COLOMBO: India and the Maldives appear to be on a confrontational path though it is not certain yet, as to what form the confrontation will ultimately take.

Be that as it may, since the Maldives has done what it can, to cock a snook at India, the ball is India’s court.

But any steps India takes or does not take, will have far reaching consequences for the strategic balance and politics of the South Asian and Indian Ocean region.

India has not officially spoken of the recent anti-Indian steps taken by Male, but very significantly, the influential pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and pro-Ajit Doval linked think tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), has published an article by one Akash Sahu, warning the Maldives of a fitting riposte from India.

Here are some significant excerpts from Sahu’s article: “The international community is looking at the situation Maldives with concern since the unfolding of events beginning February this year when the emergency was imposed by the current regime. Male stands to lose more than gain by distancing itself from the West and other International organizations, It must tread carefully.”

“Maldives has made a drastic change in its foreign policy and priorities. It has steadily moved towards the Chinese umbrella of alliances and sees a bright future in that camp. While it is free to align with whichever country it deems fit, Male must not forget about its dependencies on India.”

“The Pakistani Chief of Army, Qamar Bajwa paid a three-day-visit to Maldives in end-March, 2018; in order to improve the bilateral relations between the two countries and enhance security cooperation. This was the first high level visit to Maldives after the Emergency by any country. An apparent cooperation and nexus between Male, Islamabad and Beijing against India is being speculated in strategic discourses.”

“The Government of Maldives has generally indicated a departure from Indian influence and a steady inclination towards adversaries of India.”

Then Sahu went on to point out India’s stakes: “ It must be noted here that a large volume of India’s trade passes through the Indian Ocean and substantial international traffic through the routes right at the cusp of Maldivian lands. Chinese control over Maldives is a concern for the larger international community.”

“Maldives has defaulted on the contribution that SAARC countries make to the South Asian University. There had been confusion over the return of helicopters to the Indian Government which the Indian media deemed as return of gifts by Maldives while the Maldivian position was that those copters were supposed to be handled by Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) after a fixed amount of time which could not take place due to insufficient training of the MNDF.”

“According to latest media report, the Abdulla Yameen regime has now asked India to remove its second 'gift' naval chopper (ALH Dhruv) from the Laamu Atoll. The Letter of Exchange (LoE) for this chopper expired last month and but Male has not only officially refused to renew it but has also asked India to complete the process of removal of both Indian choppers byJune 30.”

Warning and Punchline

Sahu then goes on to warn: “A hostile or even indifferent Indian posture can bring enormous harm to the Maldivian public and the region. Analysts believe that the Yameen Government is moving on a path of confrontation with India, apparently in pursuit of bigger ambitions through Chinese investments without realizing the overall strategic cost.”

Bringing in the circumstances which brought about a “regime change” in Sri Lanka in January 2015, when the pro-China Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was replaced by the West and India- friendly Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime, Sahu says: “It is also argued that the real motive behind these (Maldivian) overtures is securing China’s political support for the Yameen regime. And in this process it is even ignoring the lessons learnt from the Sri Lankan experience.”

This is followed by the punch line: “And here is the Analysts also maintain that India is unlikely to compromise with its strategic space and any extra-regional threat emanating through Maldives. In that event India may feel compelled to redesign its options.”

Denial of Visas to Indians

Jane’s 360 reported on Wednesday that the Maldives had declined to renew the visas of the Indian pilots and the dozen or so technicians responsible for the Imdian helicopters’ maintenance. This is seen by New Delhi as a direct hit.

Since February, when President Abdulla Yameen ordered an Emergency, against which India had taken a strong position, the Maldives Immigration Authority had reportedly held up thousands of work permits to Indians , The Hindu reported on Wednesday.

“More startling are public advertisements from companies that are hiring, but say clearly that ‘Indians need not apply’, as they would not be given work permits. One post by the internationally renowned Marriott chain of hotels that advertised on Wednesday for 18 jobs said: Please note that work permits are not currently being issued to Indian Nationals,” The Hindu said.

Though the official Indian stand is that giving or withholding visas is a country’s prerogative, Indian officials unofficially admitted to the Chennai-based daily that thousands of Indians face a squeeze on their work permits from the Maldivian government and that there appeared to be a “strict directive” from the Maldivian President’s office against work permits to Indians, as well as against facilitating other requests from Indian companies there.

Around 29,000 Indians live and work in the Maldives, and an estimated 2,000 have pending applications for work permits.

India-Maldives ties have been on a free fall since 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to Male. The issue was the cancellation of the Male airport building contract given to an Indian GMR and its subsequent transfer to a Chinese company.

Relations took a really bad turn when Yameen declared a State of Emergency in February this year and followed it up with the arrest of many opposition leaders including former President Abdul Gayoom, Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed.

Nasheed’s Call for Indian Military Intervention

Meanwhile, the self-exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed openly sought a “military-backed Indian diplomatic intervention” to save democracy in the Maldives.

The chorus of support for this in the Indian media was backed by former Indian Foreign Minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha who said that there was a good case of an Indian military intervention as was the case in 1988 when India intervened to save President Abdul Gayoom.

India refused to entertain a Maldivian Special Envoy who was to go to New Delhi to explain the Maldives government’s case on the imposition of the Emergency.

This was followed by the standoff over the gifting of two helicopters .While India said that it is a well-meaning help to safeguard the Indian Ocean, Maldives said that the Indians are not training Maldivian pilots as per the agreement, and that the Indian pilots and crew are actually spies. The Maldives has returned one of the two choppers and wants the other to be evacuated by Jun 30. India is yet to respond.