India and the Maldives: Reassurance and Restraint

India & Maldives

Most of the Indian troops were withdrawn from the Maldives after order had been restored, with a small number remaining for a year after the attempted coup

A defining moment in the India-Maldives relationship occurred in 1988 when India acted decisively to prevent an attempted coup against Maldives President Abdul Gayoom. In November 1988, a force of more than 80 mercenaries from a Sri Lankan Tamil insurgent group, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), infiltrated the Maldives capital of Male and took control of key points in the city. The rebels, however, failed to capture President Gayoom, who took refuge in the National Security Service Headquarters. Gayoom requested assistance from several countries, including India, the United States, Britain, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

New Delhi responded to the crisis with uncharacteristic speed and decision, seeing it as India’s responsibility to act as a provider of security to its region. On the same day as Gayoom requested India’s assistance, the Indian Air Force airlifted some 300 paratroops to Male, landing on the nearby island of Hulhulé, which was still under the control of Maldivian security services. Additional Indian troops were transported by air and by sea from Cochin and Indian Air Force Mirages were deployed over Male as a show of force. The Indian troops took control of Male within several hours and rescued President Gayoom. A group of insurgents with 27 hostages managed to escape onboard a hijacked merchant ship. The next day, with US assistance, Indian maritime patrol aircraft were vectored onto the ship, which tracked it until two Indian naval vessels reached the area. Indian Navy Sea King helicopters dropped depth charges to deter evasion, while the INS Godavari fired warning shots. Indian Marines then boarded the ship to rescue the hostages and return the rebels to Male for trial. Most of the Indian troops were withdrawn from the Maldives after order had been restored, with a small number remaining for a year after the attempted coup.

‘Thank God for India’

India’s intervention in the Maldives in 1988 is seen by many as a model for the benign security leadership role that India can play in the Indian Ocean. It was undertaken at the invitation of the democratic Maldivian government. In undertaking the operation, India was sensitive to avoid any appearance of military occupation. India also demonstrated that it could execute a complex combined services operation at long distances in an efficient and timely manner. Washington’s decision to support India’s rescue mission gave a clear signal of its acceptance of India’s leading role in South Asia.

India received considerable international praise for the operation. President Reagan expressed his appreciation for India’s action, calling it ‘a valuable contribution to regional stability’. Margaret Thatcher reportedly commented: ‘Thank God for India: President Gayoom’s government has been saved. We could not have assembled and dispatched a force from here in good time to help him’. Lee Kwan Yew saw it as essentially a peacekeeping operation of the type that the United States conducted globally and that Australia regularly conducts in the South Pacific.

Close and Comprehensive Security Ties

Since the events of 1988, the bilateral security relationship between India and the Maldives has been close. India provides equipment and training to the Maldivian armed forces and the Indian Navy plays a key role in the Maldives’ maritime security. In recent years, the Maldives have been the subject of many security concerns, including threats from Islamic radicals, piracy, economic crisis and political instability and, not least, an existential threat from inundation by rising sea levels. There is concern over the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in the islands and many Maldivians have been involved in fighting for the LeT in northwest Pakistan. Recently, it has been claimed that there are more than 200 Maldivians fighting with ISIS in Iraq, who would raise major security concerns if they were to return to the Maldives. The Maldivian government has also been concerned about threats from Somali-based piracy and the vulnerability of isolated tourist islands to attack from pirates or terrorists.

In 2009, India and Maldives signed a comprehensive security agreement that included the provision of a fast patrol boat to the Maldives, the stationing of Indian aircraft and naval vessels in the country and the provision of training to the Maldivian security forces. India has also built a coastal radar surveillance system across the Maldives archipelago that is networked with the Indian system. In many respects, India acts as a key security provider to the Maldives and in coming years, it seems likely that India will be required to provide even greater assistance in the stabilisation of the country.

Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security

There is also growing trilateral security cooperation among India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. An agreement on Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security (TCMS) was signed in 2013 to address common maritime security threats and challenges, and to enhance security through cooperative measures in maritime domain awareness and enhanced search and rescue cooperation. The Indian, Maldivian and Sri Lankan Coast Guards conduct joint exercises and the National Security Advisors of the so-called ‘Troika’ meet regularly. To a considerable extent, this trilateral relationship reflects the shared interests of India and Sri Lanka in ensuring the security and stability of the Maldives and its surrounding maritime area.

Chinese Footprint

In recent years, China’s economic role in the Maldives has been growing very quickly. China provides considerable aid and is the largest source of tourism to the Maldives. A Chinese embassy was opened in Male in 2011 and a $500 million package of Chinese loans to the Maldives was announced in September 2012. The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Maldives in September 2014 has also created considerable public interest, especially the reported interest of the Maldives in joining China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiative. Beijing is yet to spell out the details of this initiative, but it appears to involve Chinese investment in ports and other infrastructure and the creation of free trade zones right across the northern Indian Ocean that would be designed to feed into China’s domestic manufacturing industry. How this initiative would apply to a tiny island state such as the Maldives is yet to be seen.

The Maldives may take the view that New Delhi should be able to differentiate between its growing economic relationship with China and its traditional security relationship with India. As former Maldivian President Nasheed commented in 2011: “There is not enough room in the Indian Ocean for other non-traditional friends. We are not receptive to any installation, military or otherwise, in the Indian Ocean, especially from un-traditional friends. The Indian Ocean is the Indian Ocean”. If Male is to walk a fine line between India and China, it would require some sensitivity towards India’s concerns. The recent cancellation of an Indian contract to develop and operate Male’s international airport and its replacement with a Chinese company has, for example, been the cause of some anxiety in Delhi. In addition, the development of any Chinese presence at the port of Gan (a former British naval and air base in the south of the Maldives) would likely be of considerable concern to India and other countries with interests in the region.

Political scientists observe that relationships between very large and powerful countries and their small neighbours can often be difficult to manage. The sheer differences in size and power create a special set of dynamics. In order for the relationship to work well, both sides must be prepared to show an unusual degree of sensitivity, restraint and generosity to the other, as well as reassurance that it will not be the source of threat to its neighbour. This may require considerable common sense on both sides in the face of nationalist or other political pressures.

Comfortable and Positive

Over the last few decades, India’s strategic relationship with the Maldives has been comfortable and positive. India’s intervention in the Maldives in 1988 to ensure political stability has been held up as a model of benign regional leadership – and even a model that might be used further afield in the Indian Ocean. India’s restrained approach towards the Maldives has allowed it to provide security to the Maldives and its maritime areas with a minimum of controversy.

Political instability experienced by the Maldives in 2012 created some difficult choices for New Delhi. India’s regional leadership role inevitably brings pressures to act as arbiter in Maldives’ internal political disputes, but Delhi’s reaction was restrained. It largely took a hands-off approach to the political disputes in Male, while emphasising that any elections must be free and fair. Some might see India’s stance to these events as representing a mature balance between fulfilling its obligations of regional leadership while avoiding being drawn into domestic disputes as far as possible.

For its part, the Maldives has sought to reassure India that it would not be the source of security threat to the region, while also seeking to attract considerable economic benefits from China. This could sometimes be a difficult path to follow. In the coming years, Male will, no doubt, try to find the right balance between pursuing its own economic imperatives while also maintaining its traditional strategic ties with India.

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