On August 28, 2020, the opposition coalition of Progressive Party of Maldives and People’s National Congress held a number of rallies across the nation to protest the so-called “selling off Maldives” to India. In the capital city of Male, around 350 motorcyclists came out onto the streets with banners and flags, which was a major show of strength by the opposition in the small nation.
The opposition demonstrations were also demanding the release of former President Abdula Yameen, who was in jail on money-laundering charges.
The same night a major fire broke out in a high rise building in the capital city. Five floors in the building which house the headquarters of the State Bank of India in Maldives sustained severe damage. The very next day, security arrangements of the Indian High Commission in Maldives were handed over to the MNDF by the government of Maldives.
The incidents outlined above are part of a vicious anti-India campaign, supported by opposition parties, in Maldives. A part of this campaign is also being run on social media which has been trending as #India Out.
Abdulla Yameen now freed from house arrest is back in the business of India Out campaign.
The current term of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih comes to an end in 2023. The propaganda campaign aimed at India appears to be an early manifestation of the election strategy of the opposition coalition and seeks to lay the groundwork for the next presidential elections. Maldives has an internet penetration as well as social media usage of almost 70 percent.
Considering the fact that 76 per cent of the population of Maldives falls within the age group of 16 to 64, the concurrent social media campaign starts to make sense. By attempting to sway the tech savvy educated class with the aid of an Islamist Nationalist political agenda centered on anti-India rhetoric, the strategy of the pro Chinese opposition starts to take concrete shape.
Through a sustained spread of xenophobia, hate and mistrust, it appears that the opposition seeks to sweep aside its own misdeeds when it was in power under the previous regime. This is a clear attempt to repeat a few lies so often that they finally start sounding like the truth. The end state is to subvert the young democracy and lead it into the arms of a waiting Dragon.
The opposition coalition, when they were in power, displayed a remarkable lack of foreign policy wisdom and danced to the tunes of China for individual gains. The same playbook seems to be under use again. It bears mention that the 2013 elections in Maldives were preceded by a similar campaign against GMR in connection with the Male airport which subsequently turned into an anti-India campaign.
Helped in some measure by the campaign, Abdulla Yameen came into power. The succeeding five years left Maldives in a Chinese debt-trap of 1.4 Billion dollars, a state of emergency, as well as large scale human rights violations including targeted killing of journalists who dared to expose the situation on ground. Members of the government – both executive and judiciary were also jailed during this period. The nation is still recovering from the damage done between 2013 and 2018.
Orchestration of Social Media Campaign.
These two online sources and the individual’s social media accounts feature a constant stream of politically motivated Anti India propaganda. The assertion of anti-India sentiments by the individual on social media was triggered by the strong opposition displayed by Maldives to Pakistan’s efforts at discrediting India on its treatment of minorities and alleged Islamophobia prevalent in the nation during an online meeting of Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) held on 22 May 2020.
In the ensuing tirade against the Maldives Govt, the individual went to the extent of proclaiming that Chinese never interfered in Maldives foreign policy. This propensity of the individual to attack India and profess his ‘soft spot’ for China became more intense and synchronized with anti India rallies on ground.
What started as an attack on the Maldives government for allowing presence of Indian military personnel ‘purportedly’ to take over Maldives devolved down to vitriolic personal attacks on the Indian diplomatic staff at the High Commission of India at Maldives. Religious attacks on India and the use of extremist Islamic rhetoric to smother good sense have been the hallmarks of the online hate campaign. There is also a strong pro-China leaning in the entire propaganda campaign that has been orchestrated. The individual has repeatedly called for Maldives to approach China for financial aid. It is clearly evident that the online hate campaign is completely in sync with the opposition coalition’s overall anti India narrative.
The Truth behind the Rhetoric.
In this polarising campaign that is underway, truth and reality have been a casualty upfront. In reality, India has always helped and supported the people of Maldives through thick and thin.
Immediately after the Solih govt came to power, India announced an economic assistance package of 1.4 billion dollars to Maldives to help it out of the financial dire straits which they found themselves in, on account of their short dalliance with China. Indian tourists have been the mainstay of the service industry in Maldives and as of 2019, India was second highest in terms of number of tourists visiting the island nation.
In the aftermath of COVID 19, the tourism dependent economy took a serious hit and the overall economic effects were comparable to the status of the nation in the aftermath of the Tsunami in 2004.
India has been prompt in extending a helping hand yet again. From providing 2,00,000 COVID 19 vaccine doses despite shortages at home, to extending a 150 million dollar currency swap to provide stability to the island nation’s faltering economy, India has always provided unconditional support to the people of Maldives. The much maligned Indian military presence in the nation has also been to help the island nation build its maritime surveillance capability in order to secure its vast exclusive economic zone. The detractors of the Indian presence in Maldives conveniently forget that it is the Chinese State owned fishing trawlers which have been systematically violating and plundering the marine resources in Maldivian waters with impunity.
The efforts by the present govt to restore normalcy and rule of democracy in the island nation (which was significantly ravaged by the Yameen govt) are starting to bear fruit in the international community as well. Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, a career diplomat turned politician, was on 07 June 2021, elected as the 76th President of the United Nation General Assembly with an overwhelming majority (143 votes in favour, 48 against with no abstentions or invalid votes). This makes him the first Maldivian to be elected to this prestigious office. This is a resounding affirmation of the world community’s recognition of turnaround in Maldives and the rejuvenation of democratic processes.
The unconditional support provided by India to the people of Maldives and the positive international recognition that Maldives has gained in the international community in the recent times are conspicuous by their absence in the political discourse by the opposition coalition or its proxy social media mouthpieces.
The opposition coalition is making the grave mistake of assuming that the people of Maldives would fall for this trap yet again. In simplistic terms, India-out campaign remains a politically motivated slandering campaign that is being run through certain Islamist pro-China factions within the domestic political players of Maldives.
The only aim of this campaign is to induce extremist anti-democratic views with the aim to undermine the fresh reinfusion of democratic processes in the nation. The perpetrators of the India-out campaign have regularly espoused re-embracing China as an alternative to India.
The regressive self interests of a set of individuals cannot be allowed to jeopardise the future of an entire nation. The people of Maldives have suffered once. It is their right to know the truth behind the shrill rhetoric.
(Binay Kumar Singh is an author and columnist. He can be reached at Twitter: @BinayBharat. The views expressed are personal)