Developments in Maldives leading to the resignation of the elected president Nasheed has ushered in a fresh round of instability in India’s neighbourhood. Nasheed has called it a ‘coup’ and is insistent on the holding of fresh elections. India must deal with the unstable situation in a calm and mature manner since an unstable Maldives can have serious regional security implications as well as impact upon India’s security.
On February 8, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke with the newly sworn President Dr. Mohamed Waheed and assured him of India’s continued support for Maldives. He also sent a letter felicitating the new President. Singh also despatched a special envoy to Maldives to take stock of the situation there. Describing the situation in Maldives as an ‘internal affairs, the Ministry of External Affairs has hinted that Nasheed resigned of his own volition and not at ‘gunpoint’ as he claimed later. The message has gone home that India cannot remain unconcerned about the developments in Maldives and that it is ready to work along with the new dispensation in Male.
In 1988, India had averted a coup in Maldives by sending troops at short notice at the request of then President Gayoom. A few mercenaries had attempted to capture power at that time. That Indian military intervention had come after the 1987 induction of an Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka at the Sri Lankan government’s request. The two episodes established that India had legitimate interests in the region and that India was looked upon by its southern neighbours as a provider of security.
This time around, the dynamics of the instability in Maldives is entirely different. The democratic system instituted in Maldives in the last few years has not yet stabilised and democratic institutions have not been working properly. Nasheed was increasingly being frustrated by his inability to govern due to tensions between the various organs of the government. At the same time, the Opposition controlled the Majlis and confronted the President at every step.
Maldives’ location in the Indian Ocean is critical for India. The growth of religious extremism in Maldives has been a matter of concern for India, as has been the increase in external influence.
India-Maldives relations have been growing steadily in the last few years. The Indian prime minister visited Maldives for the 17th SAARC summit in November 2011. During the visit, India announced a stand-by credit facility of $100 million for Maldives and promised help in setting up the Maldives Police Academy. India subscribed fully to the $100 million in bonds issued by the Maldives monetary authority. Ambitious plans to enhance connectivity between the two countries were also announced. They agreed to increase regional and sub-regional transport connectivity and enhance cooperation in renewable energy, education, environment and sustainable development. The two countries also agreed to strengthen maritime security in the Indian Ocean region through coordinated patrolling, aerial surveillance, exchange of information and capacity building and by building a legal framework for the effective handling of piracy.
A number of agreements, including a framework agreement of cooperation, were signed during Prime Minister Singh’s visit. Article 6 of the Framework agreement makes a mention of their desire to “work closely on issues of national interests” and “create a peaceful environment”. Further, it says:
To cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests, the Parties shall work together to create a peaceful environment conducive for inclusive economic growth and development. Neither Party shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.
This is a significant formulation. India’s response to developments in Maldives needs to be seen in the context of this Framework agreement between them.
The situation in Maldives is fluid. The former President has expressed his disappointment with India’s stand and has asked for a probe into the circumstances that led to his ouster.
India’s detailed response will surely take into account the feedback given by the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Maldives. More details will emerge in the near future. How should India respond to these developments? A few suggestions in this regard are:
Since the South Asian region is marked by a degree of instability, the time has come for India to explore the possibility of setting up a security dialogue mechanism at least at the sub-regional level. India, Sri Lanka and Maldives can set up a mechanism of official security dialogue, say, at the level of National Security Advisers. This will help these countries identify common security issues. Such a step will also help build a framework for cooperative security in the region.
India has enough experience of dealing with instability in its neighbourhood. One lesson that clearly stands out from the collective experience of the last 65 years is that India cannot stand aloof from what happens in its neighbourhood. Deeper and comprehensive engagement with all neighbours is a sine qua non for India’s neighbourhood policy. If India is seen as unsure or wavering in its response, external powers will step in and make an already complex situation even more complex.
The author is Director General of IDSA, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.