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OPINION | India Needs Full-time NSA in Maldives to Keep China, Pakistan in Check

System of a regular NSA in another Indian Ocean republic, Mauritius is in place since 1983. All these 35 years, it has worked well. Why can’t this be tried in Maldives, especially when the island is going through such a turbulent period?

Shantanu Mukharji |

Updated:April 11, 2018, 12:03 PM IST
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OPINION | India Needs Full-time NSA in Maldives to Keep China, Pakistan in Check
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and China's President Xi Jinping attend a signing meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (File Photo: Reuters)
The recent disturbing happenings in Maldives has drawn concern in Indian quarters as to how to deal with the developments as reigning Prime Minister Abdullah Yameen, in power since 2013, has been in a defiant and provocative mode. And, there was a time not very long ago, when government of India was under intense pressure to intervene militarily to restore order getting the judges released, arrested by the dictatorial chain of steps by Yamin and which also included proclamation of emergency and other measures curbing civil liberties of the general populace.

The very thought of intervention stemmed out of the precedent and the historical fact when on November 3, 1988, the famous Operation ‘Cactus’ was launched by the Indian establishment leading to landing of armed Indian troops in capital Male amid non-stop firing by the mercenaries who had seized power by arresting then president Maumoon Gayoom.

Any Indian intervention, albeit military, meant that India was still a force to reckon with and it would signal India’s neighbours that should any neighbour embarked on any unpleasant misadventure, it would be met by brute force and any uprising would be ruthlessly quelled.

Thirty years ago such action appeared imperative also because Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka were militarily active threatening the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

Simultaneously, the LTTE activities were at their peak, warranting Indian intervention so as to send them signals of Indian might through an action in Maldives. In fact, one of the splinter groups of Tamil separatists, PLOTE was complicit in the 1988 coup deposing Gayoom.

However, today the geo political scene has changed drastically. China has now emerged as a major player in the internal affairs of Maldives, not only to pin prick India politically, but also to offset any Indian moves that could be seen detrimental to Indian security interests.

China’s interest in the maritime affairs in the proximity of Indian Ocean poses a critical challenge amid growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean waters intimidating India’s maritime security.

Maldives is virtually sitting on the lap of China and Abdullah Yameen has clearly demonstrated by his actions that he would continue to defy India and all Maldivian actions would be in line possibly with a Chinese diktat.

India, in all probability, is not finding an easy way to address the developments, delicately balancing its moves through diplomatic moves. Unfortunately, so far Indian actions do not seem to have paid off as Yameen does not seem to be in a conciliatory or relenting mood.

Meanwhile, China too has been issuing quite extraordinary, straightforward and ‘no nonsense’ warnings to India to refrain from meddling into the internal affairs of Maldives. Situation, therefore, remains piquant. On its part, India probably doesn’t want to provoke China and enter into any kind of stand-off so as not to face any Doklam type of situation.

The island nation with just over four lakh population is repeatedly rebuffing Indian overtures is a sign of growing Chinese influence in the region. Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to Male last week completes fast developing axis between China-Pakistan and Maladies.

The issue is a matter of concern for India, especially in regard to its maritime security. There have been instances in the past where mercenaries have been engaged to engineer coup in Male. This coupled with reports of religious radicalization in the Island nation are a matter of concern for India.

Security experts assess that to keep China’s geo strategic and geo political interests alive, Maldives has been actively considering handing over important Marao islands to China, strengthening the latter’s strategic game plan.

On a separate note, it’s noteworthy that China had sent 300,000 tourists to Maldives in 2017. This is quite significant. In the meantime, China is also reported to be in the process of opening some resorts in Maldives to have an absolute presence in the Indian Ocean in the garb of promoting tourism.

Significantly, other than China, Saudi Arabia has also been very evincing interest in the Maldivian day to day happenings which is more than ordinary, obviously for different reasons. Being an essentially Muslim nation, Maldives remains a fertile ground and vulnerable too to be exploited to induct Wahhabism promoted by Saudi Arabia.

A diplomatic mission was opened in Riyadh by Maldives in May 2014 (the first Maldivian diplomatic mission in the Middle East) and subsequently, President Yameen had allowed the opening of a Saudi Embassy in Male in 2015 -- as recent as that.

It would also be pertinent to point out that a crucial challenge faced by Maldives is the enormous radicalisation in this tiny island. If statistics are any indication, out of an approximate population of 400,000, there are around 300 plus Maldivian volunteers fighting in Syria alongside the ISIS. Such profound is the impact of the Wahhabism and Saudi-inspired radicalisation in this Indian Ocean island. These figures are so disproportionate to the population when compared to India.

I happened, rather coincidentally, to be in Maldives in 2009 or 2010 when hate preacher Dr Zakir Naik was visiting the island republic. He delivered an aggressive and radical Islamised speech in front of a highly charged gathering causing immense sensation and there were instantaneous reaction amongst the crowd to take up arms for any cause of Islam. Activists like Zakir Naik have hardly any difficulty in further radicalising a nation which is already Islamised to the hilt .

Moroccan traveller and chronicler, Ibn Batuta (1304-1368), visited Maldives (Dhibat-Ul-Mahal) traveling from Calicut. He had recorded that the entire population was predominantly Muslim and described the people as highly religious.

He even described that the diet of the Maldivians, then, was according to the Islamic Law and their prayers accepted by the Almighty. (Source: Rehala of Ibn Batuta, translated by Dr Mahdi Hasan : courtesy Oriental Institute , Vadodara) We, therefore, notice complete Islamisation say even five hundred years ago. Over the ages, this trend had increasingly matured and today it has perhaps reached its zenith with the propaganda blitz of the ISIS.

Reverting to Saudi religious or political interests in this island, in March 2017, Saudi monarch Salman Bin Abdul Aziz signed an important agreement with Maldives to lease out its strategically located Faafu atoll for upto 99 years to develop a Special Economic Zone.

It’s hard to fathom that Riyadh’s only interest is economic or commercial. By implication, it’s much more than it meets the eye or at least that is what is apparent. Saudis seem to have a clear cut policy to have their interests entrenched in Maldives. And their message is loud and clear!

Against the backdrop of these developments, it appears imperative that India should redouble its vigil keeping a hawkish eye on the Maldivian developments especially on those issues which impinge on Indian security interests.

A dedicated desk at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) must be tasked to specifically monitor happenings in Male in more than a routine manner.

Similar brief with renewed efforts, should be in place in Indian diplomatic mission in capital Male for close coverage of all significant developments.

As part of the statecraft, India (if not already) should have a revamped intelligence wing embedded in the High Commission for picking up information of vital and actionable intelligence to ensure regional security interests.

Above all, in the light of such rapidly changing security scenario, it’s for consideration if a full time Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) is posted in Maldives to oversee its security as well.

The nominee should preferably be an officer with some intelligence background to deliver, protecting India’s security interests and thwarting moves by any hostile quarters to destabilise Indo-Maldivian ties.

System of a regular NSA in another Indian Ocean republic, Mauritius is in place since 1983. All these 35 years, it has worked well.

Why can’t this be tried in Maldives, especially when the island is going through such a turbulent period? Any lowering of guard on the happenings in Maldives might prove costly in terms of vital security and other related crucial interests.

(Writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and ex National Security Advisor to Mauritius. Views expressed are personal)

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| Edited by: Sumedha Kirti
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