In Maldives, India is the political flavour in year before elections

Angry protesters belonging to religious groups, and possibly, the Opposition political parties barged into the national football stadium in Maldivian capital Male on the morning of June 21, disrupting the International Yoga Day event organised on behalf of the Indian High Commission in association with the United Nations and the Maldivian government.

The mob vandalised public property and attempted to assault participants.

Many experts view this as yet another act in the overall anti-India stand taken by certain religious groups and the principal Opposition party, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) which also stars ex-president Abdulla Yameen.

The recent anti-India campaigns have also been staged across social media sites, with many asking the present government to limit its exposure to the BJP-led Indian government.

In such a situation, recent attacks like on June 21 have evoked strong responses from the ruling government of Maldives and other pro-India sections of the country.

Some, including the sports minister of Maldives, allege that the flags used by the rioters were the same ones used in the ‘Nabiyyaage Dhifaaugai’ rally recently held by the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). The PPM has, however, issued a statement condemning the incident and denied such reports. PPM’s secretary-general Mohamed Tholal told reporters, “It’s possible those were our flags. I am unable to say for sure yet whether those were our flags.”

Within a day, at least six people have been arrested by the Maldives police in connection with the Islamist mob attack. In addition to this, the police also arrested two local Islamic scholars, Sheikh Ahmed Nishan and Sheikh Fazloon Mohamed, and former MP Mohamed Ismail (PPM), activist Ahmed Naseem (Thakaney), PPM council member Ibrahim Razzan (Takee) the next day with links to the attacks.

The Maldives Third-Way Democrats (MTD), a young political party, directly blamed former president Abdulla Yameen for the violent attack on the Yoga Day.

India Today spoke to a few key people on this subject.

Faran Jeffery, the deputy director of Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism (ITCT), an international think tank countering the narratives of Islamic terrorism, feels that “there are definitely some pro-China elements involved in the anti-India incitement in Maldives.”

India becomes a hot topic

India has become a core election issue in the political spectrum of Maldives, which will see elections next year. The country has attained international attention aside from being a tourist hotspot as part of growing rivalry between India and China. Former president Abdulla Yameen, who was seen by many nationalists as hazardously close to China, was ousted in an electoral landslide in 2018.

The new government under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih proclaimed an “India First” policy, which is now being tested as he seeks to reconcile India’s growing presence against an Opposition that now sees this as over dependance. It is a key to note that the Opposition, led by Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), has initiated the ‘India Out’ campaign.

To counter this, the ruling faction Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has initiated a social media campaign in favour of India in a bid to counter the India Out campaign in the country. The campaign called ‘Baakeenuvey’ is “a call to action to not break ties with India,’’ Maldivian Speaker Mohamed Nasheed told the local media. “The low number of participants in the India Out campaign is proof that it is not supported by Maldivians,’’ he added. Nasheed had some time back stated that Chinese projects in the Maldives had left the government with a debt burden, and that accepting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was a mistake.

Maldivian President Solih and Speaker Mohamed Nasheed are both considered pro-India. Nasheed even tweeted his support to the Baakeenuvey campaign, urging political leaders to not take actions that would alienate the country on the global stage and impact foreign relations.

The supporters of the pro-India Baakeenuvey campaign have highlighted sustained Indian support to Maldives, including sending the Covid-19 vaccines, medical tourism and people-centric multiple development projects rolled out through Line of Credit (LoC).

India has also emerged as the second largest trade partner for Maldives, with 13 per cent of India’s exports going to the Maldives. India had also enabled restriction-free export of certain essential commodities to Maldives last year. To gain a perspective of Maldives’ dependance on India, if one of the main ports in India on the Southern side (say the Thoothukudi port) were to face issues or closure for even a week, this will heavily affect Maldivians in terms of shortage of raw food materials, medicines, stones, and sand for construction, etc.

In April 2022, India and Maldives signed seven pacts for the development of new projects in areas like health, sports, heritage conservation and youth centres. This new development takes the total number of India High Impact Community Development Projects in Maldives to 27 and their total value to around Rs 132 million.

The role of the Opposition

Seen as a staunch China loyalist, Yameen allowed mega investments by the communist country during his presidency.

Zahack Tanvir, the Saudi-based director of The Milli Chronicle, an online publication in Britain, feels that ever since Yameen was released from jail in November 2021 after corruption cases against him were dropped over technical reasons, he has renewed his anti-India campaign. “Yameen has always promoted pro-China lobby and anti-India in Maldives,” Faran Jeffery says.

Yameen continues to face cases of bribery and money laundering in allowing resort development in a nation famed for its scenic beaches and a robust tourist inflow. Given the past and the present, Yameen has even gone to the extent of saying that he will cancel all agreements with India if he is re-elected in the 2023 polls. His allegations against India range from interference in its internal affairs to impinging upon Maldivian sovereignty by stationing Indian military personnel in Maldives.

One of the most controversial elements of India’s role involves contingents from the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in Addu as well as on islands in the centre and north of the country. They are there to maintain and operate a Dornier twin-engine aircraft and two helicopters, all under the direction of Maldives National Defence Force, which does not operate its own aircraft.

Of late, the widening rift between Solih and MDP chief and Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Nasheed, a former president, can be expected to widen. This infighting within the MDP could also make things trickier.

With regards to the attack on the yoga event, counter-terrorism expert Faran Jeffery says, “The disruption looks like a planned incident and as per my sources in Maldives, two groups, Salaf and Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) were behind the disruption. Salaf is a Salafi organisation that has links to extremism and terrorism and PPM is an Islamist political party that has been leading the India Out campaign in Maldives. The India Out campaign was recently banned by the government. So, in short, the disruption was clearly a planned event.”

A senior member of the Maldives Third-Way Democrats (MTD) party (anonymous on request) adds that first it was the presence of the Indian Armed Forces members that the Opposition used for its anti-India rhetoric. Then it was the Nupur Sharma incident and now it is the anti-yoga protests. He adds that the entire protest was sponsored and organised by the PPM and Yameen along with inside support from the p;olice department. This was also cleverly hinted at by the police commissioner of Maldives.

The MTD member adds Yameen also previously blamed India for losing in the 2018 elections. He also says the Chinese support and influence is tacit with respect to the PPM and Yameen and he will also look to gain the support of other middle eastern nations to take on India and use that as a key political point to fight the upcoming elections.

Rising youth radicalisation

Maldives is an archipelago made up of hundreds of scattered islands. It now faces challenges of growing radicalisation and indoctrinated youth rushing off to fight for global terror organisations in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The disruption of the yoga event was also owing to it being deemed as against Islamic principles and multiple Islamic groups and supporters had posted about protesting this event on social media much before the event date.

Faran Jeffery opines: “The Islamist mob attack on a yoga event in Maldives appears to have been motivated partly by the Indian involvement in the event. Lately Islamists have been raging against India in not just Maldives but also in other parts of the world. The Islamist and jihadist channels on Telegram are full of anti-India propaganda these days. The recent controversy over alleged blasphemy by two politicians in India provided Islamists with another excuse to promote anti-India narratives but even before that, India was being targeted by Islamists as an enemy of Islam and Muslims. Some governments of Muslim majority countries as well as some international NGOs over the years have successfully reinforced the narrative to some extent that Muslims and Islam itself are under threat in India. This narrative has now become very common in Islamist circles in Asia and Middle East. So clearly the disruption took place mostly out of political hatred for India.”

On the issue of radicalisation in the tiny country, Faran Jeffery says, “Following the 2004 tsunami, Maldives has seen penetration by several extremist groups posing as NGOs. These also included Salafist groups. These organisations prey on Maldivian men, who are also socio-economically vulnerable. High unemployment and levels of drug use make them susceptible recruits. According to 2021 figures, at least over 600 Maldivian men have traveled or attempted to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS, which makes Maldives a country with one of the highest per capita sources of foreign fighters for ISIS. According to 2019 figures from Maldives law enforcement, there are nearly 1,500 religious extremists present in Maldives.”

“So far ISIS has claimed multiple attacks inside Maldives, although these attacks involved stabbing and arson attacks and therefore did not produce as many casualties. So clearly the problem for Maldives goes well beyond Islamist incitement against India and this problem is expected to persist in the coming years,” he adds.

Zahack Tanvir feels under the support of Yameen, “Islamists have gained strength. It is this strength that he has leveraged to attack India in the name of Islam.”

The MTD member also agrees to the notion of increasing radicalisation in Maldives and feels the next generation is under a lot of risk of being misled by religious groups and preachers who often misquote the readings of the holy Quran. He also blames the members of the Adhaalath Party who have emboldened the anti-yoga protests by openly tweeting and talking against the programme.

(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)

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