The Indian High Commission in the Maldives, which is facing a sustained ‘India Out’ smear campaign on social media, had written to the government asking for action and greater security.
The High Commission said that “articles and social media posts are motivated, malicious and increasingly personal” and indicated they could potentially damage the time-tested and mutually beneficial bilateral relations between India and the Maldives.
In response, the Maldives government has enhanced the security around the Indian High Commission.
The country’s ruling party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has accused news publication Dhiyares and its co-founder and writer Ahmed Azaan, of engaging in a “continuous barrage of anti-India vitriol”, which it said appears 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, according to a report.
What is the “India Out” campaign?
The ‘India Out’ campaign started last year as on-ground protests in the Maldives and quickly moved to social media platforms. Shifxan Ahmed, the co-founder of Dhiyares, told Indian Express they are only protesting against the military presence in the country, adding that they are not enticing anyone to resort to violence.
Though the campaign gained popularity in the past year or so, its root cause can be traced back to 2013 when Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party (PPM) became the president. The relationship between India and Maldives soured as the PPM was considered pro-China.
India gave two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) to the Maldives in 2010 and 2015 both of which were to be used for ocean search-and-rescue operations, maritime weather surveillance and for airlifting patients between islands.
However, some people in the PPM stirred up a controversy by saying that the helicopters marked the start of military presence in the country.
The Maldives government requested India to take back the helicopters in 2016, but India refused to do so.
Two years later, as the government changed, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih rescinded the orders, extended the stay, and use of these choppers, and thus fanned the fires of the India Out campaign.
The ousted PPM clarified they have never been anti-India and that they have had good relations with India as well as China.
Lack of transparency
Another issue is the lack of transparency when it comes to the signing of agreements between India and the Solih government.
The Maldives government has refused to share details of agreements signed with India citing security reasons while the protestors claim it is a law and every agreement signed by the government should be shared with the parliament. It is a part of the Constitution, Mohamed Shareef, Vice-President, PPM, told Indian Express.
The Naval Base controversy
Dr Gulbin Sultana, a research analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, whose area of research includes the Maldives, observed the ‘India Out’ campaign would not have gained so much prominence had the bilateral agreements been discussed in Maldives Parliament. Their refusal has led to an agitation that the political parties were quick to capitalize on.
Shareef said that his party had signed an agreement with India to develop and maintain a coast guard harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu. This is a strategically located atoll near the capital Malé and was called the UTF Harbour project.
Also, in 2016, an action plan was signed by both the governments for defence cooperation to enhance “shared strategic and security interests of the two countries in the Indian Ocean region”.
However, after the Solih government took over, there was speculation that the UTF project would be turned into an Indian naval base. Shareef claims that leaked documents showed the Indian military has plans to stay back for decades while enjoying exclusive rights of using the UTF facility.
A matter of perception
‘India Out’ star campaigner, Ahmed made it clear they do not want any foreign military presence in their country, be it India or China. He also said that there should be no interference from India in their domestic affairs.
Shareef, on the other hand, who is confident of coming to power in the next two years, said, “once we come to power, we will remove the Indian military from our soil and annul these agreements”.
Parliamentary Group leader of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), MP Ali Azim dismissed claims made by Ahmed and Shareef and said the anti-India campaign is the result of the current government’s “hesitancy to take swift and firm action” against “groups of people who are currently operating at their whim”.
Though the Indian High Commission has got additional security after the letter was sent, the Indian government has a bigger task at hand, i.e. to manage and change the way Maldivians look at Indians and India now.
(Edited by : Kanishka Sarkar)