“The President noted that at the Presidential Election held in September, the Maldivian people had given him a strong mandate to make the request to India and expressed the hope that India will honour the democratic will of the people of the Maldives”, the statement from the President’s office said.
India’s Earth Sciences Minister Kiren Rijiju, who was present at Muizzu’s swearing-in ceremony on Friday, is also learnt to have discussed the matter with him.
Confirming that the President, during his meeting with Rijiju, brought up the issue of Indian military personnel present in Maldives for operating aircraft for medical evacuation and counter-drug trafficking purposes, sources in the Indian government said it was “agreed” that the “two governments would discuss workable solutions for continued cooperation” through the use of these platforms as this “serves the interests of the people of Maldives”.
What is the context behind the request and how does it figure in the larger India-Maldives ties?
Who is Mohamed Muizzu?
Muizzu won the Presidential elections in October this year and his victory comes amid the larger debate in the country about the role of foreign powers.
Maldives is a tiny island country, located in the Indian Ocean, and is home to about 500,000 people. For about a decade, China has attempted to deepen ties with it. The period coincided with China’s rise and its projection of power, including in the South Asian region.
For a longer period of time, India has considered Maldives part of its own regional sphere of influence. Maldives’s strongman former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom maintained close ties with India for many years. With his defeat in the 2008 elections, new leaders have had foreign policy as an important element of their election campaign.
In 2008, Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) won. The MDP and its top leaders, especially Nasheed, were seen as pro-India. His rival Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) was seen as a China proxy. He came to power between 2013 and 2018.
During this time, Yameen made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Under it, China says it seeks to help provide financial and other technical support for the building of infrastructure – railroads, ports and highways – to enhance trade and connectivity. The project has also been seen as an attempt by China to deepen its influence in parts of Asia and Africa.
The next election again saw a reversal, with MDP’s Ibrahim Solih becoming President from 2018 to 2023. Solih was seen as favourable to Indian interests.
In this context, Muizzu (of the PPM) won the 2023 elections in October, coming to power by riding on the Opposition’s ‘India Out’ campaign and defeating the incumbent Solih.
What is the India Out campaign?
What is known as the ‘India Out’ campaign started around 2020 with some on-ground protests in the Maldives and later spread widely across social media platforms using the phrase with a related hashtag. It was alleged that New Delhi has sent a large military contingent to the Maldives, a claim that the Solih government repeatedly denied.
Meanwhile, India and the Maldives have also deepened cooperation for developing a harbour on the Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF) atoll for the Maldivian Coast Guard. In a statement on March 13, 2022, the Maldives Defence Ministry said there were no foreign military personnel on UTF, which is being developed as a dockyard for the Maldivian Coast Guard.
According to a recent Associated Press report, the number of Indian troops in the Maldives is not publicly known. The Indian military is known to operate two helicopters and assist in search and rescue operations for people stranded or facing calamities at sea.
In the recent statement from Muizzu’s office, the Maldivian President “acknowledged the significant role” of two helicopters – and an aircraft provided by India to the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) – “in numerous emergency medical evacuations”.
The statement also mentions other areas of cooperation between the countries, such as the mega Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP), which is being financed by India’s grant of $100 million and a Line of Credit of $400 million.