Sunday, April 22, 2012

SOUTH ASIAN SCENE : India’s deeply disturbing flip-flop neighbourhood policy

An independent group of Indian strategic analysts in their latest report entitled ‘A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty-first Century’ observed:

“Interstate politics in South Asia has direct spill-over effects into domestic and regional politics in India. India’s ability to command respect is considerably diminished by the resistance it meets in the region. South Asia also places fetters on India’s global ambitions.”

The report did not deal with the other side of the coin. India’s flip-flop neighbourhood policy, not to speak of suspected covert interventions in the domestic affair of other South Asian nations, is having a destabilizing effect particularly on its smaller neighbours, and in turn is beginning to boomerang on its own blueprint of “stability, development, security and also its regional and global aspirations.” This was noted by Professor S D Muni, who runs a Delhi think tank, in candid terms in a working paper published on March 16 by the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, where he is a Visiting Research Fellow. He cited the case of Maldives as an example. In a summarised form, I briefly reproduce his dissertation.

The Maldives’ first major political transition took place in 1968 from a Sultanate to a republic. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the third president of the republic in 1978 and survived three coup attempts against him in 1980, 1983 and 1988 respectively. During the last one, he was rescued by an active Indian military intervention (under an India Navy’s operation called ‘Sandhya’) undertaken on his specific request. He eventually had to give up power in the face of a struggle for democracy during 2007-08 against his authoritarian ways to govern, after losing in a popular election in 2008. Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), declared a ‘prisoner of conscience’ by the Amnesty International for his ordeal of detention by the Gayoom regime for nine years on 27 different occasions, led the struggle and became the first popular president of the Maldives.

But after 3 years and 4 months of his rule marked by both sensationalism and authoritarianism, President Nasheed was forced to resign and hand over power to his Vice-President Mohammad Waheed Hassan Manik on 7 February 2012, in the face of a revolt from the security forces comprising of the country’s Police Force and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). While the succeeding President Waheed has projected it as a constitutional and peaceful transition of power, Nasheed and his supporters have termed it as a coup claiming that President Nasheed was forced to resign at the ‘point of gun’.

(India has) deep strategic and economic stakes in the Maldives. Strategically, the Maldives occupies a critical position in the Indian Ocean Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) through which thousands of merchant and naval ships transit. During the Second World War, British had established an operational base in the southern Gan Island of the Maldives. This base was handed over to the Maldives only in 1976 when the US had established a senior Naval Command in Diego Garcia, some 600 miles further south of Gan. In 1977, the then Soviet Union approached the Maldives for setting up naval facilities to counter the US Diego Garcia base but without any success. In 1988, when India rescued the Gayoom regime, the attempted coup was suspected to have been led by a Sri Lankan Tamil militant group, Peoples’ Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). In 2001, during Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s visit to the Maldives, a proposal was made for establishing a Chinese submarine base in Marao coral island of the Maldives, located about 40 km south of the capital Male. Though such a submarine base has not been established, China entered into a defence cooperation agreement with the Maldives, signed during the Gayoom regime that lasted until 2009. India was then able to persuade the-then President Nasheed to let the Indian Navy to step in and fill up the gap.

Although India had rescued the constituted ruler of Maldives in 1988, Indian policy-makers remained practically oblivious of possible adversarial use of the Maldives’ strategic location until the November 2008 cross-border terrorist attack in Mumbai from across the sea. India became particularly concerned about Lashkar-e-Toiba seeking a foothold in the Maldives by exploiting the Islamic connection.

This led India to conclude a close defence cooperation agreement with the Maldives. In August 2009, during the visit by Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony, India agreed to set up 26 radar stations across 26 Atolls of the Maldives. These stations will be linked to Indian Coastal Command. India will also establish an air force station for surveillance flights to monitor the ‘movement of pirates, terrorists, smugglers’ and such peace-threatening forces.

Security cooperation between the two countries was reinforced and extended along with a Framework Agreement for Development Cooperation Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the Maldives in November, 2011.

But Indian policy-makers stumbled again when Nasheed was ousted. The sudden ouster of the popularly elected President Nasheed was initially described by India as an ‘internal development’. It viewed the change in guard as a peaceful and constitutional transition of power.

In a letter sent to the new President, Prime Minister underlined the “common destiny and common security interests” shared by the two countries, adding that “India is committed to working with you and the Government of Maldives, to further enhance our close, bilateral cooperation to mutual benefit and for the continued security, progress and prosperity of our two countries”.

Legitimising Nasheed’s exit

As it turned out, the latest change in the Maldives was neither peaceful nor orderly. There were violent clashes between Nasheed’s supporters and police, which threw the law and order situation into utter disarray in the capital, Male, and other atolls like Nasheed’s stronghold of Addu. India changed tune and joined the chorus of international support coming to Nasheed, particularly from the United Kingdom, which set up a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to investigate the circumstances of this political change.

Thereafter India began trying to make a course correction of its initial hasty move of going all out to legitimise the exit of Nasheed. India has, in the process, trapped itself deep in the Maldives’ domestic power struggle. In fact, New Delhi was not quite comfortable with Nasheed’s abrasive style of politics and governance which alienated his former allies and strengthened his opponents.

The Indian strategic establishment also suspected that the Nasheed administration was hobnobbing with China behind India’s back on the possibility of granting projects of naval significance, including a Chinese ‘submarine base’. The question of ‘Nasheed’s proximity to China’, particularly of his defence minister’s, was reportedly brought up by India’s intelligence agencies, in a high-level meeting of the Defence Crisis Management Group in New Delhi when it discussed the question of India’s intervention in the Maldives to rescue Nasheed from the violence and chaos that marked the aftermath of political transition. The Indian security establishment was also uneasy with the Nasheed administration’s proximity to the UK and the presence of British advisers around him. There were suspicions that the UK, either for its own sake or on behalf of the US, for the latter was expanding and consolidating its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, could persuade the Maldives to grant naval presence to it. If that were to happen, it would blunt, if not neutralise, Maldives’ emerging defence cooperation with India.

Indian approach remained flip-flop. Result is, three visits by powerful Indian diplomats, first by a special envoy of Indian Prime Minister who is Secretary (West) of India’s External Affairs Ministry, and then two consecutive visits by Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai failed to fix a “roadmap” for Maldives and only compounded confusion.

The All Party Consultative Committee (APCC) established for dialogue between the rival political forces was not able to deliberate meaningfully on the questions of early elections and any constitutional amendments to facilitate elections.

Questions developed within the ruling coalition on India’s role. India’s advocacy for early elections and concern for the protection and security of Nasheed and his close associates were seen as being a partisan intervention. The hard-liners in the ruling coalition were getting resentful of India’s ‘interference’ in the Maldives’ internal affairs. They objected to Indian Foreign Secretary Mathai’s participation in APCC.

After Mathai’s departure, Maldives Home Minister Mohammad Jameel stressed that “as long as India does not interfere in the internal affairs of Maldives, all other efforts put by India will be seen as constructive. 

However, India must not be seen as a friend only of one party or political individual”.


Similar complaints about Delhi preferring Indian “overt” government relations with a particular political party in Bangladesh, rather than government-to-government relations, also persists in this country. Of late, certain developments in the domestic situation of Bangladesh, apart from the continuing menace of death-traps in Indo-Bangladesh borders set by trigger-happy Indian BSF, is deeply disturbing public psyche over what is perceived as “covert” operations being pursued by trained Indian RAW agents or their criminal accomplices.

A number of unsolved cases of mysterious murders and disappearances have reinforced suspicion of interventionist and bloody Indian hands behind these mishaps. Two of such mishaps without a clue confronting our law-enforcement agencies are the cruel double-murder by knifing of a journalist couple in their own secure apartment, and the gun-shot murder of a Saudi diplomat in the secure diplomatic zone.

Referring to the last case a weekly tabloid, also on-line, reproduced a “scoop” which I quote hereunder: 

“According to the scoop, the intelligence agency of a neighboring country trained at least 75 nefarious armed cadres of the ruling party during October 2009 to June 2010. Since their return to Bangladesh, these cadres are provided “safe shelter” inside a couple of houses in Dhaka, which are located within the diplomatic enclaves. They go out with “operation mission” during dark hours and return to the safe shelters on completions of such mission, which includes abduction as well as secret killing.

“On the night of the murder of Khalaf bin Mohammed Salem al-Ali, the Saudi diplomat was stopped on road when he came out from the residence of a Jamaat-e-Islami leader by few members of the killing squad. He was pulled inside a car and taken inside one of the safe shelters, where he was murdered. Later the killers re-loaded Khalaf bin Mohammed Salem al-Ali’s dead body and dumped it near his residence and fled the spot. Bangladeshi investigators expressed surprise seeing no blood stain at the spot where the Saudi diplomat’s dead body was recovered.”

The vernacular media and also government authorities have ignored that speculative report as sensationalism, but younger readers and senior citizens who have time to leisurely browse online news cannot but have been gripped by a panic syndrome. That syndrome is contaminating our people throughout the country after the strange happenings of the disappearance of the just-resigned Railway minister’s car-driver who exposed the rent-collection scandal in personnel recruitment by Railway officials allegedly in collusion with the Railway minister (now removed but retained as minister without portfolio) and the abduction of a high profile former lawmaker and Opposition BNP’s Organising Secretary (Sylhet Division) M. Ilias Ali with his nephew car-driver from Dhaka streets around midnight on 17th April. 

BY : Sadeq Khan.