Sultan M Hali
INDIAN practice of keeping its neighbours at tenterhooks and browbeating them into submission continues unabated. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and even tiny Maldives suffer from Indian malice. Indian desire of keeping Maldives as her client state, interference in internal matters of the country increased manifolds with attempts to install a pro India government. Various elements of Indian media have highlighted Indian anxieties towards Maldives’ overture to China. In Aug 2017, Maldives also permitted three Chinese warships to visit country overruling India’s protest. Maldives has been trying to engage China to construct a port in Northern Atoll, which straddles West Asia, South East Asia and is located close to India’s Lakshadweep Island.
India deployed forces to the country in an aggressive intervention dubbed “Operation Cactus”. Four hundred paratroopers entered the capital Malé in November 1988 to reverse a coup against the Maldivian government, which collaborated with the Indians to make a direct landing at the Hulule Island airstrip possible. (Hulule is adjacent to the island of Malé, the capital.) That effort succeeded and India retained its influence in the country for nearly three more decades while demonstrating its capability to serve as a regional hegemony. Trouble started when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives along with Sri Lanka and India in 2014. To express his resentment at the Sino-Maldivian romance, Modi’s tour of the Indian Ocean region in 2015, conspicuously excluded the Maldives. Sino-Maldivian relations touched a new high when at the end of 2017 a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was signed between them and approved by the Maldivian Parliament. Taken by surprise, India reacted to the FTA as well as the presence of Chinese naval ships in the Indian Ocean region. Readers may recall that Maldives is a participant in the Maritime Silk Route, a component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) much to the chagrin of New Delhi.
President Yameen of Maldives has announced a state of emergency, which the Indians have opposed. Indian media itself is commenting that “India has a strong desire to control South Asian countries. It regards the region as its backyard. New Delhi is particularly sensitive to any endeavor by small South Asian states toward independence and autonomy, especially ties with other major powers. All small South Asian nations want to extricate themselves from India’s excessive leverage. India has adopted a Western political system, and its active social organisations permeate their way into neighboring countries. India views Sino-Maldivian closeness with increasing strategic anxieties. Indian designs of establishing hegemony in the region are not hidden from anyone. In pursuance of this malicious agenda, India has been at daggers drawn with all her neighbours physically as well diplomatically. Through her gigantic interference, India had gone all out to downgrade sovereign state of Nepal into her client state. Readers may recall how India blockaded the Himalayan state because Kathmandu had refused to accede to Indian demands of changes in its Constitution in 2015. Even during the earthquake in Nepal. Indian obduracy had hindered relief operations for the affectees.
Coming back to Maldives, India is not ruling out military intervention to browbeat the atoll. For the time being it has issued a travel advisory to Indian tourists and visitors to Maldives noting that the “prevailing political developments in Maldives and the resultant law and order situation is a matter of concern for the Government of India.” The travel advisory could affect Maldivian economy, which relies heavily on tourism. Beyond the advisory, India could implement travel restrictions for Maldivians or any range of economic sanctions paired with coercive diplomacy. However, as India may have learned with Nepal in 2015, when a de facto economic blockade impeded Nepali access to critical Indian goods, heavy-handed sanctions could have longer term effects on public opinion and perceptions. India wants to see the back of Yameen. Pro Indian Maldivians like former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was recently released by the Supreme Court, is openly asking for Indian intervention.
Indian murmurs are reverberating signals that in case President Yameen uses force against the opposition, India may step in. New Delhi hints that when Yameen leaves the scene and, once “democracy is fully restored”, the next Maldivian government should ideally find it easier to pursue rapprochement with New Delhi. India should remember that this is not 1988 and armed intervention in a sovereign country only to install a government of its choice will not be tolerated by international players. Similarly, India despite having friendly ties with Pro-India Bangladeshi Government led by Awami League is exerting pressure to resolve Teesta River dispute on Indian terms. Teesta originates in Sikkim and flows through West Bengal as well as Bangladesh. India claims a share of 55 per cent of the river’s water. Bangladesh wants a higher share than it gets now. Currently, its share is lower than that of India’s. Bangladesh wants 50 percent of the Teesta’s waters between December and May every year, because that’s when the water flow to the country drops drastically. India’s propagated concerns for Maldives is China centric. Under the FTA, China and Maldives “would reduce the tariffs of over 95 per cent of the goods to zero. They are also committed to opening the service market such as finance, healthcare and tourism and agreed to cooperate practically in key areas,” China said in a statement. The FTA is also expected to boost Maldives’ fishing industry.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.