The newest crisis in Maldives which erupted on 1 February 2018 took both the government and the people by surprise. In a unanimous judgment, the five member Supreme Court of Maldives directed that nine political prisoners including former President Mohamed Nasheed should be set free as cases against them were politically motivated. It ruled that fresh cases be initiated against them. In addition, the Court instructed that the 12 Members of Parliament who had been stripped of their positions by President Abdullah Yameen because they had defected from his Party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), should be immediately reinstated and the new session of Parliament be convened with the participation of these 12 members on 5 February 2018.
The judgment was warmly welcomed by Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) as well as by all members of the opposition alliance. They said that, with this judgment, Yameen had lost all credibility and should resign. At the same, however, they also expressed serious apprehension that Yameen will not abide by the judgment. This is exactly what has transpired. Notwithstanding the wide measure of support and welcome accorded to the Supreme Court ruling by a large segment of the international community including the Secretary General of the United Nations, USA, UK, EU, India, Australia, Canada, etc., Yameen’s administration contended that it was not possible to implement the ruling as this had been arrived at without hearing the government and also because it would lead to a serious law and order situation.
Yameen appears determined to ride roughshod over all domestic protests and demonstrations, and international sentiments and concerns. Maintaining that the Supreme Court verdict was an attempt at a coup, Yameen imposed an emergency for 15 days and arrested the Chief Justice and another senior justice of the Supreme Court, as well as his own half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the first President who ruled from 1978 till 2008 and who is now supporting the Opposition.
No doubt, as a result of threats and the strong arm methods employed by Yameen’s security forces and agencies, on 6 February, the remaining three members of the Supreme Court reversed their earlier decision to free the nine arrested political prisoners. This has added a fresh twist to the unfolding tense and depressing saga.
Several countries have expressed strong concern at the developments, with the United States issuing a veiled warning by saying that the ‘’world is watching.’’
India’s relations with Maldives have been frayed for some time and particularly since 2012 when Nasheed, the first democratically elected President, was deposed by force and Abdullah Yameen became President in 2013 after a highly controversial and dubious election. Since then, Maldives has progressively cosied up to China at the expense of India. This started with the cancellation of the Indian company GMR’s contract for building Male airport and awarding it to China during President Xi Jinping’s 2015 visit. Yameen has enthusiastically boarded the bandwagon of the Maritime Silk Road initiative launched by China in 2013. During Yameen’s presidency, Maldives has leased out several islands to China which could be used for building bases as part of the “string of pearls” strategy to encircle India and reduce its influence. The latest development in this narrative was the signing of an FTA with China after a suspiciously hurried approval by the Maldivian Parliament. Yameen has tried to soothe India’s frayed nerves by maintaining that Maldives continues to follow the ‘’India First’’ policy and by sending his Foreign Minister as a special envoy in January 2018 to reassure the Indian government.
Some suggestions have been made that India should take a leaf out of ‘’Operation Cactus’’ in 1988 through which it restored President Gayoom to office when Maldives confronted a coup attempt by some disgruntled Maldivians with the support of armed Sri Lankan mercenary raiders. Under the current circumstances, however, such action is not possible as the situation is entirely different. At that time, the lawful President of the country had sought India’s help. This time, if action were to be contemplated, it would be against the legally elected President, however dubious the conduct of the election in 2013 might have been. Nasheed, who has been living in self-imposed exile in London since 2016 and who is currently in Sri Lanka, has issued a fervent appeal to India to militarily intervene and restore democracy.
India has issued two statements since the crisis erupted, one on the morning of 2 February exhorting the Maldivian government and all its agencies to abide by the Supreme Court judgment and the second on 6 February conveying that it was ‘’disturbed’’ at the imposition of emergency by the Maldivian government. The Supreme Court judgments issued on the evening of 6 February revoking its earlier decision to free the nine political prisoners and nullifying its ruling that the Judicial Services Commission had no mandate over the Supreme Court judges have obviously been obtained under intimidation and coercion of the security agencies.
Under the above circumstances, ’’No Action’’ is not an option for the Indian government. At the same time, however, its immediate response and action cannot be to put boots on the ground, although it has been reported that an armed contingent including aircraft and ground forces have been placed in readiness and is ready to swing into action at short notice.
India will need to employ a graduated approach in dealing with the evolving situation. It will also need to be in regular and constant touch with its international partners including USA, EU and other likeminded countries. Yameen appears to have adopted a brazen attitude because he might be feeling confident about China’s support. China’s capacity to intervene in a substantive manner in the Indian Ocean, if it were required to do so at any stage, is severely limited. India’s actions are likely to receive full and whole-hearted support of the international community, except possibly China and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and UAE who have been pouring huge funds into Maldives are likely to keep their own counsel and not come out openly in support of Yameen.
The strategic significance of Maldives for India has been growing over the last many years. In addition to the growing influence of China in the country, Maldives has been getting increasingly radicalized and coming under the influence of fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology. Islamic State (IS) and Lashkar-e-Taiba are also reported to have established bases in the country. Several hundred young men and women have deserted their homes to fight for the IS in Syria and Iraq. The rapid growth of radical Islam in India’s vicinity is a matter of serious concern for India and for regional security.
This is hence an opportune moment for India to safeguard and protect its strategic interests in the region. In addition, India has about 25,000 Indian expatriates in Maldives who are engaged in a number of professional pursuits. Their safety and security is a matter of acute concern. India could be forced to take some military action if its nationals come under imminent threat. No indication of this has been evident so far.
India needs to be measured, sober, quick and firm in any action it takes. While watching and monitoring the situation closely, it needs to be battle-ready to respond to any development appropriately. In conjunction with the UN and other democratic countries, India should apply unrelenting pressure in a graduated and calibrated manner on Yameen to restore freedom and independence of the Supreme Court, lift the state of emergency, implement the 1 February judgment and ensure that Mohamed Nasheed is able to contest the Presidential election due to take place later this year. India has been getting increasingly exasperated with the unfriendly and insidious antics of Yameen over the last five years. The constitutional crisis is a welcome opportunity for India to reassert its influence in its maritime neighbourhood and to establish genuine democracy and freedom in Maldives. Much will also depend on how prolonged and unrelenting the street protests and demonstrations by the Maldivian opposition in Male are. India will be able to help and support only to the extent that the demand for democracy and freedom from within the country continues to put pressure on Yameen and his security forces.