India reacts to the “India Out” campaign in the Maldives


Currently, the India-Maldives relations are going through a positive phase. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr Gulbin Sultana, 

The Foreign Ministry of the Maldives in a statement released on July 2, 2021, called on local media outlets not to spread stories that would damage the reputation of foreign diplomats and put them at a security risk. The statement was issued in response to the letter of the Indian High Commission to the ministry on June 24, 2021,where the former expressed concern over some articles published by Maldivian local media attacking the dignity of the diplomatic staff of the Indian High Commission to the Maldives and how they portrayed India in an unpleasant light. Indian high commission requested the ministry through the letter to take action against Maldivian media that publish such content. Chief of the Parliamentary Committee on Independent Institutions and representative for Addu Meedhoo constituency Rozaina Adam also requested Maldivian Media Council (MMC)to look into the malicious articles published by the media, following a request from the Deputy High Commissioner of India.

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Currently, the India-Maldives relations are going through a positive phase. In that context, malicious reports against the Indian High Commissioner and his staff in Maldivian media and also in social media raise several pertinent questions: Who is propagating anti-Indian sentiments in the Maldives? What are the reasons for their hostility towards India, and how valid are those reasons? How will the anti-India sentiment affect overall bilateral relationships between India and the Maldives?

Anti-Indian sentiments and “India Out” Campaign

Since the Solih administration came to power in November 2018, reports are being published in Maldives media alleging that the incumbent government is allowing India to establish a military base in the island by signing secret agreements, in exchange for financial assistance or other material benefits.This allegation is made against the government because the coalition partners in the current government reached out to the government of India as united opposition during the Presidency of Abdulla Yameen, under whose tenure India-Maldives relations declined significantly. Leader of the current ruling party Mohamed Nasheed urged India to intervene militarily to restore peace and democracy in 2018. As the relations between India and the Maldives were restored and strengthened under President Solih, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) of former President Abdulla Yameen and its coalition partner People’s National Congress (PNC) are trying to mobilise people against the current government by spreading misleading propaganda against India.

Indiaout campaign was launched by the opposition coalition PPM and PNC both on the street as well as on social media demanding the expulsion of Indian military personnel present in the country. The opposition coalition organised a protest demonstration in Male in August 2020 amid the CoVID pandemic violating the Health Protection Agency’s safety guidelines. On the night of the same day of protest, there was a massive fire in a building that houses the State Bank of India Maldives office. It cannot be a mere coincidence that an Indian outlet caught fire on the same day of the anti-India demonstration in the city of Male.In January 2021, another protest with “India Out”slogan was organised in front of the residence of the Indian High Commissioner, demanding the removal of Indian military personnel from the Maldives. Since January this year the opposition coalition has been organising protest demonstrations every Friday.

India Out campaign is also going on on social media. The most active person in the #India Out campaign in social media Ahmed Azaan is the co-founder of Dhiyares and its sister newspaper The Maldives Journal (TMJ), which carry news and reports since December 2020. The two online media mostly carry anti-India and anti-government news and reports. They claim to have access to several classified agreements signed by India and the Maldives which are allegedly harmful to the Maldives including the agreement on the hydrographic survey, and the agreement on setting up of Coast Guard dockyard at Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) funded by India.

It is argued that the Solih administration is “selling off Maldives” by entering into these agreements with India in the field of defence and security, and infrastructure development. The protestors claimed that Yameen during his presidency could protect the interests of the Country. They demanded the release of the jailed President Yameen and the resignation of President Ibrahim Solih. The aim of the India out campaign, therefore, is to garner people’s support to its demand for the release of President Yameen by putting the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and India in a bad light.

In October 2020, Mohamed Nasheed in a press conference in the Maldivian Parliament claimed extremists instigated by foreigners are behind the India Out campaign. According to Nasheed, the extremists are trying to isolate the Maldives through the “India Out” campaign and thereby clearing the passage to take over the nation. Nasheed, however, did not provide any evidence substantiating his argument that a foreign hand is behind the campaign. Some social media users too are claiming that the India out campaign is backed by the Chinese. The supporters of the #Indiaout campaign, however, denied this and blamed the Government of the Maldives and the Indian High Commission for creating a fake account in social media to spread such rumour.

According to supporters of the anti-India protests, the Indian military presence on the island has increased since the Solih administration came into power. It is alleged that the Indian military operates two helicopters and aDornier aircraft under a secret deal established between the two countries. Military interests were perceived by “India Out ” campaigners behind India’s intention of opening up an Indian consulate in the Addu City and setting up a police academy with Indian assistance.It is also claimed that India will have exclusive rights over the coastguard dockyard at UTF. The agreement between India and the Maldives on the hydrographic survey was criticised arguing that the agreement allows India to access underwater information and sell the information to others.It has also been alleged by TMJ that crimes committed by the Indians working in the Maldives are on the rise lately.

None of these assumptions are based on any fact. Both India and the Maldivian government have responded against these allegations. It was clearly disclosed that the two helicopters and the Dornier aircraft are operated under the command of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF). The Ministry of Defence of Maldiveshas also said that the leaked agreement published in TMJon the UTF is fake.Since the agreements are classified, the entire text of the agreements cannot be disclosed. In the Hydrographic survey, the MNDF has assured the public that India would not gain any information that would jeopardize national security during the hydrographic survey conducted by the Indian Navy in Maldivian waters.

Despite the assurances from the Government of the Maldives and the High Commission of India, anti-India propaganda is being repetitively carried out by a section of local media and social media. The recent reaction of the Indian High Commission was triggered due to the malicious report carried out by TMJ on Deputy High Commissioner Rohith Rathish on June 16, 2021. Subsequently, a person also threatened in social media to bomb the Indian high commission. A personal attack or threat to the life of diplomats isa violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Reactions to the High Commissioner’s letter

India’s request to take action against local media did not go well with a section of the Maldivian population, though the government members, as well as the speaker of Majlis (Parliament) Mohamed Nasheed, have repeatedly urged people to not spread hate against India. In his tweet, Nasheed stressed that the opposition and rivals of the government and MDP should maintain a certain standard when speaking about foreign diplomats appointed to work in the Maldives. MDP issued a statement saying, “while it always respects freedom of expression and welcomes robust debate on foreign policy, and the national interests, it condemns such defamatory propaganda which is only motivated by the desire to sow discord and animosity”. Foreign Ministry’s statement urging the media not to affect bilateral relations came because, as per article 29 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, it is the responsibility of the Maldives to treat the diplomats with due respect, and take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on freedom, and dignity of foreign diplomats. Referring to the international convention, Foreign Ministry in its statement on July 2, 2021, encouraged all media to work within the boundaries set by the Vienna Convention and in such a way that bilateral relations with foreign countries are not affected. However, the foreign minister was vehemently criticised by the opposition and the “India out” campaigners for acting as a puppet of the Indian High Commissioner.

The PPM Parliamentarians called the letter of the Indian High Commission and the subsequent statement issued by the foreign ministry and the MDP as the reprimand to the freedom of expression. MDP was also asked to disassociate from the foreign influence.

The Maldives Editors Guild in its statement said the Indian High Commissioner is within his right to express his discontent to the Foreign Ministry and the latter may request the concerned authority to investigate the matter as per Vienna Convention. Nevertheless, the statement noted that the Deputy Indian High Commissioner contacting the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Independent Institutions to investigate the matter was a violation of Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The Editors Guild considered such contact an attempt to influence domestic matters. The statement has advised the media not to report baseless information and to abide by best practices. They also appealed to journalists and media to consider article 29 of the Vienna Convention when reporting on foreign diplomats.

People on social media are now also asking the government to boycott Indian tourists. Commenting on the India Out movement in social media by the youth, President Solih earlier termed it politically irresponsible.

Impact on Bilateral Relations

As long as the Solih Government is in power, it is unlikely that there will be any significant impact on bilateral relations due to the ongoing anti-India protests. But if the current regime fails to come back to power in 2024, and the PPM-PNC coalition, which is backing the “IndiaOut” campaign, comes into power, India-Maldives relations are likely to decline as was the case during 2013-18. In the 2019 Parliamentary elections, the MDP got an overwhelming majority in the Parliament. However, the result of the Local Council Elections held in April this year indicates a decline in MDP’s popularity. This is a major source of concern for the MDP. Some within the party may be anticipating the defeat of the MDP candidate in the next Presidential elections. As India has made heavy investments in the Maldives, an unfriendly party in power in case of defeat of the MDP in the future elections would go against India’s interests. It is, therefore, important for India to sensitise the people of Maldives about the hateful campaigns going against it on baseless assumptions, so that common people are aware of the fact.Maintaining silence on such campaigns for long, even though not supported and encouraged by the incumbent government, might facilitate the anti-India constituency an opportunity to validate their assumptions.

The anti-India propaganda is getting traction because people don’t have any information about the contents of various deals signed between the two countries. Proper discussion on some crucial agreements in the Maldivian Parliament would have cleared doubts in the minds of the people. Maldivian Government therefore should try to be as transparent as practically possible on the agreements crucial for national security.Indian High Commission too must take measures to clear the doubts about India’s intentions in the minds of Maldivians. Indian High Commission should also take up the issue with the senior leaders of the opposition coalition led by the PPM.

(The author is Research Analyst Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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