Islamist attack on Yoga Day: India-bashing and nationalist politics in the Maldives

India-bashing is a preferred pasttime for opposition politicians in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, not to mention Pakistan and Afghanistan, writes N. Sathiya Moorthy for South Asia Monitor

N. Sathiya Moorthy Jun 28, 2022
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Mohammed Nasheed, Ibrahim Solih and Abdulla Yameen

Independent of the denials on behalf of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), identified with former President Abdulla Yameen, on its involvement in the disruptive attack on the International Yoga Day event in Male on June 21, police investigations have tended to prove otherwise. More important, the disturbances hint at a revived deployment of religious sentiments, if not Islamic nationalism, against India, the co-sponsor of the yoga event, with possible political benefits for the Yameen camp.

The last time a near similar situation arose, religious NGOs launched the ‘December 23 Movement’, contributing to the early exit of the nation’s first democratically elected President, Mohammed Nasheed, now the Parliament Speaker. Yameen, then in the opposition, was seen as the brain behind the protest, which had two goals. 
 

One, Nasheed’s exit, the other, that of the Indian infra major, GMR Group, which had a construction-cum-concession contract for developing the Male International Airport to global standards. The protestors, rather the political players operating behind them, achieved both objectives.

Maldivian politics 

Appearing before newsmen for the first time after Nasheed’s exit, Yameen said the religious NGOs had done their jobs, and from now on the politicians will take over. True to form, the Waheed presidency that succeeded Nasheed cancelled the GMR contract. 

Yameen became Maldives’ President in the elections next year, and readily paid up $ 271 million in compensation and damages, as ordered by the arbitration court in Singapore.

This angle stands out in the case of the Yoga Day disturbances. With presidential polls due late next year, the Yameen camp has sought to make his ‘India Out’ campaign the sole electoral platform. At least, it has not come up with an additional/alternative campaign-point focussing on governance issues, including corruption.  

Incidentally, Speaker Nasheed as the chief of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has been periodically hurling corruption and other governance-related charges at the administration of his party colleague, President Ibrahim Solih. But the Yameen camp is mostly silent. Yameen, whom admirers claim is the nation’s best politician-administrator of the economy, has also not talked about development issues and the like in a long time.

Unqualified Indian aid

As the crowds – or the lack of it -- at Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine’s periodic ‘India Out’ protests show, even his party cadres do not seem to be as ignited as thought to be once. The reasons are many. But it is also their acknowledgement of unqualified Indian assistance, be it test kits or medicines, or food supplies and credit facilities, for the nation through the two-plus years of Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

All this go beyond the massive Indian aid, for social sector development programmes, from school and hospital buildings to drainage lines – together stamped as ‘High-Impact Community Development Projects’ -- in individual islands that constitute the archipelago. Then, there are bigger ones, like the nation’s longest, Thilamale sea-bridge project, a cricket stadium and others, all with Indian assistance.

It now looks as if the anti-MDP groups within the country are seeking to fire up the opposition campaign by adding the missing religious element by targeting the Yoga Day event, jointly sponsored by the Maldives Youth and Sports Ministry and the Indian Culture Centre, an adjunct of the Indian High Commission. Religious scholars and groups that had opposed the event earlier were prompt in denying their involvement in the disturbances. But the deed seemed to have been done.
 
Perceived hurdles

The fact is that Yameen’s ‘India Out’ campaign has failed to flare up public imagination as much as the anti-GMR, anti-Nasheed protests had done a decade earlier. The reasons are not far to seek. The anti-GMR protests were accompanied by India suspending the export of river sand and stone aggregates – since restored with higher quotas -- required for every kind of construction in Maldives, but under court orders.

The perceived hurdles that India had placed in cancelling the visa-on-arrival facility for Maldivians requiring urgent medical assistance and for visiting children pursuing their education there was another. In the light of the ongoing tussle with the Waheed government that succeeded the Nasheed presidency over the GMR dispute, ordinary Maldivians saw the Indian decisions as vindictive acts – or, that was how they were made to believe.

The opposition had a majority in Parliament at the time. By raising hackles, both inside and outside the country, over the unbecoming haste with which the Nasheed presidency rushed through the GMR contract, they managed to cause eyebrows to raise at what then was the largest overseas investment in the country. The continuing leadership of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a half-brother of Yameen, as the opposition figurehead, too, helped.

Maldivian pride

The timing mattered even otherwise. A decade back, Maldivians in their 50s and above had staunch memories of Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir’s (1958-68) tenure. That was when he very imaginatively involved Male school students to contribute free labour for widening the airport’s runway, for larger aircraft to bring in overseas tourists.

It was a part of Nasir’s way of asserting Maldivian pride (without reference to religion) against the British, whose Protectorate the nation had remained since the 19th century. The provocation came from the British denying funds and permission for his pet project. Nasir’s firm stand led to the British signing an Independence Treaty with his government in July 1965, though it was also a part of their post-War decision to withdraw beyond the Suez Canal.

Already, Ibrahim Nasir had made a name as a Maldivian nationalist, possibly next only to the northern Thakurufaanu Brothers, who had thrown out the Portuguese occupiers in the 16th century. That was after Nasir had led the military campaign against southern separatists who had a ‘United Suvadive Republic’ to call their own, for five long years from 1958, with the British present in the Gan airfield in the neighbourhood, suspected to be their silent backers.

There is an Indian angle to the Nasir saga, which too got etched in the minds of that generation, for right and wrong reasons. As Prime Minister, Nasir was convinced that the Bohra traders from Bombay, now Mumbai, who controlled supplies to the Maldives, were greedy and cancelled their business permits. His government also denied huge sums of money that were due to them, for supplies made.

IMF conditions

In this background, the opposition’s projection of the Nasheed presidency hastily handing over the nation’s only international airport to a “foreign entity”(GMR) did trigger a sense of ‘nationalism’ in the older generation, a decade back. The opposition criticism coincided with the Islamic NGOs’ claim and conviction that President Nasheed was “anti-Islamic” because of his politico-administrative association with the US and Israel.

It was another matter that a section of the voters who had rooted for Nasheed in the decisive presidential polls of 2008 were upset with his introducing income tax in the country and for hiking power tariff and the like, reportedly on the advice of the IMF. As if this were not enough, again on IMF advice, Nasheed slashed the number of government servants and the existing salaries, both by 20 per cent – each one of them as unpopular as the other.

In this overall background, whipping up Maldivian nationalist sentiments, centred on the GMR project and targeting President Nasheed, was not a difficult task, especially after the latter and his MDP had done the same while ushering in democracy only four years earlier. The add-on Islamic nationalist ambience held in a big way, no doubt.

Maldivian young 

The situation is different now in political terms, yes, but the injection of ideas such as ‘Islamic nationalism has the potential to keep the issue alive – though not necessarily to the same extent as it was a decade back. With each passing election, the new-generation voters are getting increasingly removed from the Nasir-era sentiments.

Until after his death in self-exile in Singapore in November 2008, a fortnight after Nasheed’s election as the nation’s first multi-party democracy President, no political discourse had ended without reference to the Nasir era. That may not be the case anymore.

If anything, the budding idea of Islamic nationalism, contextualised to the US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, has opened the eyes of Maldivian youth, from among whom fighters had sneaked out, to join the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or IS in Syria. The returnees’ stories on the one hand and the advent of Islamist terror as directly witnessed in the bomb attack on Speaker Nasheed in May 2021, preceded by the targeted killing of a ‘secular’ journalist and an ‘independent’ blogger on the other, have all made the younger generation to think. A presidential commission appointed by incumbent Solih attributed the killings to the competitive operations of Al Qaeda and IS affiliates in the country.

Negative connotation

These are all from a domestic Maldivian perspective. But from a purely Indian standpoint, the very idea that symbols attached to the nation like yoga, being at the centre of domestic news and debates all the time has its own negative connotation, whether or not it affects bilateral ties beyond a point. 
 

India-bashing is a preferred past-time for opposition politicians also in other neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, not to mention Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Despite the best of relations with the government of the day, anti-India groups continue to have a field day in these countries. In Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ha repeatedly stated that India is the only country to help in these times. However, the anti-India groups are at it all the time, inventing one controversy after another, even when none may exist.

The situation in the Maldives is no different. It does not make for good optics, over the short, medium and long terms, even if a majority of Maldivians do not seem to favour the ‘India Out’ kind of slogans and campaigns.

(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Views are personal. He can be reached at sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)
 

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