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Maldives and the #IndiaOut Campaign

Ms Tejusvi Shukla is a Research Associate with the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems at Chanakya University, Bengaluru, and Research Analyst with the Online Indian Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution.
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  • December 13, 2023

    President Mohammed Muizzu of Maldives confirmed on 4 December 2023 that an agreement was reached with India for the withdrawal of over 70 troops deployed in the archipelago nation for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and training purposes. This statement was made after his return from the UAE and Turkey.

    Two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters and a Dornier aircraft are expected to continue to be deployed in the Maldives.1 Muizzu had requested India to withdraw its military personnel formally when he met the Minister of Earth Sciences Kiren Rijiju in Male on 18 November 2023. This was also a key election campaign promise of the incumbent, who took over power in September 2023.

    The shift in Maldives foreign policy is not sudden. It is a result of a simmering anti-India sentiment dating back to at least a decade, which played up fears of India gradually attempting to impinge on Male’s sovereignty. These sentiments got briefly stabilised under the Solih government since 2018, but peaked during the 2023 presidential campaign.

    Moreover, this is not an organically generated sentiment. It has been actively fanned, and is reflective of undertones of a well-crafted war of narratives that facilitated the changing domestic realities in the country. The foreign policy shift has witnessed a leap from a call for ‘India First’ under former President Ibrahim Solih to ‘India Out’ that was central to Muizzu’s presidential campaign.

    Tracing the Trajectory

    The genesis of the India Out campaign in the Maldives can be traced back to the political landscape of 2013, when the government of Abdulla Yameen assumed power. Yameen's administration, marked by an unequivocal pro-China stance, entered into a series of opaque infrastructure agreements with Chinese state-owned enterprises. During the five years of his rule, as the country slid into various Chinese ‘debt trap’ investments, his governments’ conscious efforts at framing the cognitive environment by raising an India-phobic campaign began.

    A popular discourse emerged surrounding the agreement for receiving two Indian Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters and an accompanying contingent of Indian armed personnel, integral to the training of the Maldives National Defense Forces for helicopter operations. Raging disinformation campaigns generated social panic suggesting Indian designs to impinge on the nation’s sovereignty. By 2015, Yameen terminated the agreement with India. Yameen’s tenure was marred with dubious infrastructure project deals with Chinese-owned companies and human rights abuses. He lost in 2018 elections, and Ibrahim Solih became the president.2

    Solih reaffirmed the traditional ‘India First’ policy and his tenure was marked by the re-signing of the agreement relating to the Dhruv helicopters. Furthermore, in 2021, India and the Maldives entered into the Uthura Thila Falu (UTF) development deal concerning port construction.3 While Solih's ascendancy provided some respite for New Delhi, the anti-India sentiment among the population kept simmering. The controversial discourse surrounding Indian military presence re-emerged in the form of the ‘India Out’ campaign in print as well as social media and on the Maldivian streets. Notably, the Indian High Commission became a focal point for expressions of this anti-India sentiment, with Indian diplomats being targeted on various social media platforms.4

    The Case of Dhiyares News   

    The role of a local news outlet called Dhiyares News assumed significance, with even the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) charging that the “continuous barrage of anti-India vitriol” by the outfit appeared to be a “well-funded, well-orchestrated and pre-meditated political campaign with the express purpose of whipping up hatred against the Maldives’ closest ally, India.”5 Former President Yameen, who was released from jail by then, assumed a leadership role in the ‘India Out’ campaign. His involvement added a layer of complexity, considering his previous alignment with pro-China policies. The presidential campaign of Muizzu, a PNC candidate who was a coalition partner of Yameen’s former party PPM, was centered on fanning the social panic generated through the campaign, which eventually ended up in the fall of the Solih government.

    It is pertinent to highlight the orchestrated war of narratives over the issue. A report by the Colombo Information Agency serves as an eye-opener in this context. As the activity on Twitter (where the ‘India Out’ campaign spread most as the hashtag #IndiaOut) was tracked, it was notable that the 59.3k tweets using the hashtag were tweeted by a mere 2,252 handles—almost half of which were created between 2019 and 2021. Moreover, approximately half of these newly created handles in turn were identified as fake. According to the report, around 210 handles were responsible for 80 per cent of the content engagement where a mere eight handles contributed to over 12,171 tweets.6  

    Figure 1: Report by Colombo Information Agency7

    The report further examined the role of Dhiyares News and its sister journal The Maldives Journal in driving this campaign. The journal, professing an anti-India sentiment, was sympathetic to former President Yameen’s cause, and had an openly pro-China stance. The journal published articles titled “Yameen tortured on Modi’s Orders: Opposition”8 and targeted Indian presence and alleged “interference” in Male’s internal affairs.

    The role of the co-founder Azad Azaan was highlighted in the report. Of the 2,252 handles which engaged in the sharing of the hashtag, the report noted that half of them were followers of Azaan, where his account managed to single-handedly attract 12 per cent of the total traction.9 Azaan’s pro-China alignment is also well known. Regardless, the fact that this orchestrated disinformation campaign could be transformed into an organic public discourse that defined the presidential elections of a country speaks volumes of the cognitive vulnerabilities existing in contemporary times.

    Going Forward

    India has been the first responder to each of Maldives’ political, economic, and natural disasters. Despite this, the generation and seeming acceptance of an anti-India sentiment due to dis-information campaigns is significant. Popular perceptions got manipulated which in turn changed the domestic political mood and political dynamics, and subsequently the fate and direction of the country’s diplomatic engagements.

    While discussing ways to defeat an adversary through covert means, Kautilya’s sutra in the second chapter of his twelfth book of Arthashastra states “एवं जानपदान्समाहर्तुर्भेदयेयुः”. This roughly translates as “ the same manner, they should divide the country people from the Administrator” (12.2.29). As democracies function in the contemporary scenario, any state’s sovereignty lies in its population, making favourable popular perceptions central to any diplomatic pursuits. Bilateral ties are only as strong as the support that a partner government can generate in favour of a policy.

    Regardless of the changing domestic realities in Male, India’s regional and geopolitical relevance will continue to keep relations with New Delhi among Male’s high-priority affairs.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.