Umbrage at Male uncalled for

The overwhelming asymmetry between India and the Maldives in sheer size alone almost automatically casts India in the role of the villain

Contractual disputes are generally arcane and even boring affairs, except to the parties involved. However, some can become potential international flashpoints like the one that recently cropped up between the Government of Maldives and the Indian-led construction consortium, GMR Infrastructure, over construction and management of the new international airport at the Maldivian capital, Male, after a peremptory cancellation of the contract apparently at the instance of Abbas Adil Riza, the spokesman for the Maldivian President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan.

The cancellation provoked an acid comment from the ministry of external affairs, which added the proverbial fuel to the fire. The Indian response was apparently the individual initiative of a joint secretary from which the Government of India officially disassociated itself but, curiously, sent the official involved on a prized consular posting to the US, which can be construed as an indirect mark of approval. The aggrieved GMR challenged the decision in the Singapore high court, but the decision was in favour of the Maldives.
The legal issues involved are complex, but the situation in this case has been further complicated by the injection of politico-diplomatic dimensions by both India and the Maldives, creating a messy mélange of politics, politicians and bureaucrats.
The ground situation, however, impacts diplomatic relations between India and the Maldives and can turn toxic unless handled with utmost balance. The Singapore high court has pronounced in favour of the Government of Maldives, and India has no options but to make the best of it.
Needless to say that under the circumstances it is absolutely vital for India to maintain a sense of proportion and balance, bearing in mind that regardless of the legal issues that may be involved, the overwhelming asymmetry between India and the Maldives in sheer size alone almost automatically casts India in the role of the villain, appearing as a crude and domineering regional bully attempting to intimidate a tiny neighbour.
Delinking from its international profile, the case appears of a pattern which has much in common with many similar corporate disputes fermenting in civil courts of law in India, making their own contributions to delays and further clogging the sluggish process of civil justice system in the country. Meanwhile, the inevitable media focus on the case, however fleeting, particularly its Indian connection, has touched off public outrage in this country and a degree of reciprocal anti-Indian sentiment in the Maldives.
Here, the fact that must be kept in mind is that the Maldives is a friendly Indian ally of long standing, a relationship which requires special attention and nurturing. Islam is the state religion of the Maldives where it has always been practised in its most liberal and inclusive form. This traditional religious tolerance is coming increasingly under siege now from hardline fundamentalist organisations like Al Qaeda and Al Shabab, which have epicentres in Somalia and eastern Africa, and span the island nations of western Indian Ocean to link up with similar organisations in the Indian mainland. These extremist networks have long posed a threat to the national security of India itself, and it is not unreasonable to speculate about possible connections between prominent Maldivian personalities like the presidential spokesman, Mr Riza, and fundamentalist organisations in the Maldives.
There have never at any time been any dispute between the two countries on any issue major or minor, and in the current situation, it must never be lost sight of that the contract for building the Male airport is a strictly legal dispute between the government of a country traditionally friendly towards India and a large corporate organisation that happens to be of Indian origin. The issue has to be settled strictly in accordance with legal procedures and the rule of law, because India’s own national interest requires that the traditional friendship between the Maldives and India is maintained under all circumstances and is not strain.
India has always been on hand to assist the Maldives in whatever manner required, the most prominent being the prompt military assistance provided in 1988, when Operation Cactus, a professional military masterpiece launched at a very short notice by paratroopers of the 50th Parachute Brigade, rescued the island and its then head of state, President Mamoon Abdul Gayoom, from Tamil mercenaries who had invaded the island. Needless to say, this decisive and highly professional action by the Indian Army served to further enhance India’s prestige and international standing.
Democracy in the Maldives is a recent transplantation from India, after a certain degree of “friendly persuasion” by the Indian political leadership brought about multi-party presidential elections in October 2008, where Mr Gayoom, occupying office for over 30 years, was unseated by Mohamed Nasheed of the rival Maldivian Democratic Party, which is reportedly linked with Islamist hardliners and has an anti-India bias.
From a broader geo-strategic perspective, it also cannot be ignored that China and India are jostling for strategic space in the Indian Ocean and its littoral. The Maldives is centrestage here, which invests the islands with a strategic significance totally out of proportion to their dimensions. Geographical proximity also makes them part of India’s strategic perceptions of a “near abroad”, within which alien presence with out-of-area linkages cannot be regarded with equanimity. So while some political hackles may be raised in the Maldives, too many feathers need not be ruffled if India expresses concerns or articulates anxieties at the turn of events in that country.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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