Maldives is an archipelagic nation, situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is located 300 miles from the southern coast of India and 450 miles southwest of Sri Lanka. It is an archipelago of over 1,000 islands, each unique in its own way. The primary religion in Maldives is Islam with the majority population practising Sunni Islam.
Maldives is a low lying nation, and most parts of the country are barely a meter above sea level. This makes Maldives very vulnerable to the phenomenon of climate change and sea level rise.
As close and friendly neighbours, India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links steeped in antiquity and enjoy cordial and multi-dimensional relations. India was among the first to recognise Maldives after its independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with the country. India established its mission at Male in 1972. Since then, bilateral relations have been nurtured and strengthened by regular contacts at all levels. The Maldives opened a full-fledged High Commission in New Delhi in November 2004, at that time one of its only four diplomatic missions worldwide.
Bilateral cooperation between India and Maldives is guided by a set of principles based on the framework of South-South cooperation, and building solidarity and partnership between developing nations in the post colonial phase. India’s developmental assistance, though small in amount, helped in building soft power leverage amongst its neighbours.
As part of the government’s “Neighborhood First” strategy, the Maldives are strategically significant to India because of their location in the Indian Ocean. Although the relationship between India and the Maldives has always been close, friendly, and multifaceted, recent regime instability in the country has presented significant challenges, particularly in the political and strategic spheres.
- The Maldives’ history is intertwined with that of India
- Rajaraja Chola’s Chola dynasty invaded and conquered the Maldives’ northern atolls.
- In the contemporary era, the Maldives became a British colony and attained independence in 1965.
- Since then, the nation has been in a state of political unrest.
- Ibrahim Nasir was the ruler of the island from 1965-to 1978.
- President Abdul Gayoom governed from 1978 to 2008.
- Gayoom sowed the seeds of the modern Maldives during his long reign.
- Protests and rallies against Gayoom’s rule erupted at regular intervals.
- During this period, terrorists affiliated with the PLOTE tried a coup in the Maldives. It was also known as the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam.
- They were on their way to victory when the Indian Armed Forces launched ‘Operation Cactus,’ driving the invaders out.
- President Ibrahim Solih’s win in 2018, the Maldives’ ‘India First’ policy was finally implemented.
Areas of Cooperation
- Bilateral relations have been nurtured and strengthened by regular contacts at all levels. Since establishment of diplomatic relations, almost all Prime Ministers of India visited the Maldives.
- Former President Gayoom made a number of visits to India. President Mohamed Nasheed’s first visit abroad after assuming office was to India in December 2008. In October 2009, President Nasheed attended the Delhi High-Level Conference on Climate Change and Technology Transfer.
- In 2010 President Nasheed visited India twice, first in January for the CII-Partnership Summit in Chennai and in October for attending the Opening ceremony of the 19th Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. In the current year, President Nasheed made an official visit in February 2011.
- President Abdulla Yameen visited India with a high level delegation on a State visit from January 1-4, 2014, which was his first official visit abroad. He also attended the swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi in May 2014.
- India and Maldives have consistently supported each other in multilateral fora such as the UN, the Commonwealth, the NAM and the SAARC. Maldives was one of the first countries to convey its support for the candidature of Shri Kamalesh Sharma as the Commonwealth Secretary General.
- However, India’s relations with Maldives had steadily deteriorated, as China cultivated ties with Abdulla Yameen. As a result, Prime Minister Modi visited Maldives only in November 2018, after Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was sworn in as the new president of the Maldives. Maldives President Solih visited India in 2018 – the Maldives reaffirmed its India-first policy.
- The Home Ministers of both countries met each other in February 2020 – A discussion on security and law enforcement cooperation took place.
- In July 2022 Chief of Maldives National Defence Forces, Major General Abdulla Shamaal, visited India to expand the defence cooperation between the two neighbouring countries.
- The President of Maldives visited India in August 2022, with the aim of tightening geo-political, security, and economic ties between the two geographically and economically dependent South Asian neighbours. The visit happened in the backdrop of a tremulous time for both the nation’s common neighbour Sri Lanka which is facing an economic free-fall and political turmoil.
- The Maldives has the highest per capita income among the South Asian nations. However, it does not translate in real terms because the laws, as they exist; favour the foreign investor in terms of expatriation of his earnings, which again are mostly from resort-tourism.
- India and Maldives signed a trade agreement in 1981, which provides for export of essential commodities. Growing from modest beginnings, India‐Maldives bilateral trade crossed the $ 300 mn mark for the first time in 2021, reaching an impressive $ 323.29 mn.
- India is Maldives 2nd largest trading partner – rising up from its 4th position in 2018.
- In 2021, bilateral trade registered a growth of 31% over the previous year – overcoming the pandemic-related challenges.
- India has expressed its support for cooperation with the Maldives in the petroleum and natural gas sectors, particularly in oil exploration, as well as in the tourism and education sectors.
- Indian exports to the Maldives include agriculture and poultry produce, sugar, fruits, vegetables, spices, rice, wheat flour (Atta), textiles, drugs and medicines, a variety of engineering and industrial products, sand and aggregate, cement for building, etc.
- Indian imports primarily scrap metals from the Maldives . Under the bilateral agreement, India provides essential food items like rice, wheat flour, sugar, dal, onion, potato and eggs and construction material such as sand and stone aggregates to Maldives on favourable terms.
India’s development assistance to Maldives covers a wide range of areas, such as health, education, transport, skill and capacity building, waste management, and management of natural disasters. At present, bilateral cooperation is marked by “pragmatic and mutually beneficial initiatives and projects”. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India, some of the important development cooperation initiatives taken by the Indian government over the years are:
- India provided a budgetary support of Rs. 100 million to Maldives after the Tsunami struck in 2004 and in May 2007, India again provided assistance of Rs. 100 million following tidal surges.
- Both the countries also signed a Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development” in November 2011.
- In 2011, the Government of India extended a $100 million Standby Credit Facility to Maldives to stabilise its fiscal position.
- Maldivian diplomats have also received training in India under the Indian Foreign Service Institute for Professional Course for Foreign Diplomats (PCFD) programme.
- In January 2014, the Government of India promised to construct the Composite Training Centre for Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).
- To promote infrastructure development, the Overseas Infrastructure Alliance (OIA) of India has been given a contract to construct 485 housing units.
- The State Bank of India has been playing a vital role in the economic development of the Maldives since 1974 by providing loan assistance for promotion of island resorts, export of marine products and business enterprises such Taj Group of India runs Taj Exotica Resort.
- India’s support to Greater Male Connectivity project include a $400 million LoC & $100 million grant, renewal of essential commodities trade agreement, and, financial assistance of USD 250 million.
- India had also announced a 800 million USD Line of Credit to Maldives in December 2018.
- In 2010, GMR Infrastructure (India) and KLIA (Malaysia) consortium took over the Male International Airport on a 25 -year BOT contract to renovate and expand the largest and most important airport in the country.
- India signed an agreement for 25-MW solar energy project in the Upper Southern province.
- India has been the largest tourist source market for Maldives for two years in a row. A total of 291,787 Indian tourists travelled to the island nation in 2021, representing 22 per cent market share.
- Maldives received US$150m currency swap facility from India in 2020.
- At present, India-assisted projects in the region include water and sewerage projects on 34 islands, reclamation projects for the Addl island, a port on Gulhifalhu, airport redevelopment at Hanimaadhoo, and a hospital and a cricket stadium in Hulhumale.
Greater Male Connectivity Project
- Afcons, an Indian company, has signed a contract for the largest-ever infrastructure project in Maldives which is the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP).
- The project is the result of bilateral consultation between India and the Maldives and has been under discussion since the visit of India’s External Affairs Minister to Male in September 2019.
- Greater Male Connectivity Project will consist of a 6.74 km-long bridge and causeway link between Male and nearby islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi. It will use renewable energy.
- The project is funded by a grant of USD 100 million and a Line of Credit (LOC) of USD 400 million from India.
- It is not only the biggest project India is doing in the Maldives but also the biggest infrastructure project in the Maldives overall.
- It is considered as the economic lifeline for the Maldives and will provide a major boost to connectivity between the four islands accounting for about half of the Maldivian population.
- It will add dynamism to the Maldivian transport and economic activities.
- The defence cooperation between India and Maldives ranges from training and joint combat exercises to help in maritime surveillance as well as the supply of military equipment to the country.
- The bilateral partnership is important for maintaining security in the IOR. It is felt that increased cooperation would help in meeting the common threat of radicalism and terrorism, as well as in combating the growing menace of drug trafficking, and the financing of terrorism in the region.
- The security cooperation includes Information exchange between security agencies as well as the training and capacity building of Maldives Police and security forces.
- The Coast Guards of the two countries have been conducting joint training exercises codenamed “DOSTI” since 1991, in addition to other joint defence interactions. India and Maldives also have a joint Military Training Exercise, codenamed “EKUVERIN”. This bilateral annual exercise commenced in 2009 at Belgaum, India. It is held annually, alternately in India and Maldives, with the aim of enhancing military cooperation and interoperability between the defence forces of the two countries.
- The India-Maldives Joint Commission was set up under the 1986 Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation, and first met in Male in 1990. The Framework Agreement for Cooperation, signed in November 2011, mandated the Joint Commission to broaden its cross sectoral emphasis to include defence and security related issues. Thus, for the first time, the defence and security relationship was discussed in the 5th Joint Commission meeting held in 2015.
- Indian Army’s ‘Operation Cactus’ foiled a coup in Maldives that was attempted by a pro-Eelam group in 1988. India maintains a naval presence in Maldives, at the request of the Maldives, since 2009.
- Indian Coast Guard’s Dornier was the first to land at the Ibrahim Nasir Airport with relief and supplies after the tsunami of December 26, 2004. On December 5, 2014, India dispatched “water aid” to the Maldivian capital of Male, after a fire destroyed the generator of its biggest water treatment plant.
- To counter the threat of transnational crime, terrorism and drug trafficking in the Indian Ocean region, India will give 24 vehicles and one naval boat to the Maldives Security Force and help train the island-nation’s security personnel.
- India will also cooperate in building police facilities in 61 islands of Maldives.
- Recently, the National College for Policing and Law Enforcement (NCPLE) was inaugurated by India’s External Affairs Minister during his two day visit to Maldives in 2022.
- India and Maldives clearly have a responsibility to ensure stability and security in the Indian Ocean. India wants to see the Maldives embrace Quad’s Pacific strategy, which brings together India, the US, Japan, and Australia.
Diaspora and Culture
- Indians are the second largest expatriate community in the Maldives with approximate strength of around 22,000. Indian expatriate community consists of workers as well as professionals like doctors, teachers, accountants, managers, engineers, nurses and technicians etc., spread over several islands.
- The proximity of location and improvements in air connectivity in recent years has led to a very substantial increase in the number of Indians visiting Maldives for tourism (around 45,000) and business. India is a preferred destination for Maldivians for education, medical treatment, recreation and business.
- Both the countries share long cultural links and continuous efforts are underway to further strengthen these linkages. Three historical mosques (Friday Mosque and Dharumavantha Rasgefaanu Mosque Male’, Fenfushi Mosque – South Ari Atoll) were successfully restored by Indian experts.
- In 2009, a Maldivian Rock Band participated in the South Asian Bands Festival in New Delhi.
- The India Cultural Center (ICC), established in Male in July 2011, conducts regular courses in yoga, classical music and dance. ICC programmes have become immensely popular among Maldivians of all ages.
- Maldives supports India’s permanent membership and India’s candidature for a non-permanent seat to the year 2020-21.
- They both belong to the Commonwealth and have backed one another in forums around the world like the NAM.
- Security Cooperation: Earlier in August 2021, in the Deputy National Security Adviser-level meeting hosted by Sri Lanka, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives had agreed to work on “four pillars” of security cooperation.
- UNGA President: In June 2021, India welcomed the election of Maldives’ Foreign Minister as the President of the 76th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA) for 2021-22.
- Mou’s: In November 2020, India and the Maldives signed four Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) related to High Impact Community Development Projects and on Cooperation in Sports and Youth Affairs.
- Relief Package: In August 2020, India had committed to Maldives a five-pronged package including air, sea, intra-island and telecommunications to help it deal with the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Bilateral Bubble: Maldives is the first South Asian country with which India started a bilateral air bubble during Covid-19 pandemic.
- Bilateral Visits: Since September 2018, India and Maldives have seen a number of bilateral visits.
- India’s Prime Minister visited Maldives to attend the swearing-in ceremony of President Solih.
- Maldives President also visited India in December 2018.
- The Home Minister of Maldives met the Indian Home Minister in February, 2020.
- In July 2022 Chief of Maldives National Defence Forces, Major General Abdulla Shamaal, visited India to expand the defence cooperation between the two neighbouring countries.
- The President of Maldives visited India in August 2022, with the aim of tightening geo-political, security, and economic ties between the two geographically and economically dependent South Asian neighbours.
- Maldives and India are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC).
Significance of Maldives to India
Maldives is an important Indian neighbour. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Maldives “a valued partner in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood” and said that India-Maldives “ties are built on a very strong foundation,” the contours of which “are defined by shared strategic, security, economic and developmental goals.”
- India has strategic interests in political stability of neighbourhood, and Maldives is no exception.
- Maldives is an Indian Ocean Region country making it vital for India’s security and trade.
- Maldives is an attractive destination for Indian investments and exports.
- With increasing Chinese presence in the region, India needs Maldives support and sensitiveness to India’s national interest.
Challenges in Relations
India has consciously avoided interfering in the Maldives’ internal affairs despite being invited to do so by the actors in the atoll state. India’s major concern has been the impact of political instability in the neighbourhood on its security and development. The February 2015 arrest of opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed on terrorism charges and the consequent political crisis have posed a real diplomatic test for India’s neighbourhood policy.
The situation deteriorated further when the former President of Maldives declared emergency in February 2018, India has urged the Government of the Maldives to allow all institutions, including the Supreme Court and the Parliament, to function in a free and independent manner, and to permit genuine political dialogue between all political parties. This has also been the demand of the international community at large. India voiced that a democratic, stable and prosperous Maldives is in the interests of all its neighbours and friends in the Indian Ocean.
Relation with China
China’s strategic footprint in India’s neighbourhood has increased. Maldives has emerged as an important ‘pearl’ in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ construct in South Asia.
- Given the Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian Ocean, China has been vying for a maritime base in the atoll with the primary motive of ensuring the security of its sea lanes, especially the unhindered flow of critically-needed energy supplies from Africa and West Asia through the Indian Ocean.
- Beijing has evinced a keen interest in developing infrastructure in the lhavandhoo, Marao and Maarandhoo Islands.
- During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s Maritime Silk Route.
- Chinese companies are involved in airport development and have now been handed islands for resort development.
- China has provided grant and loan assistance to the Maldives to build a bridge between the capital and the airport (called the China-Maldives friendship bridge)
- Amendments to the Maldivian Constitution in July 2015 allowed foreigners to own land, including investments of over US$ 1 billion for projects where 70 per cent of the land has been reclaimed. Looking at the parameters, China will be the obvious beneficiary. Chinese nationals now account for the largest tourist arrivals in the islands.
- China has also signed a Free Trade Agreement with Maldives while India doesn’t possess a similar arrangement with it.
- India’s concern stems from the increasing Chinese strategic presence in the Indian Ocean region. Though the Maldivian government has assured India that the Chinese presence is purely economic, the concern of ‘places turning into bases’ is genuine.
Radicalisation and Terrorism
- The number of Maldivians drawn towards terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Pakistan-based madrassas and jihadist groups has been increasing. The political instability and socio-economic uncertainty are the main drivers fuelling the rise of Islamist radicalism in the island nation. The LeT, through its front organisation, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, has established a foothold especially in the southern parts of the Maldives in the garb of the post-2004 tsunami relief operations. The possibility of LeT using remote Maldivian islands as a launch pad for terror attacks against India and Indian interests have been cause of concern.
Indian Ocean Region
- Maldives is strategically located along major sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. A significant portion of world trade takes place through the Indian Ocean. All the energy supplies coming from Gulf nations pass through this area. The issues of piracy and stability in the region are of key concern to India.
- Maldives’ vulnerability to climate change was evident when Tsunami hit the Island in 2004. The Government of Maldives development plan of relocating and consolidating population on the larger islands is a risky and complex process and needs funds for the construction of houses. Moreover, dwelling units in these Atolls need better expertise in construction, so that these can withstand tidal surges and sudden environmental changes.
- Complex geographical conditions coupled with high costs of service delivery and lack of funds to develop connectivity and infrastructure are some of the factors leading to unequal development among Atolls and in initiating various development projects in the region.
- Relations between India and Maldives came under a strain after Male had terminated the agreement it entered into with GMR in 2010 for the modernisation of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. Maldives government maintains the reason for cancellation of the project was because “the contract was illegally awarded” by the then President Nasheed. The country’s anti-graft watchdog has ruled out any corruption in the leasing of the international airport to GMR. The airport expansion project was subsequently given to the Chinese company, which will plough in US $ 800 million. GMR, meanwhile, has won arbitration against the Maldives. The quantum of damages to be paid by the Maldives is yet to be announced by the arbitration tribunal in Singapore.
- Relations between India and the Maldives are essential for the stability of the Indo-Pacific and its maritime security. As part of the government’s “Neighbourhood First” strategy, India continues to be a dedicated development partner for a secure, prosperous, and peaceful Maldives. However, Maldives should also continue with its “India First” policy for the sake of maintaining a strategic level of comfort in relations.
- Although India continues to be an important partner of the Maldives, India must not grow complacent over its position and must remain attentive to the developments in the Maldives.
- India must play a key role within Indo-Pacific security space to ensure regional security in South Asia and surrounding maritime boundaries.
- The Indo-Pacific security space has been developed as a response to the growth of extra-regional powers (particularly China’s) in India’s maritime sphere of influence.
- At present, the ‘India Out’ campaign has support from a limited population but this cannot be taken for granted by the Indian government.
- If the issues raised by the supporters of the ‘India Out’ are not handled carefully and India does not effectively convince the Maldivians about its intentions behind the projects on the island nation, the campaign may change the domestic political situation in the Maldives and may set ripples in India’s currently favourable relationship with the country.
- India-Maldives provide lessons not only to boost existing bilateral relation but also will help in the management of other neighbourhood relationships. Greater efforts and sensitivity – not just by the government but people too – are certain to yield rich dividends. Without a friendly, peaceful and prosperous South Asia, India’s ambition to be a great power may remain unfulfilled.