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Trouble on the King’s Island

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If you’re one of those people who only know Maldives as a popular destination for destination weddings and honeymoons, shame on you. Our small neighbour has been facing a democratic crisis for a while now. And since last week, the Supreme Court has been rescinded and a state of emergency has been declared for 15 days.

Why does this affect India, you may wonder? It is important to go back in history to the year 1988 when the Maldivian government requested for help against a coup d’etat. Former Chief of Indian Navy recounts the final chapter of the operation with some funny anecdotes and excerpts from Sushant Singh’s Mission Overseas are good places to start, if your memory needs refreshing.

The fact of the matter is that India, the largest power in South Asia, has traditionally been the first phonecall away if disaster strikes its smaller neighbours. This time too, many Maldivians including former Maldivian President, Mohammed Nasheed were in favour of India stepping in to restore democracy in the tiny island-nation:

It is essential that India leads the international community in forcing President Yameen to comply with last week’s Supreme Court order. This will pave the way for genuinely inclusive, free and fair elections with full international monitoring. If the Maldivian people so wish, they will then be afforded the chance to throw out this corrupt and criminal regime that is selling the country out from under their feet.

Indian analysts all take the stance of the importance of some sort of intervention in Maldives. Constantino Xavier argues that time is ripe for India to act like a leading power in the region. Meanwhile it may be an opportune moment, C Raja Mohan reminds us that, ‘The task of fixing other people’s problems is never easy. And not all consequences of intervention can really be predicted or managed.’ In Pragati, Ravi Joshi argues that inaction is inexcusable but poses some nuanced questions that need to be answered:

Now what would be the mandate for these soldiers? When they land in Hulule airport (which is a separate island from the capital) will they be allowed to take the boats to Male or will they be met by hundreds of armed Maldivian Defence forces, either at the airport or on the waterfront near the VIP Jetty? What if there is resistance, what if someone fires a shot, could it lead to an open, uncontrolled shoot-out? Who will stop the firing? Will the Indian forces retreat and come back without achieving the ‘mission objectives’ or will India rush reinforcements and order a complete take-over of the State? For such a force, the ‘mission objectives’ have to be clearly outlined. Is the ‘mission objective’ merely restricted to obtaining the release of former President Gayoom alone or of all the political prisoners and Judges as well? Does it involve ending the dictatorship of President Yameen?

While all of this is ongoing, Maldives is sending envoys to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. If India needs to step in, it needs to do it soon- As Shyam Sharan mentions in this video, the speed at which we react to the crisis will affect whether or not we achieve our objectives.

Is this even about India espousing liberal democratic values? Zorawar Daulet Singh says that India may have chosen a path of non-intervention and this is a choice guided by national interest:

For the most part, it appears that homeland security and geo-economic considerations rather than ambitious realpolitik or normative concerns have shaped India’s neighbourhood policy. And this has not been an unconscious drift but a choice.

Speaking of India’s leadership in the region, India has decided to grant Rohingya refugees long term visas. This is an important and progressive step but it makes the government’s stand even more confusing. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case on the deportation of the Rohingya crisis. The Additional Solicitor- General made a case against taking in the Rohingya refugees which seems to fall flat on its face.

There are many fears that India is ‘losing its neighbourhood’ while others argue that India should stop being constrained by its smaller powers. All of this leads to questions about what India’s stance should be towards countries in neighbourhood. Nitin Pai, against this backdrop says that the real question for India to figure out how to use power in shaping the world in a way that benefits itself and the world. He says:

Lest we think we can wait, the change in the world order as we knew it makes the question of employing hard power more urgent. In the past few years, almost every regional power has used military force outside its borders in violation of international law. We can neither afford to sit this out, nor believe that we can make decisions on a case-to-case basis. We need a paradigm shift.

We do need a paradigm shift and the next week will see how the Maldivian crisis plays out. Meanwhile, if you were planning on getting away from Bangalore to honeymoon at Male for a couple off days, you should possibly hold it off. Consider Lonavala instead?

About the author

Hamsini Hariharan

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Associate with Takshashila's Geostrategy Programme. She is also the Assistant Editor at Pragati, and one of the hosts of the Pragati Podcast. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy, Asian geopolitics, and India's worldview.

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