Maldives has shown India the mirror and hit where it hurts the most — by reminding New Delhi to keep out of its internal affairs and citing the example of Kashmir, where India brooks no meddling.
Whenever the international spotlight has turned on human rights abuse by the security forces in the Valley, the stock reply was Kashmir is an integral part of India. So, Kashmir is a domestic issue. India is a democracy with an independent judiciary and a free press. So, other nations had no business to interfere. Successive Indian governments have worked hard to get Kashmir off the international radar and because of Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir, Delhi has staved off pressure in the last few decades.
Now , the same argument is being turned on its head. Maldives insists the crisis in the island nation is an internal problem and wants no interference from the rest of the world. India, US, Britain and most Western democracies have been slamming the regime, which calls itself a democracy. China, which has been expanding its footprint in the island, has been supportive of the regime and warned India against interference. This was when Indian analysts were calling for strong action against Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the President of the Maldives, and favoured sending Indian troops to rescue the jailed former Chief Justice of the country.
Angered by India’s criticism of the unfolding drama in Male, Mohamed Shainee, a senior minister in the Maldivian government, told visiting Indian reporters: ‘Why haven’t we gone into the Kashmir issue… and asked to be an intermediary? Because they are internal matters?’’
Yameen has jailed political opponents, cracked down on protests and declared a state of emergency in the island nation. A half-brother of former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen has also put the 81-year old leader behind bars. The opposition, especially the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, Mohamad Nasheed, has repeatedly asked for Indian intervention.
The current crisis in the island was triggered by the ruling of the former chief justice that all political prisoners, including members of the Majlis(Parliament), have to be immediately released. He also said that the charges of terrorism against Nasheed and his sentencing was illegal and should be rescinded.
The response of the government was to crack down on all political opponents and declare a state of emergency on February 5, initially for 10 days. But that has now been extended. India had again condemned the extension of the emergency provisions by a Parliament packed with the President’s supporters, who rubber stamped the diktat.
Many in India expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his decisive leadership, to send in Indian troops to restore democracy in the Maldives. It had been done so previously in 1988, when former President Gayoom asked for Indian assistance. A Maldivian businessman had hired Tamil mercenaries from neighbouring Sri Lanka to organise a coup against Gayoom. Indian forces flew in, quickly restored order, captured the mercenaries and returned home. A contingent of around 100 soldiers remained to guard vital installations for about a year.
So, this time, too, there was clamour for action from strategic analysts and the ultra-nationalist television channels. The idea was to kill two birds with one stone. One was to restore democracy, free the political prisoners and pave the way for elections which would lead to the ouster of the pro-China Yameen. More important, it would serve to restrict Chinese expansion in the island, which is a stone’s throw from India. There is a growing concern that China is encircling India with its presence in the Gwadar port in Pakistan, Humbantota in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Yameen is perceived as being close to China. An Indian infrastructure company, GMR, which had been given the contract to modernise and run the international airport in the Maldives by Nasheed when he was president, was thrown out by Yameen. The project has now gone to China. It is also building a friendship bridge to connect the airport with the capital city. Last December, a free trade agreement was signed between China and the Maldives, during Yameen’s visit to Beijing. Considering all this, many believed New Delhi had missed a golden opportunity to protect its strategic interests.
But having burnt its fingers in the past by sending troops to Sri Lanka, Delhi is in no mood to repeat that experiment. It needs no recounting how, during the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s foray in the northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the LTTE and former president Ranasinghe Premadasa got together and ordered the IPKF to leave the island.
Rushing troops to the Maldives to resolve an internal problem could have unforeseen consequences. The ground situation could change quickly and India could be seen as an occupying force. The government has done well not to rush in and intervene in the Maldives. Delhi’s measured response may disappoint the Maldivian opposition, but is in the best interest of India. In next months Commonwealth Summit, Maldives will certainly be high on the agenda and perhaps sanctions would be on the cards.
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