by N Sathiya Moorthy
If a majority section of Maldivians were upset over media reports that New Delhi was setting up a navy base in a remote Mauritian island, they are now quite relieved. The Mauritius Government’s reiteration that an air-strip and boat jetty being developed at Agaléga island, 1,100 km off capital, Port Louis, were not for an Indian Navy (IN) base, has also silenced critics of India in Malé even before they could go public.
It began with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s ‘investigative unit’, citing ‘satellite imagery, financial data, and on-the-ground evidence’, claimed that the US $250-m ‘air-strip and jetty for military use’ on Agaléga… were for India to expand its ‘influence towards western Africa’. It was touted as a part of India’s SAGAR initiative, aimed at ensuring ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’.
Thankfully, the report recalled how as a part of a 2015 bilateral agreement, Mauritius and India agreed upon ‘…improving sea and air connectivity at the outer Island … will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants’ and improving the facilities used by the Mauritian Coast Guard. This should explain that at best, the Mauritian Coast Guard, and not the Indian Navy, may get to use the facility on Agaléga.
The report recalled how as a part of a 2015 bilateral agreement, Mauritius and India agreed upon ‘…improving sea and air connectivity at the outer Island … will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants’ and improving the facilities used by the Mauritian Coast Guard. In context, Al Jazeera also quoted Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth categorically denying a military facility for India, as recently as May 2021. “Let me reiterate, most emphatically and in unequivocal terms, that there is no agreement between Mauritius and India to set up a military base in Agaléga,” he had told Parliament.
Post-Al Jazeera report, French news agency AFP has quoted Ken Arian, an aide of Prime Minister Jugnauth, that “there is no agreement … for the creation of a military base in Agalega”. He clarified that work was under way on two projects agreed during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 visit to Mauritius, and reiterated that “they would not be used for military purposes”.
Relevance For Maldivians
Even without the Al Jazeera report, every government in Mauritius would be extremely cautious about granting military facility to another nation after British colonial rulers bartered away Diego Garcia for setting up a US military base in the mid-sixties. Mauritius lost all court cases in the UK, but won both political and legal arguments outside, including the UN General Assembly (UNGA)
Post-Al Jazeera report, French news agency AFP has quoted Ken Arian, an aide of Prime Minister Jugnauth, that “there is no agreement … for the creation of a military base in Agalega”.
In 2019, UNGA voted 116-6 with six abstentions, asked the UK to transfer sovereignty over Diego Garcia to Mauritius within six months. The same year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, too, gave an ‘advisory opinion’ for the UK to return the Chagos Island, in which Diego Garcia is located, to Mauritius. Neither of the international interventions produced results.
Based in Qatar, another Islamic nation, Al Jazeera has a viewership in Maldives. Hence, from a Maldivian perspective, the timing of the Al Jazeera report has raised many eyebrows. For, the new report on an old Mauritian island issue, if any, appeared at a time when the short-lived ‘India Out’ campaign was fast losing all momentum.
First and foremost, the Opposition PPM-PNC combine identified with jailed former President Abdulla Yameen could not adequately distance itself from the street perspective that it was not a ‘civil society’ (?) initiative, as made out. Second, most Maldivians are alive to the way the Opposition, of which Yameen was also a part, ended up hijacking the anti-GMR campaign, which was similarly launched purportedly by religious groups, purportedly in the name of ‘Islamic nationalism’, targeting India on the sly. It happened in 2011–12, less than a decade back.
At a crucial stage in the anti-GMR protests against the Indian infrastructure-major, seeking its forced exit from the Malé Airport development project, Yameen went on record that religious NGOs had done their bit, and cannot expect to contribute more. He expressly said that it was now for politicians (like him) to decide on the future course of action.
Point of Departure
In the aftermath of the Al Jazeera report, peripheral groups that had purportedly launched the ‘India Out’ campaign on the social media became active once again on the same platform, mostly in the native Dhivehi language. If they could arouse average Maldivian’s interest in the news item, it also prepared the audience to receive the official reiteration of the Mauritian denial, twice this year.
The reason for the increasing Maldivian disinterest in the ‘India Out’ campaign is not far to seek. Independent of the arguments put forward by the protestors, people see the campaign only as an extension of domestic politics.
In particular, it is seen as the Yameen camp using the benevolent Indian neighbour only an element to discredit the government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih’s coalition government, headed by his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). It is reminiscent of the precedent of the Yameen-centric Opposition using the ‘GMR card’ to force Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically-elected President, also belonging to the MDP, only a decade back.
It is seen as the Yameen camp using the benevolent Indian neighbour only an element to discredit the government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih’s coalition government, headed by his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
Even more important is the Maldivian street perception of India, as go-to-friend, in times of distress and otherwise. Independent of their political position on ‘Islamic nationalism’ and against India, even most ‘conservative/radical’ Maldivians otherwise identifying with the Yameen camp or other religious groups are personal beneficiaries of decades-old Indian benevolence. Where it does not involve them personally, their relatives, including children, have benefited from quality education and inexpensive medical care in India, with New Delhi’s ‘open visa’ policy for Maldivians, to boot.
In a more recent context, Maldivian commoners lost even the minimum inquisitiveness about the ‘India Out’ campaign after the Yameen camp exposed itself by staging public protests, defying ‘COVID lockdown’ and coinciding with the so-called independent social media campaign on this score. Tying up people-friendly India-funded schemes like the US $500-million ‘Greater Malé Connectivity Project’, to the original demand for exiting Indian aircraft and operational crew stationed in the country, too has not found popular support.
People in far-away islands, who benefited from air sorties in times of medical emergencies and rough seas also have a positive view about the presence of Indian aircraft and personnel, instead. On other specifics, local population in southern Maldives, for instance, are opposed to the campaign against the Indian proposal for opening a consulate in Addu, as countering their own expectations and requirements.
Local population in southern Maldives, for instance, are opposed to the campaign against the Indian proposal for opening a consulate in Addu, as countering their own expectations and requirements. At the height of the Addu campaign, Indian High Commissioner Sunjay Sudhir underscored the benefits for the south from the new ferry service to Thoothukudy. He also talked about direct flights to India from Addu. There was traction in the region, as southerners too felt that it would also help individuals save money and time, travelling to capital Malé for visa. Local businesses are alive to future prospects for growth.
The word ‘Sagar’ means ‘ocean’ in most Indian languages. As SAGAR, Prime Minister Modi adapted the term for India’s maritime initiative, covering all of the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood. It flows from predecessor Manmohan Singh’s declaration of India acting as the ‘net-provider security’ in the neighbourhood, thus indicating ‘political consensus’ of a kind on the nation’s foreign and security policy.
In the post-Cold War era, immediate Indian Ocean neighbours, including Maldives, have acknowledged the reality of India being the only nation in the region to be able to protect their ‘external security’ needs without they having to involve ‘extra-regional’ powers. Included in this list are the ongoing Mauritian initiative and Maldives’ wanting India to build a boat jetty for the nation’s Coast Guard, which the predecessor Yameen government had initiated.
In the post-Cold War era, immediate Indian Ocean neighbours, including Maldives, have acknowledged the reality of India being the only nation in the region to be able to protect their ‘external security’ needs without they having to involve ‘extra-regional’ powers. It is in this context that the National Security Advisors (NSA) of India, Maldives and Sri Lanka met in Colombo last November after a six-year gap and upgraded the moribund Maritime Security Initiative into ‘Maritime and Security Initiative’, branded as ‘Colombo Security Conclave’ and based out of the Sri Lankan capital. As agreed upon then, the deputy NSAs of the three nations held a virtual meeting now, discussed ‘specific proposals’, including joint exercises, and decided to work on ‘four pillars’ of security cooperation, comprising marine security, human-trafficking, counterterrorism and radicalisation, and also cybersecurity.
That India’s SAGAR initiative goes beyond IOR security to cover ‘growth’ as a part thereof, became clear when New Delhi launched a cargo ferry service, last year, connecting Malé to the south Indian port of Thoothukudi, through the northern Maldivian island of Kulhudhuffushi and the west Indian coastal city, Kochi. New Delhi has since cleared the Maldivian proposal for the Kochi-Malé ferry service to visit Colombo permanently, as it would help traders to ‘penetrate the Indian market’.