NEW DELHI: Four days after Maldives Supreme Court quashed the arrest of top political prisoners, the country was in turmoil on Monday with President Abdulla Yameen clamping 15-day emergency and arresting former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
From the Indian perspective, the current situation is framed by two recent developments. First, India’s near-permanent presence of a military (naval) detachment in the archipelago since 2016, and second, a US-India logistics support agreement that was signed the same year to the chagrin of China.
Even in December, the US described India as the “regional stabilising force” in the Indian Ocean region. Last week the chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, described China at a dialogue in New Delhi as a “disruptive transitional force”.
The Maldivian President’s refusal to abide by its SC’s order undermines the country’s commitment to democracy, New Delhi assesses. Also, India believes that the Indian Ocean region is its navy’s area of responsibility and if it fails to keep peace in this region, its stature would be undermined.
Exactly 30 years ago when the then Maldivian Opposition sought to overthrow President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered a military intervention named ‘Operation Cactus’. India airlifted 1,600 troops from its Agra-based 50 Independent Para Brigade (that reports directly to the army headquarters and not to a regional command) and two Indian warships that chased and intercepted a vessel with militants of the Sri Lanka-based Peoples’ Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam who were helping the Maldivian rebels.
A comparable military intervention today is difficult because of the changed geopolitics despite the Indian military presence. The western and eastern fleet of the Navy are currently engaged in exercises. Since April 2016, a Navy Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter MK III has remained deployed At Kadhdhoo Island in Laamu Atoll of the Maldives, said sources. In addition, the Navy’s aircraft and a frigate make weekly sorties to and over Maldivian waters at the request of the Maldivian National Defence Forces.
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India has also been interested in setting up a base at the Addu Atoll that used to be home to a World War II airstrip of the British that was then named the RAF Gan. In 2009, then Indian Defence Minister A K Antony visited the island along with a high-level military delegation. Three years ago, India also gifted a fast-attack patrol boat, the INS Tillanchang, to the MNDF.
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The near-permanent Indian military detachment in the Maldives has also meant that New Delhi has greater information on activity in the islands at its disposal. Since the narrow defeat of Mohammed Nasheed by the current President Abdulla Jameen Abdulla Yameen, there is suspicion that the ISIS was seeking to establish a presence in the far-flung but scantily-monitored islands of the country. There is also a belief that Yameen’s dispensation was planning to hand over infrastructure projects to the Chinese. An Indian firm’s contract to expand the airport near Male was cancelled.
It is therefore a sought-after listening post and potential replenishment base. The spiraling crisis in the Maldives, where President Yameen Abdul Gayoom locked down parliament and challenged a Supreme Court ruling which freed a group of imprisoned opposition leaders, has left New Delhi in a bit of a quandary, with the ministry of external affairs going into a “wait and watch” mode.
But bar a press release last week urging the government to abide by the ruling, New Delhi has refrained from further comment on the issue, even though the opposition leaders in the Maldives specifically named India in an open letter to the international community seeking help. “We request the international community, including India, Sri Lanka, the US, Britain, the EU... to do everything in their power to help return power to the people of the Maldives and restore democracy,” the statement read. New Delhi’s reticence stems from the fact the Maldives remains part of its “security grid” in Indian Ocean Region.