Maldives: India's Complacency Shattered

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Credit: The World FactbookBy Shastri Ramachandaran*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - The bloodless coup in the Maldives in February 2012 has again exposed that India is no good when it comes to neighbourhood management. This is borne out every time there is a major development in the region.

The Ministries of External Affairs and Home Affairs are, presumably, ever on the alert to what is going on in Pakistan and China, especially as Pakistan is one of the world's biggest trouble spots; and China poses multiple challenges which are further complicated by the fraught situation in Afghanistan.

Next on the radar is Bangladesh. Although the relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi is better balanced than at any other time, there are concerns over Islamist extremists and their anti-India agenda which is supported by rogue elements in the Bangladesh army. And, it is these forces that were behind the attempt to topple the elected government earlier this year.

The prolonged instability in Nepal, at worst a headache requiring some deft behind-the-scenes string-pulling, is now a growing security concern -- thanks to China capitalising on the dominance of the Maoists in Nepal. While the Maoists rode to power on the strength of an India-backed deal, once in office they began cosying up to China. The China card doesn't help Nepal at all, but keeps New Delhi guessing, particularly when Kathmandu cracks down on Tibetans at the behest of Beijing.

Sri Lanka, for over two decades, was giving sleepless nights to New Delhi. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with their worldwide network and pockets of support in Tamil Nadu, was perhaps the most protracted threat of its kind ever faced by the Indian state. With the killing of LTTE supremo V. Pirabakaran in 2009 and the demolition of separatist forces in Sri Lanka, it was felt that India had eliminated a major security concern across its southern borders.

This complacency has been shattered by developments in the Maldives.

It was never expected that the Maldives would pose a problem. The 1100-odd islands and the waters around it have been a tempting target not only for Islamists and pirates such as from Somalia but also big powers including the US and China. However, India had made it plain when occasion arose, that the Maldives fell within India's sphere of interest and no intrusion would be tolerated.

So, in 1988, when armed Tamil separatist mercenaries from Sri Lanka tried to mount a coup against the Maldives' long-ruling president M A Gayoom, it was foiled by India. The military intervention was swift and surgical. India's assertiveness reinforced by decisive action was a matter of welcome relief to the big powers.

With only some 30-plus islands inhabited by less than 350,000 people, the Maldives is indeed dependent on India for its security. There are some 30,000 Indians working in the islands, most in the capital Male. It is an idyllic setting where many Indians head for their honeymoon and relatively inexpensive holidays. The attraction of Maldives as a safe tourist destination has been increasing of late. So much so, that every year, over one lakh Chinese tourists flock to the islands to enjoy the sun, sand and sea.

Elusive Calm

As late as in November 2011, when the Maldives hosted the SAARC summit, it appeared reasonably untroubled. No doubt, the Chinese were eyeing an island for strategic purposes, some Islamist groups were ranting against the elected government of President Mohamed Nasheed and there were political murmurs. But there was no sign of a dangerous upheaval.

Yet something must have been brewing before the political eruption witnessed in February, and our intelligence sleuths and security experts missed the signs. All that President Nasheed did was to order the arrest of a judge suspected to be in cahoots with former strongman Gayoom, who had been president for 30 years. The judge had stayed the launching of corruption proceedings against Gayoom.

And, that plunged the placid islands into unprecedented turmoil with anti-India sentiments to the fore. The elected president was ousted and his place usurped by Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan.

New Delhi was totally in the dark and caught totally unawares. How could South Block have been so clueless about the gathering anti-India feelings – manifest in the destruction of Indian artefacts in Male’s National Museum?

Regardless of how events in Male play out – early elections, formation of a national unity government, a deal between supporters of Gayoom, Islamists and the usurper President, or a larger role for Gayoom's family members in the political set-up – India has lost control of the situation. Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai's two-day fire-fighting visit only confirms that India has again proved ineffective in yet another area within its zone of influence.

*Shastri Ramachandaran is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, had worked as Senior Editor & Writer with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing. A version of this article first appeared in 'Life 365' of June 3, 2012. [IDN-InDepthNews – June 04, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer's previous articles in IDN:

Picture: Looking out onto lagoon waters from a palm-shaded beach | Credit: The World Factbook

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