No One is an Island: India and the Maldives

September 9, 2009

The Indian defence minister’s visit to the Maldives drew attention to the India-Maldives relationship.


On August 20, 2009, India’s Defence Minister, AK Antony visited the Maldives. The visit was preceded by press reports that India would sign an agreement to draw Maldives into India’s “security grid.” This report was carried in sources across India, Pakistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Commentaries appeared across the media and the Internet:

Maryam Omidi, Military pact provokes stir, Minivan News, August 16, 2009.
Ibrahim Mohamed, DRP advises caution on Indian media claims, Minivan News, August 17, 2009.
Simon Shareef, On joining India’s security grid, Open Salon, August 25, 2009.

It’s another matter that India’s ‘security grid’ might have been a journalistic fiction to begin with. By the time the Indian minister reached the atoll-nation, denials and clarifications were spilling forth.

What was set up during Antony’s visit was a programme of naval and coastal security cooperation which includes both technology and equipment transfers to the Maldives. The transfers extend the Indian navy’s reach beyond its territorial waters.

President Nasheed meets with Indian defence minister, Dhivehi Observer, August 20, 2009.
Times News Network, Antony to give Maldives shield against terror? Times of India, August 20, 2009.
India gives Maldives defence help, BBC News, August 21, 2009.
Maldives can always count on India as a well-meaning friend, says Antony, Dhivehi Observer, August 23, 2009.

Reflections on a changing India-Maldives relationship inevitably accompanied these reports and the visit.

Ahmed Shaheed, Building a Framework for India-Maldives Security Co-operation: An Oceanic Agenda for the Future, Open Society Association, August 22, 2009.
Gamini Weerakoon, Is India eyeing base in the Maldives? The Sunday Leader, August 30, 2009.
Siddharth Srivastava, India drops anchor in the Maldives, Asia Times, September 2, 2009.

India looms large in South Asia and it is not difficult to think of reasons why its neighbours feel bound to pay it attention.

Maldives-India defence cooperation have an important history and its closest moment was probably India’s intervention during the attempted coup in 1988. This naval intervention was critical to the survival of the Maldives’ regime then. In subsequent years, India continued to provide defence support to the Maldives but it had the effect of reinforcing the increasingly unpopular and repressive Gayoom regime. Indian support became a sore point with the growing movement for democracy even as the Indian establishment and intelligentsia chose not to notice the ferment across the waters. The regime change and the establishment of a democratic government seem to have effaced some of the bitterness of that moment.

Why do the Maldives matter to India, apart from good neighbourly concern?

The answer lies in the geography of the Maldives. The Indian Ocean is vital to India’s security, given its long coastline and its central location in this area. The Indian state is wary of all and any “outside” influence here, its long opposition to the Diego Garcia base so sustained as to become ritual. Reports of growing Chinese influence and a friendship with Pakistan are bound to interest India.

More important, I would argue, is the structure of the Maldives. Distance from Male to the outlying atolls is great and covers large stretches of open sea, making it hard to monitor movement in these areas. The Sri Lankan Tamil militant group, People’s Liberation Organization for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), attempted to settle in this area to build themselves a safe haven. This is the group that volunteered their services to stage the 1988 coup. This need not be the last such instance. Following 26/11, coastal defence has become an even greater priority for India and this extends to assuring that its maritime neighbourhood is a friendly and secure one.

There is potential for cooperation between India and the Maldives in other spheres, and indeed these spheres are salient across the region: climate change, democracy and development.

For the Maldives, the most important survival (ergo, security) issue is climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to engulf and consume the low-lying coral reef islands that make up this nation-state. To ex-President Gayoom’s credit, the Maldives took on a pro-active role on the world stage to raise awareness about this issue. It has been an active participant and advocate in several global fora, including the Small Island Developing States Network. In November 2008, one of the first announcements made by the newly elected President Mohammed Nasheed was that his country would create a fund to buy land for an alternative home for the time when his people would become environmental refugees.

Nicholas Schmidle, Wanted: A New Home for My Country, New York Times, May 8 2009.
Jeremy Hance, Maldives president tells world: ‘please, don’t be stupid’ on climate change,, September 1, 2009

India, with its long coastline which is home to several major cities and large densely populated deltaic regions, should pay attention. Acting decisively on climate change and not getting sidetracked by a politics of blame may be one of the most important signs of genuine friendship that India can show to its Indian Ocean neighbours. India should also take a cue from President Nasheed’s concern about housing Maldivians in the wake of environmental disaster and consider rescue plans for its own island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

Unlike the high politics/national security concerns of the Foreign Policy debate blogged earlier, global warming is really a survival issue for communities that are already very vulnerable and for the states whose jurisdiction includes them.

Can India also help the Maldives with its resettlement plans? That is also something for Indian civil society and policy-makers to think about.

To briefly refer to the other two spheres mentioned above: India should lend support to democratic consolidation in the Maldives. Indian civil society organizations focused on democracy and governance issues do not really think beyond their borders for the most part, however, and ignorance about the Maldives is quite common, unfortunately. A change in both of these orientations could cement the India-Maldives relationship further. While the government of India does provide development assistance, civil society should pay attention to initiatives like that of the Maldives High Commission in the UK to set up an International Volunteers Programme to recruit teachers and health workers. India does not have a Peace Corps-like organization but it is time for civil society and possibly academic institutions to think about encouraging voluntary work across the region. Indians do work in the Maldives as employees in these and in the tourism sector, but in this particular Indian moment, it should be possible to find people to take time off to volunteer their time and services.

Defence and traditional security are only one dimension of an inter-state relationship, after all. It’s time to invest in the others as well.