Criminalising Takfiri speech in the Maldives

by Mushfiq Mohamed

Less than a month after the bomb blast in one of the busiest areas in Male’, targeting the country’s speaker of parliament and former president, Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives was yet again thrust into a conversation of explosive nature, this time through the discourse on freedom of expression. A government-endorsed bill was submitted to parliament, proposing amendments to the penal code, criminalising hate speech, with renewed plans to tackle the country’s growing scourge of Takfirism induced political violence.

Takfirism is a technique used by extremists to accuse people of Muslim heritage of, working against Islam, being irreligious, or being a non-believer. Local clerics have stated the polysemous nature of the word, suggesting it doesn’t declare another of being a non-Muslim or sanction vigilante violence. Although the word may mean different things to different people; it has functioned as the catalyst of many instances of intra-Muslim violence in many parts of the world. By extension, it is a way of gatekeeping what is considered the true version of Islam. It is often people of Muslim heritage, whether practising or not, that get labelled as such and become vulnerable to targets of criminals disguising their thirst for violence with born-again religiosity.

Does free speech include the freedom to offend people and criticise all ideas? In a country like the Maldives––where universal and positivist ideas could be punishable, and others that are less so are freely expressed, highly circulated, and legally recognised as above criticism––the limitations on speech ravage its freedoms. In this newfangled political arrangement in power, protected by the international community, many Maldivians are opting to censor themselves as the State machinery is policing individuals for expressing their thoughts, despite facing threats from violent groups.

The Maldives tends to create fancy new laws that remain mainly as ink on paper. Although attempts to criminalise hate speech in the toxic and politically violent landscape are commendable. Hate speech in this context, is the root cause, the ideological scaffolding (if you will), that creates and promotes Takfiri speech and violence in Muslim communities.

 Corrosive politics

Maldivian authorities have a way of taking a hundred steps backwards with every step forward. Their anticipation for pushback means that the day after the government, through parliament, introduced plans to criminalise hate speech; the Attorney General announced that the government plans to explicitly define ‘blasphemy’ as a criminal offence in the penal code. It seems the government believes cajoling extremists and their supporters can have a ‘de-radicalising’ effect on them; but we all know this about winning votes in a deeply polarised Islamic country that is becoming violently intolerant.

The government-endorsed bill to amend the penal code to include hate speech as a criminal offence criminalises any act of publicly labelling or characterising a person of Muslim heritage as anti-Islamic or a non-believer, sowing hatred in the guise of religion. The proposed bill also makes it a criminal offence to encourage hate speech or join campaigns smearing people based on religion.

The bill states that if hate speech results in vigilante violence, the active participants of the attack are committing a crime. The proposed legislation also criminalises physical attacks against a person based on their political views. Maldivians who do not identify as religious also cannot be called irreligious, unless they explicitly admit to it. What does this mean in the magical world of semantics where words are defined by the intentions of the speaker rather than the effect it has on whom it is attributed to.

If the bill is passed, additionally, it will also criminalise discrimination and hate speech against individuals on the basis of national, ethnic, and racial origin.

The freedom to be shackled

In a perfidious move, following the media circus around the hate speech bill, the Attorney General’s Office doubled down to diffuse the situation, stating that the government plans to clearly define ‘blasphemy’ as a crime. To any objective observer, this government looks unstable as it is ungainly, traversing issues in a vertiginous state.

Instead of repealing anti-democratic laws, the government seems to be rapaciously caught up in sectarian rhetoric, the kind it is supposedly trying to criminalise.

The Attorney General’s announcement comes as a surprise because there are currently two provisions in the 2014 penal code, articles 617 on ‘criticising Islam’ and 1205 on ‘hudud offences’ that criminalise alleged anti-Islamic activity. Further to that the Religious Unity Act 1994 also criminalises any act that ‘disrupts Maldives’ religious unity’.

The government may be able to fool many Maldivians through its contradictory steps, but these are all blatant efforts to promote religious homogeneity in the name of creating unity. It surely implies that everyone must think and act the same for the country to have stability – what is the point of a government that cannot ensure safety, diversity and representation of all who live under its rule.

The Dhivehi Inquisition

Why do we need a hate speech law? The sense of injustice and equality is breeding a new brand of political violence since the inception of multi-party democracy in the Maldives in 2008. The country’s constitution states that every citizen must be a Muslim, it goes further than that to explicitly state that all prospective candidates contesting for public office must be adherents of Sunni Islam. As far as Maldivian law is concerned, religious and sexual minorities do not exist, and the government hides behind the illusory halcyon of a homogenous society. The root cause of many of the problems the country faces lie with the hypocrisy that is rife in the political classes, widening the gap between the affluent and the downtrodden.

In one sense, freedom of religion in the Maldives has classist overtones. A Maldivian with social mobility can easily enjoy the freedoms of the first world without having to leave the country. It is a ferry ride away. Indeed, the luxury tourism industry operates under a different set of rules than that is subject to the local Muslim population.

Academic freedom, and any talk of human rights, let alone activism, is severely curtailed through this legal framework. It has, through the abuse of democratic freedoms, given a platform to those with the most obscene views on religion.

According to the Freedom in the World Report published by Freedom House in 2020, “School and university curriculums have come under increased influence from hard-line religious leaders, resulting in some content that denigrates democracy and promotes jihadist narratives.” The locally banned NGO, Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), was arbitrarily expelled from the country for criticising this increasing grip religious hardliners have over the country’s religious affairs.

The swift banning of MDN after a smear campaign, in late 2019, over an allegedly “blasphemous” study, compared with the freedom for clerics to spread hate and violence, perfectly illustrates the stalemate the government finds itself in. After religious hardliners campaigned for MDN’s ban, it was the Islamic Ministry that legitimised these claims initially made by extremists, by alerting the police and stating that the authors of MDN’s 2016 report on violent extremism deserved execution, even when MDN had apologised for hurting public sensitivities.

Inertia in the air

Over the past month, the changes to the bill may end up weaponizing those it wishes to curtail. Islamists in the Maldives, including those in political parties in the governing coalition claim the bill is an attempt at secularising Maldivian society, while the Maldivian Democratic Party states it aims to combat Takfiri speech and sectarian violence.  

“In relation to a specific religious matter where clerics’ views don’t have an established consensus, individuals cannot be labelled as anti-Islamic for taking one side over the other”, number 1 of the proposed penal code amendments’ Article 124(a) states.

Others weighed in, stating that criminal intent behind the hate speech must be established for it to amount to criminality. “In a country where being accused of being anti-religious poses a real threat to one’s life, it would be necessary to prohibit speech that make such allegations. However, any criminal sanction must only target if the intention of the allegation was to get that person killed”, Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, tweeted in Dhivehi.

The criminal offence of hate speech is defined as follows under numbers 3 and 5 of Article 124 (a) (1): “If one does not explicitly leave Islam; and does not act or openly express views contrary to Islamic principles; others cannot actively label that person as an ‘apostate’ or ‘infidel’—or partake in characterising one as thereof.”

Earlier this month, local media reported that the bill went through committee stages, after consultations with the Islamic Ministry, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), the Prosecutor General’s Office and the wider public.

The HRCM’s press statement published on 24 June rightly pointed out that any changes to the penal code, criminalising hate speech, should adhere to international best practice. “We propose that ‘the six-part threshold test’ outlined under the UN’s Rabat Plan of Action be used in defining the perimeters of the criminal act which constitutes hate speech,” the HRCM statement said in Dhivehi. The statutory human rights body also urged the parliament to abide by Principle 12 of ARTICLE19’s Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality, outlining guidance on outlawing ‘incitement to hatred’, in addition to following the UN’s Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech unveiled in June 2019.

The lexicon of hate

The Chair of the Judiciary Committee at the People’s Majlis, MP Imthiyaz Fahmy responded stating that the parliament sought advice from established religious clerics, who recommended that it should be a criminal offence to label a person as anti-Islamic or non-Muslim without a court process establishing disbelief. “The bill has been widely amended to an extent we hadn’t anticipated,” Fahmy told Adhadhu, a Dhivehi language news outlet. Disgruntledly, Fahmy said he is unsure if it can even be called a hate speech bill anymore.

Fahmy’s frustration is understandable. The People’s Majlis saw MPs harangue over these proposed changes to the penal code, remaining intentionally ignorant of the innocent lives that hate speech and vigilante violence has claimed in the politically turbulent island country in its burgeoning experiment with open democracy.

The dehumanising smear campaign against MP Hisaan Hussein who submitted the bill is sufficient proof of the urgency for criminalising Takfiri speech and incitement to violence. Instead, political and religious actors used hyperboles to describe the consequences, claiming that these proposed provisions relinquish the status Islam has in Maldivian society. Others hid behind academic cartwheels that were far removed from the situation on the ground, opting to flash cerebral flexes rather than speaking constructively on the much-needed objectives of the bill. It is true that the Maldives are made up of islands, but it cannot be an island on an issue that is suffocating even the oldest and most robust democracies in the world.

    Hate and Hadith in the Maldives

    by Azra Naseem

    Shouldn’t the right to be come before the right to criticise for being? 

    If Adhaalath Party wants the freedom to criticise people who are LaaDheenee, shouldn’t people first have the freedom to be LaaDheenee?

    When Adhaalath Party insists that the right to criticise those they regard as LaaDheenee must exist without there first existing a right to be LaaDheenee, isn’t it essentially asking for the authority to be a vigilante religious authority or a religious police force? 

    If the right to call someone irreligious must be protected in order to protect freedom of speech, mustn’t we also protect the right to be irreligious? If the right to criticise non-religion must exist, must not also the right to criticise religion?  

    Can the right to freedom of speech exist without the right to freedom of thought? If we cannot say what we think, then what purpose does the right to speak serve?

    If, as Adhaalath says, the Anti-Hate Speech Bill fails to fit UN principles and standards, what international standards and principles does criminalising of the irreligious fit into?

    Many questions come to mind as I think about the Anti-Hate Speech Bill. It proposes an amendment to the Penal Code, making it a crime to call a Muslim not a Muslim. This proposition has essentially been boiled down by Adhaalath Party to mean the right to call a person or organisation LaaDheenee should the party and its affiliated clerics deem them to be so. 

    The word LaaDheenee is the singular most powerful word to have emerged in recent Maldivian socio-political lexicon. Dhivehi blog Mandhoob has provided a genealogy of LaaDheenee which reflects the word’s journey into the centre of modern Maldivian power politics. Having entered common Dhivehi parlance more or less at the same time as the term democracy [via Gayoom and his fellow Al-Azhar alumni] LaaDheenee has—from its original emergence as meaning irreligious—gone on to mean secularist, Enemy of Islam, apostate, and a target for Dhivehi violent extremists. The term gained most traction, and was used most frequently, when Mohamed Nasheed became president and when the opposition to his presidency was at its height. At the time, Nasheed was the premier recipient of the label, and it was used in contexts that conveyed the whole gamut of its definitions—anti-Islam; anti-religion; Bishop; Pope; Christian Missionary; Enemy of Islam. 

    Once Nasheed was ousted—for a large part for not being a Muslim enough leader for Maldives—the label began to be more liberally applied to any or everyone who spoke against Adhaalath and its clique of conservative clerics and friends. Adhaalath and its affiliates have denied that applying the label LaaDheenee marks people out as targets for extremists. But the facts speak for themselves. Outspoken critics of intolerant conservative Islamic practices who have been labelled LaaDheenee are all either dead, almost died, or have been evicted from society.

    Now that lawmakers have finally proposed a long overdue law that will make it a crime to accuse a Muslim [which all Maldivian citizens are legally required to be from birth] of being a non-Muslim, Adhaalath has formed a new group of ‘religious intellectuals’ called 101 I’lm Verin (101 Masters of Knowledge or Masters of Kowledge 101) who have come together to re-define LaaDheenee as a label to be applied to ‘deviant’ Muslims who do not fit their criteria of a “Good Muslim”. This is a much watered-down version of what LaaDheenee has meant till now. But, for the sake of argument (and given that definitions by such ‘I’lmverin’ tend to stick), let’s go with their new definition of this very fluid term: the right to call someone LaaDheenee is merely to censure them for not being a good Muslim. 

    This new definition has allowed Adhaalath and affiliates to not only distance itself from the role they played in motivating and religiously justifying the killings of people they previously labelled LaaDheenee, it also provides them with the opportunity to provide backing from the Quru’an and the Sunnah for their agenda which, I believe, is to not just retain the right to be our moral police, but also to codify that right as law. The proposed Hate Speech Bill, by removing the right to call out Maldivians for not being Muslim enough, is in a sense removing Adhaalath and company their very reason for being: calling out ‘bad Muslims’ and ensuring they are punished (i.e: killed by the law of the state or killed by a pious Jihadist to purify society). These 101 Masters will, therefore, stop at very little to ensure the Bill does not become law. As usual, these men who come out in one big bearded pack to release statements and pose for group photos, are running a sophisticated and (to those who care to see), a familiar campaign based on Hate and Hadith to try and sink the Bill even before it gets to the Majlis table. 

    “Hisaan Bill”: making it personal 

    There have been many individuals in modern Maldivian society who have been picked for targeted hate campaigns which are deeply personal. Women are especially vulnerable in such situations because personal attacks against the female gender come with the additional right to criticise not just the behaviour deemed wrong but also against the women as private individuals. Challenging women, or women who challenge the status quo, are deemed fair game if their conduct is outside the invisible, yet increasingly powerful, measurements of acceptability imposed on our society by the 101 Masters. When Aishath Velezinee challenged society for disregarding Article 285 of the Constitution, she became such a target. Much of society has done the same to former Attorney General and lawyer Azima Shakoor whenever she was not on their side of the law, and it does the same to Aisha Shujune for being a Supreme Court Justice. Aishath Aniya, whose campaign for a democratic Maldives has been relentless, is often a target and, of course, Hindha Ismail of MDN (Maldivian Democracy Network) receives the same treatment. Now the time has come to add MP Hisaan Hussain to the group, and ensure all the pent-up outrage of the Masters 101 is directed at her. Avas newspaper has been particularly eager to make the bill about Hisaan, and not what it says.

    Seemingly, this tactic is meant to discredit the Bill by a) making it seem like an idea proposed by someone woman and therefore inherently stupid; and b) making it seem like an idea proposed by not just a woman but also a LaaDheenee woman, and therefore not just stupid but also anti-Islamic. I would not be surprised to find out that Hisaan’s Timelines are now filled with messages of hate. There will be women falling over each other and over men to call her a slut, and to tell her go take a shower because she looks dirty, and tell her to cover herself up because she looks naked. They would be asking her how she dares live, and they would be telling her there is no room in society for her. MP Sun Siam said to Hisaan’s face what a lot of people thought: that bitch should be hanged, and I won’t even go to hell for it. But, of course, why would he? She is LaaDheenee after all. 

    Incredulous as it may seem, this tactic works. I am willing to bet that at least one third of the people who disagree with the Bill do so because it is proposed by some loose LaaDheenee woman who really shouldn’t be in parliament at all. 

    Secular Bill: Making it LaaDheenee

    ‘Artwork’ at what appears to be the beginning stages of the right to hate campaign against the Anti-Hate Speech Bill with required hashtag #BanSecularBill

    The anti-hate speech proposal is also being called the Secular Bill, even as it is being criticised by the same people for not being secular enough. On the one hand, says Adhaalath, this bill wants to introduce the secular notion of anti-hate directly against the teachings of Islam; on the other hand, also says Adhaalath, it is not secular enough in its definition of hate speech because it doesn’t allow people to call each other whatever they want. This tactic of getting people to hate the anti-hate bill on the basis that it is being introduced by closet secularists is a powerful one that resonates with a lot of Maldivians. 

    As the murders of Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed showed us, secularism and any talk of reducing the predominance of religion in public spaces or of increasing tolerance of Others, are not welcome in the Maldives. This tactic also allows the 101 Masters to link the Bill with MDN, which has already been found guilty without trial of attempting to introduce secularism to the Maldives in cahoots with Western states. The fact that the government has not punished the authors of the MDN report which included sentences deemed offensive to Muslims is, according to Masters 101, the biggest challenge to Islam in the Maldives today. What they want is for the authors to be punished severely and made an example of. Secularism and people who want to relegate religion to a more private place and those who put human equality above a sense of superiority derived solely from being a Muslim, are not allowed to belong to the Maldivian society of the present. 

    Calling the anti-hate speech bill The Secular Bill is another tactic meant to undermine it, and get a significant section of the population behind the hate campaign that is now taking off. If, in addition to Hisaan, the hate campaign can also have the face of Hindha—and other LaaDheenee women along the way—it is assured to go ‘viral’, which is the very modern goal of these purists who want to revive the past. When the #BanMDN campaign took off, in one month there were over 200,000 Tweets of hate with the hashtag. That was just one out of about four or five months of concerted, concentrated nationwide hate from the relatively small number of Twitter users in a total population of less than half a million people. If the 101 Masters can channel that hate towards the ‘Hisaan Bill’, there is little doubt Ibrahim Mohamed Solih—whose government regards Twitter as the official barometer of public opinion—would withdraw the bill. And he may not even shed a tear.

    Forbidding Evil: Making it God-given 

    How can there be a counter argument if what Adhaalath is fighting for is a God-given right? 

    The flurry of press releases, statements and social media posts Adhaalath and the 101 Masters have issued since the Bill, in addition to defining LaaDheenee people as deviant Muslims rather than as Kuffars, have all sought to do one thing: get people to see the anti-Hate Speech Bill as against Islamic teachings. The main argument put forth by these ‘intellectuals’ is that the Bill, by criminalising the right to accuse a Muslim of not being one, is obstructing the Islamic right and duty to forbid what is evil and encourage what is good. For Adhaalath, the Penal Code and the laws and regulations that already exist—supposedly based on the rule of law—are not sufficient to govern society and ensure the good conduct of citizens. For that to happen, society needs (if not instead then in addition to existing laws) Adhaalath and its 101 Masters of Knowledge to police our conduct and ensure our morality. In other words, by objecting to the anti-hate speech bill, the 101 Masters of Knowledge want to retain and increase the authority they have gained in the last decade to act as our moral police. If the right to call someone LaaDheenee is taken away from Adhaalath and supporters, there remains little reason for their being. If they cannot nahee the munkaraaiy—even if they remain free to encourage that which is good—their purpose remains insufficient.

    I am not a Master of Knowledge—I lack the prerequisite beard, the Arabic and the coverings necessary to make such a claim—but I know enough about knowledge itself to be certain there is a whole world of Islamic literature, learning and jurisprudence within which are contained many arguments that challenges Adhaalath’s claim that without their surveillance and monitoring of people’s conduct, and without their enforcement of what is right and what is wrong, Maldivian Muslims cannot make a moral judgement on their own. 

    Why is there no room for arguments within Islam that counter what Adhaalath is saying? This is where the importance of calling the anti-hate speech bill The Secular Bill comes into play from another perspective. By making opposition to the Bill secular—which in the vocabulary of Adhaalath means anti-Islam—it shuts out any counter arguments that can be made based on less conservative interpretations of Islam and its teachings than what Adhaalath and its Salafi clerics furnish as the only understanding of Islam. That any plurality of debate or discourse from within Islam on this matter is non-existent provides definitive proof of what has been staring us in the face for a long time: Salafi and other ultra-conservative sects of Islam are not just predominant in modern Maldives, they are the only forms of religious belief allowed. 

    Outsourcing morality: making it about fatwas

    What a pity.

    For by following Adhaalath Party into believing that their interpretation of Islam and its teachings is the only way to understand and practice Islam in the Maldives, we are shutting ourselves to a whole world of Islamic thinking that is more in line with the democratic reforms this very society once fought for so passionately. Adhaalath is pushing their thinking—based on the Hadith and the Qur’an—that we cannot be allowed free will while shutting out all arguments—also based on the Hadith and the Qur’an—that say we should be allowed to exercise free will and resort to reason in our understanding of Islam itself and the world around us. Adhaalath is peddling the belief that Maldivians as Muslims must accept that they cannot by themselves, judge what is right and what is wrong—things are good because God said they are good, and things are bad because God said they are bad, regardless of the implications for the society in which they live in.

    For example, Ali Rameez knows that marrying a little girl is the right thing to do because he can find justifications for it in religion—his own ethics (if there are any) matters little because what he is doing cannot be wrong. This way he feels no shame sitting smugly on television in 21stCentury Maldives telling us what is right and wrong while presenting a case for marrying a little girl or for keeping her from getting an education. Similarly, not speaking out against corruption among political and business leaders even when they are all obviously mired in it, can be explained away by saying it was not forbidden in as many words. Maybe it is easy to turn a blind eye to the MMPRC Corruption because the scandal is not explicitly mentioned in the body of knowledge to which they refer. This sort of morality, as I recently read, is very common in conservative Islamic nations where people, like the 101 Maldivian Masters of Knowledge, have shut the doors of Muslim minds to critical thinking, reason and free will. 

    We can leave aside for now the universal questions I asked at the beginning of this article, and leave the question of religious freedom aside for the moment. What about freedom within religion? Is even that available to Maldivians of today?

    Hate critics like me that you brand secular and therefore anti-Islam if that makes you feel on higher moral ground. But instead of spending your time and energy on insulting the irreligious, if you are so interested in defending your faith, find answers from within Islam that would stop Adhaalath and these 101 Masters of Knowledge from enslaving you and us from within. Do you really want to outsource your morality to Dr Iyaz? To Zaid? Do you want Ali Rameez to decide what is right and wrong, good and evil, in the society you live in?

      The Silk Road to Addu

      by Azra Naseem

      On a rainy afternoon at the end of October 2020, the Secretary of State of the United States, Michael Pompeo, visited the Maldives to announce plans to open an American Embassy in Male’, the capital of the Maldives. Less than a month before, on 10 September the Maldives and the U.S. signed a defence agreement to “deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean. The terms of the agreement have not been publicly disclosed but both sides committed to “a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes the security and prosperity of all nations in the region”. Days after, Pompeo was in Male’ pledging U.S. aid to help Maldivians meet the challenges of climate change, promising scholarships for Maldivian students in the U.S., hinting at future U.S. business investments in the Maldives, and excited at cooperating with the Maldives in the “good work that democracies do together.”

      Pompeo’s rushed visit to the Maldives came just six days before the U.S. Presidential Elections in which a continuation of the Trump Administration was far from assured. The Maldives is a developing nation, making itself a likely name on Trump’s list of ‘shithole countries’. The Maldives also identifies itself as a ‘100 per cent Muslim’ country. In early 2017 Trump signed an Executive Order so clearly aimed at restricting Muslims travelling to the U.S. that it became known as the Muslim Ban. Trump also described terrorism as an ‘Islamic threat’, and has pointed to mosques as breeding grounds for hatred. Conservative Islamic beliefs are widespread in modern Maldives and, at the height of the conflict in Syria and the ISIS in Iraq, the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in the region came from the Maldives.  Pompeo also made another pledge: to assist the Maldives in meeting the challenges of climate change. Trump has been vocal on his doubts about climate science, and has described climate change as ‘mythical’, ‘non-existent’ and a ‘hoax’. Pompeo views it as a business opportunity. In an interview with a Maldivian TV station he described the Paris Agreement, from which he withdrew the United States, as ‘a joke’. If the sea-levels rise as most scientists predict, the Maldives would be one of the first countries in the world to sink, making environmental refugees of its entire population. Yet here were the foreign ministers of the two countries, avowing cooperation across vast ideological divides. 

      Why?

      The question was not put to Secretary Pompeo who was welcomed with open arms by the Maldives government and a somewhat fawning press. No one asked why the US would want an embassy in the Maldives. It has never really been interested in Maldivian affairs—the U.S. rarely has friends, it has interests. And this tiny little island archipelago in the Indian Ocean with little to offer in terms of material wealth or geostrategic advantages held little interest for the U.S. It has happily managed to conduct all its relations with the Maldives through the US Embassy in Sri Lanka with a tiny budget—often a few hundred thousand dollars a year in total—and one Maldivian Policy Officer. Most of the budget allocated to the Maldives goes back to the US anyway, paid in grants to American democracy think-tanks and NGOs that occupy Maldivian civil society space often at the expense of local ones.

      Pompeo’s rushed visit didn’t allow questions to be asked, even if a journalist were so inclined. As usual, the Maldivian government was happy to hide the answers. Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid joked with Pompeo about how the rushed visit left him deprived of a visit to the Maldives’ luxury tourist islands. The real Maldives, he must have surely been told. Now that is a good joke.

      Six months later, everyone is ‘shocked’ by a decision made by Modi’s cabinet in India to open a consulate in Addu, the second largest city in the Maldives.

      Why does the consulate shock when there is the Police Training Academy in Addu, also funded by the Indian government? What need was there for this enormous facility in the Maldives built at the expense of the absolutely breathtaking, and extremely fragile, environment?

      Photo: Twitter

      The building can accommodate 320 officers at a time for training, and is capable of hosting 800 people at a time. It also has a football field, a tennis court, a basket ball court, and a football field. All this fenced and gated, and given to the very lovely Maldives Police Service who would , says the Commissioner of Police, allow some government and school people to use the facilities from time to time. Thank you so very kindly, Sir. The people of Addu, meanwhile, wait for social housing or go on a waiting list for a flat in one of the many high-rise apartments being built for locals on the beautifully artificial island of Hulhumale’.

      That marvellous facility in Addu, however, is not enough for ‘capacity building’ for the MPS, always in service of the people. According to Foreign Minister Shahid, there is yet another police academy being constructed on the island of Vaanee in Dhaalu Atoll. Commissioner Hameed showed off the facilities, and himself, recently over in Dhaalu Atoll. The people of Dhaalu must be delighted development has finally arrived at their doors, even if via a police academy.

      In September last year, Foreign Minister Shahid was launching second phase of construction at the Vaanee academy, and talked about how training police here would ‘help the community’. India had generously given MVR 8 million for the centre. Compared to the budget of MVR42 million it had given for the Addu Police Academy–‘the largest in the world’–Vaanee cost India very little. But, said Mr Shahid, the MVR42 million is only a minuscule amount of the total MVR106 million the Maldives had so generously received from India recently. It is not clear which particular grant Mr Shahid was referring to when he was speaking here for there have been many grants and agreements and MOUs and IOUs between India and Maldives in the last few years.

      In June 2019, for example, when Maldives welcomed Narendra Modi (of Gujarat fame) with open arms, just as it had welcomed Pompeo, the two countries signed six agreements, vowing mutual cooperation on a range of issues from military information sharing to terrorism and even civil service training. “Today I want to emphasise that every Indian is with you for the strengthening of democracy in the Maldives,” he said. Just as he has strengthened Indian democracy, no doubt. The visit also included lots of pledges of money, the most valued political commodity in the Maldives of today. A Line of Credit agreement worth US$800 million was part of the deal.

      Almost two years later, a few months after Pompeo’s visit and the new defence agreement between Maldives and the US, there was another flurry of agreements between the Maldives and India, and the extension of yet another Line of Credit, this time in Defence, worth US$50 million. This new agreement, signed by Defence Minister Mariya Didi and India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar allows India to build and maintain a coast guard harbour and dockyard on Uthuru Thila Falhu. The Uthuru Thila Falhu story goes back to the Yameen government and Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, and their active courting of Indian interest in the project looking for–as always–investment money. Indian journalist at The Wire, Devirupa Mitra explains the saga here in excellent detail.

      Problem was, by the time India got interested, Yameen had moved on to courting China, which had more open and deeper pockets and cared less about the smokescreen of democracy.

      In Yameen’s time, he actively courted Chinese involvement in The Maldives. China’s infrastructure projects boomed in The Maldives, especially the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, Chinese-stye high-rise housing structures on artificial islands; Chinese resort islands. By the time Yameen lost the election in 2018, he had put Maldives in debt to China to the tune of a few billion dollars. Yameen’s various decisions that favoured China over India in terms of finding a domestic foothold in the Maldives angered India so much that Modi left Maldives out of his tour of Indian Ocean island nations in 2015. The Maldivian government’s decision to cancel the agreement with Indian company GMR soured India-Maldives relations to such a level that a top government official was refused entry to India while angry Maldivians marched on the streets shouting “India Out, India Out!”. With his foot firmly on the Chinese side, the Yameen government hummed and hawed and stalled over allowing India to develop the port facility. It suited Yameen’s political goals better to remain with China.

      India and Maldivian domestic politics

      Things have changed again in the Ibrahim Solih government. Apart from the loudness with which the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge screams Maldives’ indebtedness to China, bilateral relations between the two countries have grown quiet. The uncharacteristically outspoken Chinese Ambassador who regularly engaged with the Maldivian public through his Twitter account, packed his bags and left in April this year, and there has been no replacement since.

      Chinese Ambassador Mr Zhang Lizhong leaving at the end of his tenure this April. Photo: Chinese Embassy, Male’

      The proposition to open a consulate in Addu, meanwhile, has returned India-Maldives relations to the forefront of public debate. Some are gearing up for another #IndiaOut campaign, angry at what seems to be a slow encroachment on Maldivian sovereignty by India. Others are gearing up to defend the decision as one that would eventually lead to a modern Addu, probably with a green Embassy belt with well-to-do diplomats riding around in tinted Mercedes. What prestige. Yet others accuse the Ibrahim Mohamed Solih government of incompetence, or of selling out. 

      The steady friendship between India and the Maldives, where each kept out of the other’s internal political affairs, changed with multiparty elections in the Maldives when individual parties began to lobby for India’s help to bolster their place as the leading power in the newly democratic Maldives. India and the Indian High Commission played an unusually involved role in the early breakdown of Nasheed’s government, and it was the first to accept the transfer of power on 7 February 2012 as legitimate, setting the stage for the CoNI inquiry, and lending the coup d’état an air of respectability and acceptability which it would not otherwise have received.

      Maldives-India bilateral relations have been an integral part of Maldivian domestic politics ever since. Nasheed’s decision to award the contract for developing the Male’ International Airport to Indian company GMR became a key factor in the opposition’s drive to mobilise public support against Nasheed. Accused of “selling Maldivian sovereignty to India”, the opposition organised protests against Nasheed throughout his short presidency, and during his subsequent bids to return to power. Nasheed held-off the keenest of Chinese interests in the Maldives through his close ties with India but once Abdulla Yameen came to power, India realised it was dealing with a different sort of statesman altogether. Yameen’s hand on Maldivian foreign policy was tight, and it was dictated not by friendship or cultural ties but greed. He steered Maldives clearly towards where there were most dollars to be made: China, Saudi Arabia and other sources willing to become close friends and buddies of the corrupt Bro Economy. India-Maldives relations also took a hit when Dhivehi Sitee leaked the draft of a planned Status of Force (SOFA) agreement between the United States and the Maldives in April 2013. Relations between India and the US has always been tense, given the role the U.S. has played throughout history in the militarisation of Pakistan.

      At the time when the Waheed government was getting ready to sign the SOFA, India was unhappy with the idea of the United States playing a more powerful role in the Indian Ocean, especially The Maldives, which it regards as being in ‘our backyard’. Indian media has speculated that Delhi was behind the scuppering of the agreement, causing it to be leaked to much public outrage.

      Today, in India’s Modi, the story is different, and so is the role India sees the United States playing in the Indian Ocean. Having come to share Trump’s–and now Biden’s–view of the Chinese Communist Party as the largest threat to global and U.S. security, Modi’s India is more than comfortable allowing The Maldives to sign defence agreements with the United States to allow a more powerful role for the United States in the security of the Indian Ocean.

      Meanwhile, Yameen drew Maldives deep into the gambit of China’s ambitions to revive its power and influence across the world along the ancient Silk Route. Under the Yameen-Xi friendship plan, The Maldives became a fully-fledged signatory of China’s Belt and Road Initiative–the very thing which the US and China are gearing up to challenge. It is China’s ambition to extend its influence–via major infrastructure projects—along the countries and states that now situated along the ancient Silk Route. The Maldives is one such location, sitting as it does along a route that could choke all trade traffic on its way to and from China. China’s inroads into various geostrategic Maldivian locations were made deep into the country during Yameen’s regime.

      But, just as the islands that have been ‘lost’ in the MMPRC corruption can no longer be got back, those agreements that we signed with China to join their various expansion projects in the Indian Ocean remain as valid and real as the enormous bridge that now dominates the Male’ skyline, a constant reminder of the soaring debts we now owe to China.

      In the grand scheme of things

      The road to an Indian Consulate in Addu is thus paved with the ambitions of global superpowers who seek to dominate not us but each other. We are but collateral. The answers were there, when Pompeo visited. It is in the agreements we have signed with China, with India, and with the US. It is in our willingness to be okay with not having a foreign policy that is geared towards protecting our interests. It is in the letting of our foreign policy be decided by political parties and politicians, and by diplomats with global ambitions instead of letting it be motivated by our collective good.

      The United States has, throughout its history, needed an enemy against which to define itself, and its Exceptionalism. “Islamic Terrorism”, which has driven U.S. foreign policy decisions since 2001, has lost its central location, and the new enemy is “The Chinese Communist Party”. The next global confrontation, the U.S. reckons, will take place between the U.S. and its allies and China. And the great theatre of this new war would be? The Indian Ocean.

      All this enhanced cooperation, this “standing shoulder to shoulder” against terrorism, the vaccine diplomacy, the rush to open embassies and consulates and coast guard stations and observatories and cricket stadiums, and installing Maldivians in top diplomatic positions, it is all about this: the geographically strategic location that we occupy in what is to be the new global order where ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ will be recast as China versus the rest.

      The road to an Indian consulate in Addu is also paved with the discord among us Maldivians. We spend hours, days and weeks discussing the seeming pros and cons for Maldivians in having an Indian Consulate in Addu. And, as we take sides and double down on our opinions, the rafts of agreements that we have bilaterally signed with each of the three large powers in an upcoming global conflict continue to be implemented. Top diplomat Shahid, with one eye on the presidential seat at the UN General Assembly and another on the presidential seat in 2023, continues to fly here there and everywhere, speaking of another ‘eagerly anticipated’ police academy, another bag of money in aid from India, a truckload of vaccines from the U.S., more military expenditure from both to ‘combat terrorism’ (to great success, as we have seen). As we take the China side, the US side or the Indian side, we forget to take our side. We forget that that these arguments serve no purpose other than to shore up support or ensure defeat for local politicians.

      In a way the Maldives has come full-circle in its foreign relations. It is along the ancient Silk Route that Maldives began its first foreign encounters in written history, and it is China’s attempts to reconstruct the ancient Route—which it once dominated—that is once again making Maldivian foreign relations relevant to the world. Unlike yester years, though, the present Maldives on the modern Silk Route has let itself be nothing but a pawn in the power play between and among global and regional super powers vying for world domination.

      Unless we look at the whole picture, all these protests to get India Out–which focus only on the politically useful part of a much larger whole—remain nothing but political naatak.