Islands in the sun, under a cloud

Feb 16, 2012, 07:33 IST | Vikram Sood
The attempted coup in the Maldives in 1988 by a group of Tamil militants in the early hours of November 3 to assist some local Maldivians had brought an immediate response to President Gayoom's call for assistance. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi responded and within 12 hours an India Air Force IL-76 landed in the Maldives with a Para regiment on board. The Indian Navy's frigates Godavari and Betwa intercepted the hijacked freighter and the mercenaries on board were captured. It was an exemplary display of a quick decision followed by coordinated tri-service responses.

This attempted coup was an intervention by outsiders to overthrow a government by force and India's swift reaction was the appropriate one. Nevertheless, many in India wondered why India's response this time to the overthrow the young President Mohammed Nasheed has been so tardy and diffident. Surely India's capacity to intervene swiftly would have increased manifold in the 35 years since the last action in the Maldives. Nasheed is down he may not be out.

Snubbed: US Asst Secretary of State Robert Blake's visit to Male,
Colombo and Dhaka did not include New Delhi, which could be a message
to New Delhi that it is either irrelevant in South Asia or merely becoming
an irritant over Iran

The present crisis is not just an entirely domestic affair and the usual anodyne statement that India was watching the situation closely is inadequate. Our haste in congratulating the new President without assessing that Nasheed also had considerable popular support was an example of how inadequately prepared we were to handle this situation.

That is all very well. India should have been watching the situation not just in February but should have in all these years. Events in Male last week were not a sudden unexplained eruption like an allergic reaction. The situation has been simmering for some time now. So while we prevaricated, the US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake was airborne for Male. A seeming retreat by India leaves the theatre open to interference by other countries less well disposed toward India. Significantly, Blake's itinerary during his visit to Male, Colombo and Dhaka did not include New Delhi. It could be a message to New Delhi that it is either irrelevant in South Asia or merely becoming an irritant over Iran.

Maldives is new to democracy and the learning curve would have to last longer than the three years since the last multiparty democratic elections. Nasheed has been a liberal Muslim in a largely moderate Sunni country but there have been worrying signs in recent times. Perhaps it was his youthful exuberance, inexperience or impatience that led him to autocratic behaviour when he had the chief judge of the criminal court arrested and had taken action against a colonel of the Maldivian National Defence Forces creating resentment in these sections.

Surely after 1988 New Delhi was aware that there could be a repeat of this needing intervention of some kind in the archipelago. There have been reports of greater contacts between Maldivian youth and the Pakistani ultra radical terrorist organisation Lashkar e Tayyaba as well as an increasing presence of West Asian Salafists since 2007. Former President Gayoom, whom the ousted President suspects has been behind the upsurge against him, had used Islam as a political weapon in his time. The writing was on the wall.

Somali piracy, at times in collusion with the Shahbab terrorists from southern Somalia and the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba of Pakistan, has been coming dangerously close to the Indian shores. In January and March 2011, there were two piracy attempts close to the Lakshadweep islands. Surely there could be a repeat with the Maldives as the target or one of its 1000 islands as the base against India. A terrorist affected country such as ours does have any room for complacency or indecision.

We live in a very tough neighbourhood, which can convulse at any time given the various kinds of political fragilities. The region needs periodic repairs. The paradox is that while we are accused of being the Big Brother we are also accused of neglecting the neighbourhood as we adjust to the mantle of international greatness being thrust upon us. We do not have the luxury of lowering our vigil 24/7 or vacillation in times of crisis. We need to be generous with the smaller neighbours provided they do not cross our security red lines. That is how Big Brothers behave and inter-state relations are no popularity contests.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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