It is not clear what caused the blast on the presidential speedboat in the Maldives on the morning of September 28. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s wife Fathimath and two others suffered injuries, while Gayoom himself was unhurt. The incident, whatever its cause, once again brings into focus the faultlines that fracture the stability of the tiny Indian Ocean nation.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed is in prison on dodgy charges. His detention has further polarised an already sharply politically divided country. It has also drawn international ire, with strong statements emanating from Western capitals.
The drug menace is rampant among young people, gravely threatening the future of this demographically young country. Added to this is the growing radicalisation of the youth, which is attracted to the insidious call of the Islamic State and other jihadist organisations. According to reports, the country’s vice president recently claimed that 200 Maldivians (in a nation of 4,00,000) had travelled to Syria, evidently to join the extremists. To put this figure in perspective, just try to imagine the existential threat to India if the proportionate number of 6,00,000 Indians were to join Islamist ranks. This is precisely what seems to be unfolding in our immediate neighbourhood, where the twin vampires of drugs and extremism threaten to suck the lifeblood of this tropical paradise.
The going has been good for the Maldives — almost 100 per cent literacy, a satisfactory healthcare system,and the highest per capita GDP in South Asia, fuelled largely by high-end tourism. But as a consequence of growing Islamism and recurrent political upheaval, its image as an idyllic tourist destination is under threat. Given the clear and present danger of extremism and the geographic vulnerability of a sea-locked country of 1,200 islands, acts of terror in the near future must be anticipated. In such a situation, tourists, who last year numbered 1.2 million — three times the Maldives’ population — would just stop coming. That would be a disaster for a country where tourism is the economic lifeline.
Maldivians themselves will have to find the answers. This demands political maturity from all parties. The bitterness of the 2013 presidential elections, where the Maldivian Democratic Party, led by Nasheed, felt that Nasheed was unjustly denied presidential office through machination, continues to linger. The unconditional release of Nasheed would be the first essential step, one which should be followed by an offer of dialogue with the opposition. On the other hand, the MDP must join hands with the government to combat extremism and drugs.
India can, and must, lend a helping hand. The West has been unequivocal in its criticism of human rights violations in the Maldives. India, as a neighbour with major strategic interests, does not have this luxury. India has out of necessity adopted a nuanced and incremental approach. It is, of course, crucial that New Delhi actively engages Gayoom and his government. India will also have to cast its net wide to include in its consultations the MDP and other moderate parties and individuals capable of playing a positive role. In particular, Nasheed and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom must be involved. Maumoon is Yameen’s half brother, apart from being the founder of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives. Maumoon’s three-decade long authoritarian but largely benevolent rule brought economic dividends and witnessed the blossoming of the India-Maldives relationship. Few Maldivians understand India as well as he does. Some of the others who do and have the ability to make a difference include former Saarc secretary general, minister and presidential advisor Ibrahim Zaki and former foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed. The Maldives tourism industry, for obvious reasons, enjoys considerable clout with the government and can play a useful role.
Some frustration is inevitable when dealing with a stubborn, and at times unresponsive, friend. But India has a permanent interest in the stability of the Maldives, which could impact its own security. Therefore the temptation to let go, if indeed there is any, must be avoided.
The writer is a former high commissioner to the Maldives.