The Opposition campaign led by Abdulla Yameen, after he came out of prison, has upset, if not unnerved, the Indian community in the Maldives
Recent reports of harassment of Indian teachers in Maldivian islands have suddenly made the 26,000-strong migrant community from the larger neighbour feel uncomfortable, if not feel unsafe as yet. The harassment comes in the wake of the Opposition PPM-PNC combine’s ‘India Out’ campaign, which has since taken the shape of wall graffiti in the islands and also capital Male.
Indian migrants are among the main life-line of the Maldivian labour economy, the nation’s mainstay tourism sector depending largely on migrant labour, now mainly from India and more so Bangladesh. Apart from working in the tourism sector in the white and blue-collar segments, and less in the grey collar segment, Indians also serve as teachers, doctors, nurses and store assistants apart from being housemaids and chauffeurs across the atolls and islands.
Teachers and medical personnel serve mostly in government institutions. Yet, they too used to face difficulties in getting back their passports from the authorities for them to rush back home for any family emergencies or for their own weddings. Given to wrong perceptions, Indian women staff have often found their houses burgled for gold that anyway was not there in most cases.
The less said about the labour class, say, in the construction and hospitality sector, the better. Because they land the pre-fixed jobs on a tourist visa and their employers hold back their passports illegally beyond the permitted period, many of them used to be tagged either as illegal migrants or charitably as victims of human trafficking. The results used to be the same.
Not the first time
This is not the first time that Indian migrant labourers in the archipelago-nation have been made to feel uncomfortable. They felt likewise for a few hours to a day or two at the height of the weeks-long combined Opposition protest that led to the exit of the nation’s first democracy president, Mohammed Nasheed, in February 2012. Then, unlike now, there were no concerted efforts of the ‘India Out’ campaign kind. It died a natural death even before it began. Not this time, it would seem.
Beginning as a peripheral, anonymous social media campaign a year ago, the anti-India rhetoric has captured the centre stage of Opposition politics in the country when former president Abdulla Yameen claimed ownership after being released by the Supreme Court in a money-laundering case.
Owing to the lower courts’ verdicts in the case, Yameen was undergoing prison sentence and was also facing disqualification from contesting the presidential polls, due in October-November 2023.
The Opposition has denied any role in the alleged harassment of Indian teachers. However, their leaders did come up with such fancy ideas as the direct ferry service connecting Kochi and Thoothkudy in south India to Maldivian destinations was being used to ‘smuggle in’ Indian soldiers.
While the government has not responded, public opinion is clear that India, given the size of its armed forces, does not require to ‘smuggle in’ troops if required. Many in capital Male had also seen huge transport aircraft of Indian Air Force (IAF) shipping in test-kits and other medical supplies first, and the Covid vaccines, later, not to forget essentials for distribution during Ramzan period.
However, the Opposition campaign, which Yameen deliberately took outside of the crowded, cosmopolitan capital of Male, to the islands, after coming out of prison has upset, if not unnerved, the Indian community all the same. In particular, they are unsure of the electoral intent of the political Opposition in the country as the Yameen camp has been constantly shifting gears, back and forth, between ‘India Out’ and ‘India Military Out’ slogans.
At the moment, Yameen seems to be settling for the wider ‘India Out’ campaign, his camp having launched red-coloured T-shirts carrying the legend in a huge typeface. Though the police had arrested four men wearing the T-shirt as it unfairly targeted a ‘friendly nation’, they slowed down the drive after Yameen continued to wear it on the streets, wherever he travelled in the country, as if not to create a major law and order problem.
This seems to have encouraged, if not emboldened the Yameen cadres, who seem to be coming out in relatively higher numbers than earlier. It is however unclear that all those that participate in the Opposition rallies in Male or elsewhere subscribe to Yameen’s views on the subject.
They may be against the government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih and the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for historic reasons. In island-level politics where the total population averages 2,000-5,000 people and where everyone knows everyone else, personal loyalty to local leaders is a factor that induces or repels participation in political rallies. Yet, the fact that front-liners in many of these rallies carry a huge banner with the legend, ‘India Out’ on it, cannot be overlooked entirely.
Contextualising ‘India Out’
As domestic developments would have it, for a long time ruling MDP chief and Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed has been after his own party government, naming some ministers as corrupt. His campaign also led to the expulsion of some of those that he had named. Yet, from the Opposition side, Yameen is unable to press corruption charges against the government leadership, because he is still facing court cases in two other instances of alleged money-laundering during his presidency (2013-18).
Hence, Yameen’s Opposition comprising the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), is said to be shy of talking about graft in public lest it should hit them back harder. For them, targeting India, and through that President Solih, Speaker Nasheed and their MDP is an option, given that they all swear by the ‘India First’ foreign policy. Of them, Nasheed is also forthright in his criticism of China, with which Yameen had identified himself too much and too far, in political and economic terms.
Incidentally, the ‘India Out’ campaign has its purported origins in the Yameen presidency wanting New Delhi to take back aircraft donated for humanitarian assistance, with military personnel tasked to fly them on specific missions at the instance of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) hierarchy. That happened during the run-up to the 2018 presidential polls which Yameen lost despite being the incumbent.
The aircraft, including helicopters, were accepted as Indian gifts either during Yameen’s presidency or during the term of his immediate predecessor Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (2012-13), who in a way, Yameen’s strategy had placed in power. That was after the Opposition-backed ‘December 23 Movement’ of religious NGOs forced President Nasheed (2008-12) out of power.
The Movement’s protests were centred on the first of anti-India political sentiments sought to be sowed in the minds of the Maldivian people. The protestors wanted the Indian infrastructure major, GMR Group, out. GMR had obtained a $500-million construction-cum-concession contract for Male international airport, from the government of President Nasheed, who was the first one to be elected under a multi-party democracy in thousand-plus years of unbroken rule in and from Male. Incidentally, under the contract, GMR paid a concession advance of $ 90 m upfront and also spent from the pocket, as stipulated in the mutually-agreed contract.
Though there were said to be blatant irregularities in the commissioning of GMR, the protests took a sharp ‘Islamic nationalist’ line, which visibly was anti-India in character.
This happened in 2011-12, long before the Hindutva-centric BJP came to power in 2014. Yameen’s anti-India feelings were so strong that his government would rather pay a massive $271-million damages awarded by the arbitration court in Singapore than let GMR come back and complete at least that one project for which it had been contracted.
More than the citizens of any other island-nation, Maldivians have a greater affinity for their nation’s sovereignty. As they are not tired of pointing out, Maldives is the only nation in these parts that did not become a colony of any European power. They also take equal pride in two brothers from the north of the country throwing out Portuguese occupiers from Goa, India, out.
Until Independence in 1965, Maldives, they observe, was only a British Protectorate, with Whitehall having control only over foreign policy and external security. Once the British began interfering in internal affairs, as suspected in the southern ‘Suvadive Rebellion’ (1958-63) and wanted to decide if Male airport needed a wider runway which the then government desired, the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir negotiated full Independence for the nation. That it coincided with the post-War larger British design of withdrawing from this side of the Suez doesn’t matter to the locals.
On the religious front, most Maldivians still practice moderate Islam compared to some of the Arab cousins ever since the then ruler took to the religion close to a thousand years. If moderation has given way to certain fundamentalist approaches through the past decade, the rest of the nation too swears by Islam, with a result, leaders like Speaker Nasheed are still wary of propagating religious freedom in the country.
Suffice is to point out that the 2008 Constitution that ushered in a multi-party scheme and also democracy, still declared that Sunni sect of Islam was the nation’s sole religion. Even the practice of other religions, especially of embassy staff of foreign governments, have to do so within the premises of their offices or homes. Yet, the nation is modern enough to relax the rule and also social restrictions like liquor-use in resort-islands, as tourism revenue is still the mainstay of the nation’s economy, including local resort owners and whatever local staff that they have.
It is anybody’s guess if the Yameen camp can sustain its one-point electoral agenda for full two years, whether or not the legal and judicial system permits him to contest the 2023 presidential polls if he were to be disqualified in the face of fresh court-ordered conviction in the pending money-laundering cases. It is even more doubtful if average Maldivians, given the demography and past electoral results, see India as an adversary worthy of being disowned, as the Opposition believes.
By some reckoning, about 30 percent of the nation’s electorate are ‘swing voters’, who have also decided the outcome in the three presidential polls since Maldives ushered in multi-party democracy in 2008.
They do not have strong biases. What more, they are also aware of India’s contributions for their betterment.
Bilateral, private-sector trade apart, New Delhi has always exempted Maldives apart from Bhutan from export restrictions, especially on essential supplies like food items, if there is an anticipated shortage within the country. Through much of the past decades, independent of the party and leader in power, India has also supported Maldives’ Budget year after year.
After President Solih came to power, India has extended a high $1.4-billion aid package, comprising grants and low-interest credit, for development projects in the country. The longest, 6.7-km, $500-m Thilimale sea-bridge project, connecting Male with two suburban islands, is the single largest investment in all these years.
Apart from boosting industrialisation, the bridge, when completed, would help further decongest the capital, which has the highest density of population for any capital city in South Asia, with attendant socio-economic issues and civic problems, starting with cramped accommodation and unaffordable high cost and rentals.
When the people are well aware of it all, they also fondly remember the way India (alone) rushed military help (‘Operation Cactus’) to thwart a mercenary-linked 1988 coup against President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008), though New Delhi was said to be the last global capital he had approached from his hiding place in Male. These sections find no substance in the Opposition’s campaign that the Solih government was facilitating an Indian military facility in the country at the proposed Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) coast guard base for Maldivian Coast Guard. They had been witness to the Indian troops withdrawing without being told, both after securing the Maldives for Maldivians in 1988 and also after rushing military assistance for post-tsunami relief, rehabilitation and restoration in 2004-05.
The education department of Maldives government has since sought police assistance to ensure that there is no harassment of Indian teachers in the islands. There have also been no reports of this kind anymore. However, the larger question of Yameen’s ‘India Out’ campaign remains. It should not be confused with fundamentalist groups harping on religion rather than nationalism in the phrase ‘religious nationalism’.
Today, the Yameen camp does not have political or electoral allies.
Religious fundamentalist groups have not as yet identified with his Opposition combine (both PPM and PNC are two sides of the same coin). Their electoral reach is minimal as past polls have shown, yet their ‘political value’ can be high independent of end result as they can say what a ‘responsible’ political party registered with the Election Commission (EC) cannot be seen as saying.
The alternative possibility is about one or many such groups fielding a separate presidential candidate of their own, and slice away such voters who in the normal course would not vote for the ruling MDP but would have veered towards the Yameen camp. They have a new choice purely in electoral terms in the recently-launched Maldives National Party (MNP), whose founder Col Mohamed Nazim (retd), who was once Defence Minister under Yameen and who has expressed the intention to contest the presidential polls of 2023.
Yet, a clearer picture will emerge only when Yameen’s freedom to contest the presidential polls emerges. Though there are about half a dozen aspirants to contest the presidential race in his name, Yameen’s ability to ‘transfer’ his votes to the candidate of his choice would be known only when tested. It however needs to be acknowledged that contesting on his own, against a multi-party Opposition combine nearer home and an international grouping with which India too identified, Yameen still polled a very respectable 42 percent vote-share against victorious Solih’s 58 percent.
Through the past three-plus years of the Solih presidency, anti-incumbency has done some damage but the internal strife centred on Speaker Nasheed has done greater damage to the MDP’s image. Any contest between Solih and Nasheed for the party’s presidential ticket and the attendant legal issues and campaigns has the potential to weaken the MDP’s traditional vote-share even more. Under such circumstances, the three allies of the party, namely, the Jumhooree Party (JP), the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) and Gayoom’s Maumoon Reforms Movement (MRM) may then be forced to look elsewhere for electoral solace. It would then be one thing for any or all of them to go the Yameen way, and another if they were not to do so.
For now, MDP cadres, supporters and sympathisers take heart in Nasheed’s declaration that they would do what it takes to ensure that the party stays on in power, for the nation’s good. The observation is capable of multiple interpretations, and a clearer picture will emerge only in the coming months, and not weeks.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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