News 18, 22 November 2023

By going public about the number of Indian military personnel in his country and also disclosing that the two nations had signed more than 100 agreements under the previous government, the newly-minted Maldives President, Dr Mohamed Muizzu, has set the road for the future of bilateral relations between the two countries. On Sunday, November 19, which was day three of his presidency and the first working day of the new government, a senior officer attached to the President’s Office (PO) told newsmen that 77 Indian military personnel were stationed in the archipelago nation, and gave the breakdown: 24 to manage the first helicopter, 25 to manage the Dornier aircraft, 26 to manage the second helicopter, and two more for maintenance and engineering.

All three flying machines were gifted by India, which is also meeting the expenses of their personnel. The official figure comes close to previous local media reports that had put the number of Indian military personnel at 75, of course without giving a breakdown. Incidentally, there was no mention of any of the Indian military personnel carrying weapons or the presence of any, onboard those platforms. This has vindicated repeated Indian assertion that there was none to be able to dub those personnel as ‘combat soldiers’ as the Maldivian social media had done, pre-poll.

The presidential spokesman also said that the previous Solih government had signed (around) 100 agreements with India, other than those related to development projects. He said that the new government was reviewing them all and clarified that it is a time-consuming process. He did not say what they intend to do if they find any (alleged) ‘infirmities’ in any of these agreements that are already in force – and seen from their own perspective.

Such a course can question the credibility, longevity and sustainability of all agreements signed by any Maldivian government, including the present one, as institutional mechanisms, systems and schemes would have given way to partisan political considerations that can change with every government, every leadership, and even every foreign minister, as may happen on occasions.

Yet, from an Indian perspective, full disclosure by Muizzu’s office has implicitly acknowledged that there are no Indian military personnel, especially on the Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) island site of a new harbour India has funded for the Maldivian Coast Guard. Likewise, there is no mention of any Indian personnel stationed at the Maldivian Police Academy, funded and built by India, in the southern population centre, Addu. By extension, the spokesman, by not referring to it, has seemingly acknowledged that the presence of Indian military personnel, if any, in relation to these projects was a temporary affair, for the new government to be overly bothered about it.

Thus, Muizzu’s office has given a lie to past media claims and social media posts that claimed otherwise, and repeatedly so. In a way, this should have also removed what could be termed as Muizzu’s uninformed suspicions aired by him in the run-up to the presidential poll in September, and even later, as the predecessor government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, stubbornly declined to share the details with the people, say, through Parliament. Whatever information it shared on the UTF agreement, the then Opposition, as if an after-thought, was inadequate and incomplete. In his early election speeches, Muizzu had promised to disclose all agreements by the previous governments but did not say the modus. India is not the only country with which the Solih dispensation had signed agreements, whatever the numbers, whatever the purpose and funding, if any.

Unlike often understood in India and elsewhere, the Solih dispensation had signed development agreements with China, among others. The last two agreements that it signed with a foreign partner were with China, in the last fortnight ahead of the first-round presidential poll on September 9. One was for setting up solar power storage batteries on 24 islands. The other — the more controversial one between the two — was to build 100-bed tertiary hospitals in northern Kulhudhuffushi, close to the Indian mainland and southern Thinadhoo, not too far away from the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

However, Muizzu’s spokesman did not mention anything about revisiting the Chinese agreements. Nor was there any mention of appealing against the ruling of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLS) on the drawing/re-drawing of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) with Ocean neighbour, Mauritius. Muizzu had mentioned it both during his campaign and post-victory media interviews. If any special delegation from Mauritius had graced Muizzu’s inauguration, reports and pictures were conspicuous by their absence in Maldivian websites and media.

Hence, the question of Muizzu taking the ITLS issue, along with predecessor Solih conceding what his critics considered ‘Maldivian Ocean territory’ to Mauritius through a ‘secret letter’ to Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, does not arise. As may be recalled, the Solih dispensation had readily authenticated a ‘leaked’ social media post of the said letter, ahead of the second round of the presidential polls on September 30. Neither the leak nor the contents of the letter held back as secret for close to a year, and contained anything that the Opposition construed as ‘against national interests’.


President Muizzu conveyed his request for New Delhi to call back the military personnel when India’s Minister of State for Earth Sciences, Kiren Rijiju, paid a courtesy call on him after attending his swearing-in a day earlier on Friday, November 17. Another leader in his place may have waited for some time to pass before taking up such a sensitive/controversial issue, especially with an immediate neighbour. Not Muizzu, who stuck to his poll promise of taking it up with India on day one of his presidency. He had earlier taken it up when Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar paid a courtesy call on him after his election and reiterated the same in public any number of times since.

It was among Muizzu’s major campaign points, especially in the second round, after Solih had promised free access to UTF apart from civilian housing on the island, to disprove claims of ‘secrecy’ regarding the nature of the harbour project. Social media claims had described UTF as an under-construction naval base for India, and that numerous Indian military personnel were already stationed there on a permanent/rotational basis. So much so, he made a veiled reference to the ‘Indian military presence’ in the country in his Inauguration address to the nation: “We will not have any foreign military personnel in the Maldives…When it comes to our security, I will draw a red line. The Maldives will respect the red lines of other countries too.”

Whether he thought it was a matter of protocol, or superfluous, Muizzu did not name any country in his speech. At the same time, he seemed to have given a concession to Mauritius on the ‘territorial issue’ as he did not even remotely refer to the IMBL matter. However, ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, he had told an international media agency that his intention was “not to upend the regional balance by replacing the Indian military with Chinese troops.” It is something that a section of the Indian strategic community has been flagging but without a full understanding of the Maldivian sentiments.


Media reports quoting official sources said that in talks with Minister Rijiju, President Muizzu acknowledged the contribution of the Indian helicopters and aircraft for the medical evacuation of Maldivian citizens. “They are also central to the confidence that international tourists have in staying in remote island resorts. He appreciated their role in monitoring and combating drug trafficking,” said a source. According to the report, “It was agreed that the two governments would discuss ‘workable solution’ for continued cooperation through the use of these platforms as this serves the interests of the people of the Maldives.”

Apart from the issue of ‘military personnel presence’, Muizzu and Rijiju also discussed India-funded developmental projects in Maldives. “The President emphasised the importance of accelerating the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP), highlighting the importance of addressing and overcoming the issues delaying the project,” the reports said and added that the two leaders “concluded the meeting with a renewed commitment to ‘fortify’ bilateral relations.” This should put an end to pre-poll social media speculation that a Muizzu presidency would cancel the $500-m GMCP, better known as the Thilamale sea-bridge project, the single largest investment in the country, and replace it with China. A PhD holder in structural engineering from Leeds University in the UK, 45-year-old Muizzu, in his election speech, had spoken about reviewing foreign-funded projects, but (only) to fast-track them.


From a Maldivian street perspective, the strategic community in the country points to the way India had pulled out its troops on three occasions at the slightest sign of the hosts desiring it so: ‘Operation Cactus’ (1988), when Indian troops ended a mercenary coup and also captured the fleeing master-minds, post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation works (2005-06) and ‘Operation Neer’ (2014), when New Delhi rushed tonnes of drinking water and also naval ships with desalination plants, to the parched Maldivian capital of Male, after the city’s only desalination plant was burnt down in a freak accident.

The water scarcity happened when the otherwise anti-India Abdulla Yameen was President, 2013-18. It was also Yameen who, as the titular head of the Opposition PPM-PNC combine, launched the ‘India Out’ campaign, taking off from his request for New Delhi to take back the three gifted aerial platforms, after India had supposedly taken political position in the internal matters of his country in February 2018.

The Indian criticism, as a concerned neighbour wedded to democracy, came against Yameen proclaiming an emergency to negate the Supreme Court ruling, ordering freedom for 12 political prisoners, including self-exiled former President Mohammed Nasheed. Maldives had committed to democracy in 2008 and there was overall concern in the neighbourhood that it might be slipping away to past autocracy. They also point out how Yameen still did not make a greater diplomatic row of his request, nor did his government consider approaching the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or other fora. Possibly, they feel, Yameen was confident of winning the re-election bid in 2018 and hoped to become even more persuasive than in the fag-end of his controversial first term.

It is another matter that it was Yameen who had voluntarily sought a UTF kind of Coast Guard infrastructure during his India visit in 2016. To Yameen also goes the coinage of the call for the nation’s ‘India First’ policy, which he negated however. Thus, in the outside world, President Solih, who practised ‘India First’ as a pragmatic policy involving the immediate neighbour with centuries of continued social and economic ties, came to be seen as the author of the coinage, as well.


As the Maldivian experts point out, throughout the presidential poll campaign or even during Yameen’s alternating ‘India Out/India Military Out’ campaign, Muizzu, then Mayor of Male, was on the back-foot and was often seen as soft-pedalling the issue. For its part, the Solih government and the ruling MDP did not do enough to explain the purpose and benefits of the presence of the Indian aerial platforms, convincingly to the Maldivian people. Nor did they take Parliament into full confidence. Even at present, days after the Muizzu-Rijju meeting, no MDP leader has commented on the reasons and justification for retaining the Indian platforms during the Solih regime, despite street protests and wall graffiti by the Yameen camp. Reports, incidentally, had pointed out how in the past five years, those platforms had flown around 500 sorties of emergency evacuation, all under the mandated command and guidance of the MNDF – and not otherwise.

In a way, the flying platforms, their presence and use were only an extension of continuing Indian assistance to build the all-inclusive multi-speciality Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IMGH), when none of the kind existed in the country, and to give near-permanency to Indian rescue and relief effort in the country. Even aerial reconnaissance, assisted by shared radar information, was/is an extension of ground and sea-based measures to fight massive drug trafficking across the Indian Ocean neighbourhood that the three shared with common neighbour Sri Lanka.

Though not initially, but later-day creation of the ‘Colombo Security Conclave’ involving the three nations initially and other Ocean neighbours, Mauritius and Seychelles, and also Bangladesh, subsequently, has lent a new meaning and greater urgency to such initiatives, where India alone has the resources and capacity, which Maldives especially sourly lacks. For instance, there are reports about MNDF’s inability to retain their pilots trained by India before withdrawing its men, as trained men fly away to greener pastures.

Thus, in the context of retaining Indian flying platforms, the Muizzu administration would do well to consult the people in all good faith, to evaluate/re-evaluate their usefulness on a day-to-day basis without sticking to positions that the leadership might have taken without consideration of governance concerns of the kind. In political terms, local observers say, withdrawal of Indian flying machines, without suitable replacements, could cost Muizzu’s PPM-PNC combine (or, is it PNC-PPM combine after he had supposedly jumped the Yameen gun?) badly in the parliamentary elections, if there were causes for public displeasure flowing from such withdrawal.

It goes beyond the traditional perception that 40 per cent of the Maldivian voters are conservatives and are wedded to ‘Maldivian nationalism’, which Muizzu highlighted in his maiden presidential address as different from ‘Islamic nationalism’, as often misunderstood/misinterpreted outside the country. It is also the case with the international media and strategic community branding Muizzu pro-China, which was true only of his erstwhile political mentor Yameen, now in house arrest pending the final disposal of a corruption case by the High Court.

(The writer is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst & Political Commentator. Email: