On February 7, 2012, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives resigned from office after what appears to be a bloodless coup d’etat in the tiny island nation. As a small crowd gathered in front of the army headquarters and chanted anti-government slogans, some members of the police force mutinied and joined the demonstrators (probably in anger at the arrest of a judge who the government alleged helped hide evidence of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s corruption).

The protesters and police were allegedly linked to Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years until democratic elections in 2008 placed Nasheed in power. Stories surfaced later in the day that Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint.

The coup comes in the wake of recent calls from opposition groups, spurred in part by the supporters of Gayoom, for Islam to play a greater role in the running of the country. As CNN-IBN reporter Sumon Chakrabarti has stated, the events mark a disturbing shift in the island’s politics from being “one of the most moderate Muslim nations on Earth towards extremism.” Over 98% of the island’s 400,000 population are Sunni Muslim and Nasheed’s government had clashed with opposition groups in December 2011 over the issues of massage parlours and the sale of pork and alcohol in resorts.

The Indian government has been quick to pledge support to the Maldivian Vice President, Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, who was sworn in soon after Nasheed resigned. However, Chakrabarti has suggested that Hassan is a puppet who would not last. “He comes from a very small political party. He’s respected as an academic but has little support of his own,” Chakrabarti said. “I doubt how long they will allow this man to remain in power.” Male, the state capital, however, erupted in protests as thousands of Nasheed supporters have taken to the streets and had to be dispersed with tear gas.

An archipelago of about 1,200 islands, the Maldives boasts of no vast material resources. Nonetheless, its strategic location about 400 kilometres southwest of India in the Laccadive Sea makes it an invaluable resource for India and China (the US has Diego Garcia and no other country has the ability to project such military might). For China, the Maldives would be yet another pearl on its string of pearls by which Beijing wishes contain India. The island would provide a vital military base where Chinese ships could dock and from which Chinese aircraft could control a significant portion of the Indian Ocean up to the African coast. It is for this exact reason that India would wish to deny the use of these islands to any other power.

Indian interests in the Maldives is quite similar to China’s – they give the Indian navy and air force greater influence over the Indian Ocean, weaken Chinese attempts to contain India, and allow India to become a greater force against piracy in the vital sea lanes coming out of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. An additional reason for Indian interests in the healthy functioning of Maldivian society is the potential rise of Islamic radicalism among the natives – the transformation of the Maldives into an intolerant theocracy would be yet another thorn in India’s side right alongside Pakistan and the Indian Mujahideen on the domestic front.

In this light, there seems to be something black in the lentils about the statements emanating from the Indian PMO assuring Waheed India’s continuing support. It seems highly likely that the coup has replaced a democratically elected president in favour of a faction powered partly by resurgent Islam. Nausheed alleges that the man behind the coup is his rival, the former president. If that is true, it would appear on the surface that India need not be worried about the regime change in the islands. After all, India has enjoyed warm relations with Gayoom, particularly after 1988 when India thwarted a coup against him. However, the new Maldivian government may not have the same level of gratitude towards India as Gayoom had shown since 1988.

The Islamic demographic among their supporters may limit how close Waheed may be allowed to drift towards India. The ousted president, Nasheed, has also accused Gayoom of using Islamist political groups to foment anti-government protests in recent weeks. In either case, it is astonishing how quickly India moved to support the new government unless the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) knew of the coup beforehand and had a secret agreement with the new leaders – though one would be hard-pressed to believe that any group of Islamic radicals who ransacked the Maldives museum and smashed Buddhist statues within hours of the coup would accept an understanding with India.

In fact, New Delhi has been concerned that the Maldives could become, like Pakistan, a place for Islamist political forces to set up bases and attack India. Although the Maldives has been a quiet nation until now, Nasheed worries that Islamists are becoming more powerful. “The Islamist groups have been used,” he said. “If they keep on using them, they’re going to find a voice. They’re getting more powerful.” Ahmed Naseem, the ousted former foreign minister adds, “This country had no one wearing headscarves 10 years ago but it’s common now.” Naseem himself faced strong opposition at home last year when he became the country’s first minister to visit Israel. “Religious orthodoxy has become the norm as more people go to study in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.” 

In any case, whether India knew of the coup beforehand or not, it is fairly evident they were quite aware of it minutes after trouble started. The national security advisor of the ousted government had, according to Nasheed, approached the Indian High Commissioner to get India to intervene as they did in 1988 to force the coup leaders to stand down – as events now bear out, none was forthcoming. The reason, it seems, was a lack of communication between New Delhi and its Mission in Male, officials from India’s Defense Ministry and the MEA saying that they were not aware of the Maldives’ request for India’s involvement.

Since the coup, there must have undoubtedly been much behind-the-scenes discussions between the Maldivian coup leaders and the Indian government. However, New Delhi has been content to issue its usual saccharine declaration of hope for stability, peace, and prosperity publicly. Instead of taking the opportunity created by pro-Nasheed demonstrations in Male, a senior Indian diplomat dispatched to the troubled country announced, “Nasheed’s defiant mood and street protests by his Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) was an unexpected move away from the resolution of issues.” In other words, India would have preferred that Nasheed quietly slip away from political life.

Some commentators have already wondered why India has not insisted upon the return of Nasheed to power or acted with force she did 24 years ago. There seem to be enough reasons for India to act decisively, and yet we observe the all too familiar ostrich pose from New Delhi. Nitin Pai, a blogger on Indian security issues, argues in a post (and paper) that it becomes increasingly difficult counter-intuitively, for states to act quickly to threats closer to home than further away. The primary example is the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi – despite a clear LTTE connection, India was unable to pursue the terrorists into Sri Lanka for fear of Tamil sentiments in Tamil Nadu itself. But argument sounds more like an excuse – despite a large Muslim minority, India has not hesitated in defending her interests against Pakistan or Bangladesh. Similarly, the Russians have kept a close eye on former Soviet republics that stray too far from Moscow and have not hesitated to invade as was evidenced in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War.

India’s arch rival, China, is another excellent example of limited incursions into the neighbourhood to secure national interests – between missile tests, warnings, and limited border wars, the ‘Chicoms’ have encroached upon or kept off-balance Tibet, South Korea, Taiwan, India, and even the mighty Soviet Union. Clearly, what is required is a clarity of purpose and ability to see it through. Luckily for India, she has recently put together the prerequisite command and control structure, whether inadvertently or not, required to maintain order in the neighbourhood. India’s Cold Start doctrine, designed to respond to a nuclear strike, has the added benefit of having reduced mobilisation times drastically. During Operation Parakram, the Indian army took 27 days to mobilise; by Operation Vijayee Bhava in 2011, that time had been reduced to sightly under 48 hours.

If India were to ‘reconnoiter in force’ into Male, it should take less time than that. Cold Start has meant smaller number of troops with overwhelming concentration of firepower rather than a large-scale mobilisation. In effect, the Indian army has set up a multitude of Rapid Strike Teams (RST) ideal for the modern battlefield.

Diplomatically, if India seeks to make this century hers, she needs a non-nonsense pragmatic policy towards her different mandalas. A trite way of putting it is to say that India needs her own Monroe doctrine – of course, the South Asian state cannot rely on the US advantages of being isolated with no sea lanes or hostile world powers nearby, nor can she pretend to live in a world before the ICBM. What such a doctrine must entail, however, is the level and nature of interference – interaction if you wish – outside or domestic forces will be allowed in India’s smaller neighbours.

Democracy – for lack of a better word – has taken a beating in India’s back yard: Bangladesh remains nominally a democracy, as the recent attempted coup demonstrated the free hand the military has in the country; Sri Lanka has cracked down on free speech with the impending accusations of human rights violations in the crushing of the LTTE insurgency; Nepal’s Maoists has effectively shut India out and opened the door to China in the tiny mountainous state; Pakistan, the most dangerous of them all, is for all intents and purposes a failed state with nuclear weapons.

One reason India may not wish to put pressure on these states is that it may drive them into the arms of the Chinese. On that count, India has little to fear, as China is already uncomfortably (for India) present in these countries. India’s Mandala doctrine needs a carrot as much as it needs a RST, and both have been missing; for India’s government has long believed in masterly inactivity, and the belief seems to have transcended into her essence, an ushtrapakshi-asana (ostrich posture in yogic language), if you will. As Lord Josiah Stamp is said to have remarked, “It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.”

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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