【Mumbai】Male’s closeness to China and the socio-political clout of Islamic radicals can jeopardise India’s interests in the region. Since the outbreak of the crisis in Maldives less than a fortnight ago, Indian opinion stands firmly divided on the possible role India should play in its 'regional sphere' of influence. While some suggest gunboat diplomacy, aimed at donning the mantle of a regional giant and thwarting off Chinese inroads into this island country, others christen this action monumentally stupid and instead suggest mute spectatorship or the use of soft power mechanisms.
Both the camps however accept one harsh reality, that politically, Maldives, regardless of recent overtures has more of a "Look China" policy than an "India first" one. As though, Maldives (and the current dispensation) only has these two choices. It's surprising that in this unfolding saga, the narratives have only been focusing on China, their maritime silk route, securing our southern maritime borders, earlier instances of Indian intervention in Male, etc., while the elephant in the room is still evading attention.
The fact that Maldives is a vocal Sunni Islamised nation by now, with the highest per capita contribution from South Asia (and probably the world) to the ISIS forces in West Asia.
After 30 years of rule and poor governance by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (the coup d'état against him was thwarted by Indian forces in 1988), the Maldivians democratically elected a President for the first time in 2008. Their first democratic leader, Mohamed Nasheed, was seen as too 'liberal' and ousted within just four years in office. Nasheed — the "Mandela of the Maldives" who spent most of his younger years in prison under Gayoom — was subsequently jailed for 13 years on charges of allegedly threatening a high court judge.
Abdullah Yameen, the man who deposed Nasheed and the one in charge since 2013 (uncharitably called a geopolitical serpent by a few observers), has spent substantial time since 2013 cosying up to China and deepening relationship with Saudi Arabia. China has worked on the economy while Saudi has worked upon the ideology. Till a few decades ago, the islanders had never really distinguished between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam; theirs had been a fairly laid-back interpretation, blending island traditions and Islam. However, now the only Islam accepted there is Saudi Salafism. The constitution clearly states that the President of the country can only be a Sunni Muslim. Maldives, despite the geographical distance, sees pride and purpose in aligning itself to the Sunni juggernaut lead by Saudi. Toeing the line, the nation severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 (accusing it of fomenting unrest in the Gulf) and with Qatar in 2017.
The reason all of this should not be ignored is that any intervention by India can be spun into an anti-Islamic rhetoric in the island, by interests inimical to Indian influence in the Indian Ocean. The other plan of action of imposing sanctions on Maldives will just be as counter-effective. Nepal's antagonism towards India serves as a distinct and fresh example of any such attempt. There are voices within Maldives that see China as an economic coloniser and there were protests too, against Saudi plans of buying islands in the archipelago in 2017.
In Maldives' case, there might not be an immediate solution, but military-intervention or sanctions are a definite quagmire. It's just that India should avoid any intervention that can be spun into an anti-Islamic rhetoric by interests within and outside. The Indian diplomatic arsenal has a host of weapons and India will have to patiently wait to deploy them.
Maldives: India must wait and watch
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