As expected, the early January official visit to India of the newly installed Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom ,the half brother of Maldivian strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was a tame and a lacklustre affair since no dramatic breakthrough could be achieved in setting right the dents in the relations between the two countries. Of course, after taking over as the President of Maldives, Yameen had stated in unequivocal terms that he accorded top priority to improve the “longstanding close friendly ties” between India and Maldives. After the government of the former President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, known to have been handpicked by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom– after a putsch in Feb.2012 removed first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed–cancelled the lucrative contract that the Bangalore based infrastructure major GMR had bagged for the up-gradation and operation of Ibrahim Nasir International airport at Male, the relations between the two countries had run into a rough weather. Rightly, India considered this as a “vocal anti India act” on the part of Maldives with which it had along and cordial relations. As it is, the US$500-million contract bagged by GMR represented the biggest Indian investment in the island nation. Indeed, the unceremonious termination of this contract has made many potential international investors wary of foraying into the business landscape of this Indian ocean atoll whose economy is in bad shape with the growth rate dipping from to 3% from 7% in the past two years. Geography has not been kind to Maldives either. It lies below the sea level and lives under the threat of getting inundated due to global warming.
Not surprisingly then Abdulla Yameen during his New Delhi visit drove home the point that Maldives is keen on amicably settling the issue arising out of the scrapping of GMR contract through ”out of the court dialogue”. ”There is nothing that cannot be sorted out through dialogue. So we are keen to have a dialogue with GMR.GMR is speaking with our officials to have a settlement out of court and not through arbitration,” observed Yameen. However, Yameen did not make any commitment on inviting the GMR back to take up the airport project. For according to Yameen, it is a highly politicalised issue. Yameen, however, did not fail to highlight the fact that right at the moment the airport construction and infrastructure would be done by the Maldivian companies. GMR has filed an arbitration claim of US$1.4-billion at the Singapore court as a compensation for scrapping of the contract midway through the implementation of the project. Whether GMR would agree for out of the court settlement as suggested by Yameen , no one is sure as yet. On his part, Yameen did admit that relations between India and Maldives went through a rough patch following scrapping of the airport development deal with GMR which has a major stake in airports construction and operations.
It is in the fitness of things that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did ask Yameen to address the problem faced by the Indian investors and amicably settle the issue of the Male airport contract with GMR. But then, as things stand now, investment in this island nation by Indian companies and corporates would depend on the kind of local investors climate created by the new government. It would be an uphill task of the new government to instil confidence in investors looking at Maldives. But then the growing Maldivian engagement with China as highlighted by the US$500-milllion Chinese aid package to this island nation ,struggling it out to set right its economic profile, leaves out an impression that in the long run China could replace India as the “most favoured partner for development”. Yameen during his India visit had described the island nation’s relationship with China as very close but assured that his country’s ties with India are far more precious. In an interview with an Indian new agency, he pointed out that “ties with India will precede any other relationship.” And while welcoming Yameen, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee had noted that India is committed to assisting Maldives in realizing its security objectives as both the countries have had to address the challenges of piracy, smuggling, extremism and religious fundamentalism. ”India, like Maldives, would like to see uninterrupted peace and security prevail in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR).Both the countries have to address the challenges of piracy, smuggling, extremism and religious fundamentalism,” observed Mukherjee. Incidentally, India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural and commercial links steeped in antiquity. India was among the first to recognise Maldives after its independence in 1965 and also to establish diplomatic relations with that country.
And during the December 2013 visit to India of Maldivian Minister for Defence and Security, Mohamed Nazim, his Indian counterpart A.K.Antony conveyed the Indian support to strengthen the defence infrastructure of this island nation whose major source of revenue is tourism. More importantly, they also agreed to pursue the objective of enhancing the interaction between the defence forces of the two countries. A major highlight of Nazim’s Indian itinerary was his visit to India’s southern naval command at Kochi where he symbolically received India’s home-grown multi role aircraft ALH(Advanced Light Helicopter) Dhruv. This helicopter, second Indian chopper to be gifted to Maldives, will be used by this island nation for coastal surveillance, search and rescue operations and medical evacuation. Appreciating the Indian gesture, Nazim said that it has “paved the way for further strengthening of the ties between the countries.”
Indian warships and Dornie reconnaissance aircraft have been regularly helping Maldives in maritime patrol and surveillance. There is a growing concern in India over the possibility of Somalia based sea pirates expanding their sphere of influence around the Maldivian islands. As such Indo-Maldivian joint anti- piracy operations have assumed more than the usual importance. And in yet another development of significance, the bilateral naval exercises with the Maldives have been expanded to a three way cooperation involving Indian, Maldivian and Sri Lankan ships. Meanwhile, Indian security agencies are worried that the Marao Island which was leased by Maldives to China in 1999 for maritime traffic management, continues to be used by China to monitor Indian and US warships in the Indian Ocean region. Indian diplomatic pressure had prevented Maldives from allowing China to set up a submarine base in one of its islands. Thanks once again to the Indian intervention, the much talked of proposal to allow USA set up a military base—some years back—in one of the islands of the atoll did not fructify. Right now, the biggest worry for India is the possibility of Pakistan trained terrorists using uninhabited islands in Maldivian atoll to store weapons and carry out attacks on mainland India through the poorly guarded lanes of the Arabian Sea. Clearly and apparently, there are reports to suggest that Pakistan based extremist group LeT(Lashker-e-Toiba) has gained a foothold in one of the islands of Maldives through its charitable front organisation.
Clearly and apparently, for India, Maldives is of strategic significance as it straddles vital sea lanes of communications in the Indian ocean . What’s more, India is using Maldives as s stamping ground for fighting the rapidly expanding menace of sea piracy and terrorism. It is not for nothing that India is assisting Maldives in the task of establishing a network of ground radars on all its 26 atolls in addition to bolstering cooperation in the field of military training, hydrography, maritime patrol and surveillance.
But at about the same time, there is a growing concern in India over the systematic indoctrination of youngsters from Maldives in the seminaries of Pakistan , many of which focus on exposing the students to radical and hard-line Islamic philosophy with a thrust on jihad. For instance, a 31 years old Maldivian youth after getting exposed to the fundamentalist doctrine in Pakistan joined the Taliban forces in the neighbouring Afghanistan where he was killed in a bomb blast in Decemer.2013. Against such a bleak scenario and with a view to wean Maldivian youngsters from getting radicalised, New Delhi has been working on a proposal to increase engagement and contact between Islamic groups in Maldives and moderate Islamic educational institutions in India. How far this approach would prevent Maldivian youngsters from getting exposed to fundamentalist religious ideologies, only time will tell.
Maumoon Gayoom, who had ruled Maldives for about three decades with an iron hand, has been stressing the view that no religion other than Islam should be allowed in Maldives. In recent years, the speeches delivered by Gyaoom have been conspicuous for their religious overtones. Incidentally, it was the Indian assistance in 1988 that prevented Gayoom from being overthrown by a group of Sri Lankan mercenaries. Sunni Islam was declared as the official state religion under the 1997 constitution and the propagation of religion other than Islam was prohibited. Of course, since 12th century, Islam has been the only religion followed in Maldives. Before conversion to Islam, Maldives was a stronghold of Vajrayana school of Buddhism with a strong influence of Hindu cultural strains. Traditionally , Islam followed in Maldives has been neither rigid nor puritanical. Despite being the followers of Sunni Islam, a majority of Maldivians continue to believe in the spirit world and have a great reverence for tolerant Sufi mystical school.
All said and done, in the long run, the possibility of the puritanical Islamic philosophy centring round Wahabi school taking hold of this once tolerant island nation cannot be ruled out. Thanks to the well orchestered campaign by the political fringe groups, Maldives , known around the world as a tropical paradise par excellence, is slowly turning into a fertile ground for the thriving of radical Islamic philosophy that lays stress on jihad or holy war. But then one need not see a jihadi behind every coconut frond in Maldives. For sure, Maldives may not go the way of Pakistan at least for sometime to come.
There is no denying the point that the greatest contributor to the spread of religious fundamentalism in Maldives are the youths who return home after getting educated at seminaries in Pakistan where they come under the influence of al-Qaida philosophy. ”These young Maldivians come back home and begin preaching much more conservative version of Islam. Given the remoteness of islands, it is easy for returning preachers and graduates to influence an insulated island population” says Azra Naseem, who has an academic interest in the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in Maldives.
It may be recalled that during the seventeenth SAARC summit held in Nov.2011 at Male, the capital of Maldives, monuments depicting the “cultural heritage” of Pakistan and Sri Lanka were vandalised by a group of Maldivians on the ground that they were idolatrous and hence against the spirit of Islam. Thereafter in Feb .2012 several Buddhist statues reflecting the rich pre Islamic heritage and culture of Maldives were desecrated and destroyed by an unruly mob under the spell of radical Islam. Many Maldivians have described this “wanton act” as a replay of the Taliban destroying the priceless Bamiyana Buddhist sculptures of Afghanistan. Like Maldives, Afghanistan too boasts of a rich Buddhist past.
On the social front, the surge of Islamic fundamentalism is underscored by the campaign that forces women to wear veil and stay indoors. What’s more, Islamic radical groups have also expressed themselves against tourism, which they say, is associated with the ‘free flow” of alcoholic drinks which goes against the spirit of Islam. Further, the worshippers have been asked to boycott the mosques built by the Maldivian Government with the revenue earned from tourism which is inextricably linked to the sale of alcohol. With tourism serving as the main sinew of the economy of Maldives, any downturn in tourists inflow into the Island nation could severely affect the livelihood opportunities for a large proportion of the population.
Even the scrapping of the GMR’s Male airport contract is considered a direct fall out of the vicious anti India campaign spearheaded by an assortment of political entities and religious groups swearing allegiance to Islamic fundamentalism. “The attack on GMR contract is an Islamic fundamentalism issue,” is the observation of Hussain Zaki, a leading Maldivian politician who had held important positions in the successive Maldivian governments over the years. Without mincing words, he has made it clear that many of the leading lights of Adhaalath Party,a fundamentalist political front, are educated in the seminaries of Pakistan and are influenced to a large extent by the extremist Salafist philosophy. As it is, Adhaalath party was in the forefront of a scurrilous anti Indian campaign that culminated in the political decision to scrap the GMR contract. ”We would rather give the airport contract to our friends in China who now make the majority of our tourist population,” was the refrain of this extremist political group.
In the backdrop of a rapid economic downturn hurting a large segment of the Maldivian population along with a political dispensation favourably disposed towards the purveyors of a radical version of Islamic philosophy , the transformation of Maldives from being a moderate Muslim country into a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism seems quite possible. Resurgence of Islamic radicalism and the growing Chinese influence could considerably weaken India’s clout with Maldives. India should initiate a slew of pro active initiatives to prevent Maldives from falling a prey to Islamic fundamentalism and coming under Chinese influence.
Radhakrishna Rao writes on defense and aerospace related issues for various reputed think tanks across the world