued to operate the choppers.
Controversy Over Naval Base?
The alleged lack of transparency in agreements being signed between the Solih government and India is something that has been widely highlighted in social media posts by prominent members of the ‘India Out’ campaign.
One major argument is that an agreement or arrangement with a development partner must have Parliament’s approval. Such agreements should have legal validity. However, the government refuses to share any information with the public, the anti-India lobby alleges.
The UTF Harbor Project deal, signed in February 2021 between India and the Maldives, was initially conceived during the Yameen administration, under which India would build and maintain a coastguard harbor and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu, a strategically placed atoll near the capital Male.
Glad to sign with Defence Minister @MariyaDidi the UTF Harbour Project agreement. Will strengthen Maldivian Coast Guard capability and facilitate regional HADR efforts. Partners in development, partners in security. pic.twitter.com/dYhpVZDd7e
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) February 21, 2021
In 2016, India and the Maldives inked an action plan for “defense cooperation”, with the goal of enhancing shared strategic and security objectives of the two nations in the Indian Ocean area. When the Solih administration took office in 2019, the Maldivian media speculated that the UTF project might be converted into an Indian naval facility.
Major-General Abdulla Shamaal, the Maldivian chief of defense forces, stated in 2019 that although New Delhi had indicated that it would give financial help for this project, no plans for an Indian Navy facility on the island nation existed.
“I want to be very clear on this point. I take this opportunity to provide assurance there is no plan to allow the establishment of a foreign military base in the Maldives, whether on a permanent basis or temporary basis,” he added.
The protestors, however, said that the “leaked documents” of the deal had proved that the agreement involved “the Indian military staying back here for decades and decades and having exclusive rights” to use the UTF facility. Male has already termed these documents as “fake”.
Implications For Bilateral Relations
The continuing anti-India rallies are unlikely to have a substantial influence on bilateral ties as long as the Solih government is in power. However, if he loses power in 2024 and the PPM-PNC alliance, which supports the “India Out” movement, wins the election, then the India-Maldives ties could face hurdles.
Meanwhile, Yameen continues to suggest that India has nefarious motives, and has slammed Solih for allegedly jeopardizing the Maldives’ national interest by pursuing close ties. The Indian government’s proposal to construct a new consulate in Addu further complicates the issue.
New Delhi claims that the proposed consulate would make the visa application process for the atoll’s residents easier, but Yameen argues this is the first step toward creating an Indian military installation.
The Indian Express quoted Shifxan Ahmed, co-founder of the Maldivian online news portal, as stating, “We are not calling for a violent clash against India or Indians in the Maldives… We want Indians to feel safe in our country. So if there are people who use violent threats using the ‘India Out’ hashtags, we condemn those posts. We are about peacefully expressing our concerns.”
India has made significant investments in the Maldives, but having an unfriendly party in power if the MDP loses in future elections would be detrimental to India’s interests.