The 'India Out' campaign started sometime last year as on-ground protests in the Maldives, and later widely spread across social media platforms using the phrase with a related hashtag.
The Indian High Commission in the Maldives has sought government action and greater security following what it calls “recurring articles and social media posts attacking the dignity of the High Commission” and diplomats posted in the country. Last week, a letter written by the High Commission to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was leaked and widely shared in Maldivian local media and across social media platforms. The letter cited the Preamble of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) and stated that these “attacks are motivated, malicious and increasingly personal” and indicated that they could potentially “damage the time-tested and mutually beneficial bilateral relations between India and the Maldives”.
The letter that generated significant conversation in political circles in the Maldives compelled the country’s ruling party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), to release an official statement on July 2, that expressed “concern over the ill-founded and disparaging remarks against Indian diplomats”. The MDP statement specifically named local news publication Dhiyares and its co-founder and writer Ahmed Azaan, saying the publication and Azaan had engaged in a “continuous barrage of anti-India vitriol” that “appears to be a well-funded, well-orchestrated and pre-meditated political campaign with the express purpose of whipping up hatred against the Maldives’ closest ally, India.”
The MDP may specifically be referring to the ‘India Out’ campaign, that started sometime last year as on-ground protests in the Maldives and later widely spread across social media platforms using the phrase with a related hashtag. “We are just protesting military presence in the country. We are not calling for a violent clash against India or Indians in Maldives,” Shifxan Ahmed, co-founder of Dhiyares, who has been active in the campaign, told IndianExpress.com.
“This ‘India Out’ campaign is not about people-to-people relations. We want Indians to feel safe in our country. So if there are people who use violent threats using the ‘India Out’ hashtags, we condemn those posts. We are about peacefully expressing our concerns. It is an issue based movement,” Ahmed said.
The anti-India sentiment didn’t just sprout overnight last year, but is nearly a decade old and can be traced back to when Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party (PPM) became president in 2013. India-Maldives relations deteriorated during the PPM’s five-year rule and the anti-India sentiment was apparent back then, researchers say. “A lot of anti-India rhetoric was used during that time because the Maldivian government was pro-China,” said Dr Gulbin Sultana, a research analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, whose area of research includes the Maldives.
But it would be an oversimplification of diplomatic relations between two countries to say that the Yameen government and its predecessor, the Waheed government, were “anti-India”. Although the Yameen government’s tilt in favour of China was clear, it also openly discussed an ‘India-First’ policy for the Maldives.
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Sultana points to a handful of specific issues that have agitated sentiments against the Indian government in the Maldives. The first is the long-standing controversy over the two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) that were given by India to the Maldives in 2010 and in 2015, both of which were used for ocean search-and-rescue operations, maritime weather surveillance and for airlifting patients between islands, and were based in Addu Atoll and at Hanimaadhoo.
“These helicopters were for humanitarian purposes only, but some in the anti-India constituency, particularly Yameen’s party PPM, were trying to portray that by gifting these helicopters, India was creating military presence in the country because they were military choppers,” Sultana told IndianExpress.com. According to the terms of bilateral agreements between the two countries, Indian officers had been sent to the Maldives to train the Maldives National Defence Force, under whose command these helicopters operate. When domestic fervour against the perceived military presence of Indian forces in the country reached its peak in 2016, the Yameen government asked India to take back these gifted helicopters and refused to extend the term of the agreement that would extend their stay and use in the country.
Ahmed says one of the main reasons behind the ‘India Out’ campaign was rooted in this controversy surrounding the ALF choppers and India’s reported refusal to take them back. But by 2018 when Ibrahim Mohamed Solih assumed office, he immediately resigned these agreements, extending the stay and use of these choppers in the country. The Solih government’s visibly warm relations with India have only served to fuel anti-India sentiment in the country, Sultana explained.
“Contrary to what you may read… sometimes, it’s not as much as India with the current administration and PPM being pro-China. It’s far from it. We’ve had good relations with India as well. But the sort of relations that this government has, has transcended what we believe to be normal diplomatic and development ties,” Mohamed Shareef, vice-president of PPM told IndianExpress.com. “While we welcome India being a very close development partner, the issue arises when certain boundaries are overstepped, particularly when it comes to sovereignty, national defence issues, and the government in particular has opted at times to keep the relationship under wraps which is where the criticism stems from.”
Domestic political grievances
Among the many grievances in social media posts by prominent members of ‘India Out’ campaign, a recurring complaint is the lack of transparency in agreements being signed between the Solih government and India. “An agreement or arrangement that is made with a development partner has to be shared with Parliament and approved. That is a law, in fact it is a part of the Constitution. And the government refuses to share any documents… They just say it is a national security issue and we can’t give details. and that’s the void that is filled by concern here and criticism and at times protest as well,” Shareef said.
Sultana agrees that much of the criticism leveled by the Maldivian opposition and the ‘India Out’ campaign wouldn’t have arisen had these bilateral agreements been publicly discussed in the Maldives Parliament. But the ruling government and the defence ministry saying that these agreements are confidential has led to agitation in political circles that percolated down to ordinary Maldivian nationals and have taken the form of a wave of criticism, inflammatory rhetoric and unverified allegations, especially on social media platforms.
A lot has happened in the two years since the Solih government came to power, Shareef agreed and that is reflected in the wide-ranging criticisms and accusations levelled at the Indian government in the Maldives. He points to the UTF Harbour Project agreement signed between India and the Maldives in February this year, that first came about during the Yameen government, where India was to develop and maintain a coastguard harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu, a strategically located atoll near the capital Malé. In 2016, an Action Plan between India and the Maldives was signed for ‘defence cooperation’ to enhance “shared strategic and security interests of the two countries in the Indian Ocean region”.
After the Solih government came to power, in 2019, local Maldivian media speculated that this UTF project would be turned into an Indian naval base. Back then, Maldivian chief of defence forces, Major-General Abdulla Shamaal had said that while the Indian government had indicated that it would provide grant assistance for this project, there were no plans of any Indian naval base in the country. “I want to be very clear on this point. I take this opportunity to provide assurance there is no plan to allow establishment of a foreign military base in Maldives, whether on a permanent basis, or temporary basis,” the Sun news publication had reported Shamaal saying.
Shareef told IndianExpress.com that leaked documents had shown that the agreement involved “the Indian military staying back here for decades and decades and having exclusive rights over using” the UTF facility. “We occupy such a large area of the Indian Ocean, it seems there is a tug of war going on over the Indian Ocean, and we are right in the middle of it,” Shareef added. “When we say we don’t want Indian military presence, we are really saying that we don’t want any foreign military personnel in the country. No other country has any military presence in the country—not even China,” said Ahmed.
Researchers say the issue is complex and involves bilateral relations, geopolitical interests and economic arrangements for both countries. During the Yameen government, India had looked on in concern as the Maldives began to develop stronger ties with China and its Belt and Road Initiative. “We are against the permanent stationing of military presence in the Maldives, even the stationing of military equipment. So that is what the (India Out) movement is about. We also demand that India not interfere in domestic affairs,” Ahmed added.
“Any sort of military presence on our soil is not welcome and it is not welcome by a vast majority of Maldivians and these agreements have given India that right. We are going to annul these agreements because they don’t conform to our Constitution and sadly, we’re going to have to ask the Indian military to leave the day the government changes, which is going to be in another two years,” Shareef said.
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India’s security concerns
Following the leaking of the Indian High Commission’s letter, the ‘India Out’ campaigners accused Indian High Commissioner Sunjay Sudhir of “interference” in Maldivian domestic affairs. According to Dhiyares‘ staff, the High Commission’s requests for action “in accordance with International Law and Maldivian Law” against individuals who had violated the provisions of the Vienna Convention, amounted to the Indian government’s interference in the country’s domestic affairs.
On July 2, the Maldives Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying, “Because of tweeting false news by ‘Dhiyares News‘ about diplomats and some of the people who works in diplomatic missions, some people are commenting that they will protest in front of the Chinese embassy and they will blast Indian High Commission up, on social media. Because of this, these two Missions have requested to increase and ensure the safety and security of the buildings. With that request security personnel of the Maldives have increased and enforced the security of these two buildings.”
The next day, on July 3, the Maldives Police Service issued a statement saying a 42-year-old Maldivian national had been arrested for threatening to bomb the Indian High Commission in Malé, and the case was being investigated as “one of utmost seriousness by the Serious and Organised Crime Dept of the Maldives Police Service”, with security provided to the Indian High Commission and the Chinese Embassy having been amped up due to this threat.
Like the country’s foreign ministry, the police service also expressed “grave concern regarding the role played by certain news outlets in perpetuating and spreading news in such a way that encourages negative sentiments against, and endangers diplomatic missions, as well as the diplomatic ties”. “We urge one and all to be more responsible in communicating information, and to refrain from doing anything that puts the safety and security of diplomatic missions at risk,” the statement added.
India’s High Commission in Malé told IndianExpress.com that the Maldivian government had taken India’s official request for enhanced security protection “very seriously”. “Security for the High Commission has been enhanced,” the High Commission said.
The mobilising of ordinary citizens through the ‘India Out’ campaign doesn’t bode well for India, Sultana said. “So India has to work on perception management in the Maldives and the Indian High Commission can do it. They need to earn the good will of the people,” she added.
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