Clash between Indian and Maldives nationals gives a serious turn to rapidly declining India-Maldives relations


By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – Amid the rapid decline in the India-Maldives relations, an incident of clash between some Indian and Maldives nationals at Hulhumale Island near Male on April 29 night, in which two persons were seriously injured, has given a serious turn to the ties between the two South Asian countries. Tension has been rising ever since Mohamed Muizzu assumed office as the Maldives President in November 2023.

The archipelago nation has come closer to China than India during Muizzu’s short tenure, as he has sought to move his country away from dependence on India in crucial sectors such as food security and defence and insisted on sending back Indian troops stationed in Maldives. Muizzu is a protégé of former leader and President Abulla Yameen, who received funds from China as part of the Belt and Road infrastructure programme.

On April 29, a fight broke out between two groups of Maldivians and Indians in the night near the Central Park in Hulhumale Island, about 7 km north-east of the Maldives capital, Male. Two persons, who sustained serious injuries, were taken to the Hulhumale Hospital. One suspect was detained in connection with the violence. According to the police, the accused was a Maldivian and the clash broke out between the two groups after a verbal duel.

The Maldives Cabinet decided in December 2023 against renewing a memorandum of understanding with India for cooperation in hydrography. The agreement, which was signed in 2019, is due to expire in 2024. Coming soon after Muizzu’s pledge to send back the Indian troops and setting the May 10 deadline for it, the move was yet another indication of his government’s intention to reverse the former Ibrahim Mohamed Solih administration’s “India first” policy.

India has been an active member of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) since 1955. The MoU was signed in June 2019, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the Maldives. The two Indian Ocean neighbours, and their leaders, backed by a decisive majority, are committed to close cooperation in development, defence and maritime security. Following the agreement, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and the Indian Navy have carried out three joint hydrographic surveys in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

While President Muizzu did not make a statement specifically on the joint hydrographic survey’s MoU, the decision was aligned to the current administration’s pledge to terminate all agreements with foreign parties considered detrimental to or endangering the national security of Maldives. The message appeared to be in line with Muizzu’s broad election campaign, and once he assumed charge, the core demand of the ‘India Out’ campaign led by former President Abdulla Yameen, found mention in Muizzu’s first set of official announcements.

Going by recent developments, India may have to brace for a challenging phase of its Male partnership. Maldives is a member of the Colombo Security Conclave, an initiative aimed at enhancing Indian Ocean maritime security, that includes India, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius. However, Maldivian Vice-President Hussain Mohamed Latheef said during his visit to China that Maldives was eager to explore novel avenues of collaboration and cooperation with China.

The victory of Muizzu’s party, People’s National Congress (PNC), in the recent Parliamentary elections in Maldives has eased his path to passing laws and even making constitutional amendments. Muizzu will be in the spotlight for how he wields the near-absolute power, in a country which has seen authoritarian rule for decades.

The results also indicate widespread approval by Maldivians of decisions Muizzu has made since he was elected, including his international visits to China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and receiving U.S. senior officials, while keeping a relative distance from India. During his meeting with Modi in December 2023, he insisted on a total withdrawal of Indian troops maintaining aircraft for humanitarian operations in the archipelago, which he has now enforced.

Maldivian leaders and commentators have expressed concern over majoritarian trends in India, while the derogatory comments about Modi by Maldivian Ministers have added to the unease in India. Indian tourist figures have also dropped. With the Maldivian results having been declared, and the Indian election results coming in June 2024, New Delhi and Male have an occasion to try and mend their frayed ties.

Though the relations have been traditionally good, they have been changing with the changed perception of each government in the two countries. Muizzu’s statement that rather than “pro-India” or “pro-China”, he intends to build a “pro-Maldives” is being tested against his actions while giving him time to prove that none of those actions is to the detriment of India’s security or regional peace.

In view of Maldives’s economic troubles and development needs, its challenges with climate change, and its geographical allure for the U.S. and China, it is only a matter of time that the relative comfort of stronger ties with India and its policy of sustainable financing and support, becomes apparent to Male. To be truly successful, a mutual policy of “neighbourhood first” may be adopted by the two countries, based on mutual trust and interests.

Amid the calls for boycotts and the increasing rhetoric, Muizzu cannot afford to antagonise India, given its proximity, economic might and historical position as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. India is also likely to see the futility of keeping bad relations with a much smaller neighbour. India needs to ensure that domestic political changes in the neighbourhood do not change the basic structure of bilateral ties or affect regional stability.

In the latest developments indicating that Maldives is willing to bring the relations with India back on track, Maldives Minister of Economic Development and Trade Mohamed Saeed has met Indian High Commissioner to the archipelago nation, Munu Mahawar, while India has declared that it looks forward to strengthening bilateral economic cooperation with Maldives.

The meeting was held weeks after India allowed the export of certain quantities of essential commodities for the year 2024-25 at the request of the Maldivian government and ahead of the May 10 deadline imposed by Muizzu for the complete repatriation of 88 Indian military personnel from his country.


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