A sweeper in front of the President’s office in Male, the Maldives, on Sunday. (AP)
Washington, Feb. 12: “Operation Castor” by the Indian Navy brought relief to the tsunami-hit Maldives during Christmas season in 2004 and earned praise worldwide, but India’s political leadership continuously turned a blind eye to a developing political tsunami there that now threatens to undercut New Delhi’s sway over this unique nation of atolls.
It has implications that have the potential to drag down the four southern states into the same cycle of religious fundamentalism and terrorism that has become a familiar story in north and western India.
Unless the UPA government pulls itself up by its bootstraps now and thinks out of the box to help solve a crisis triggered last week by the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives is likely to drift deeper into chaos.
Madhusudan Ganapathi was not the first Indian diplomat to be rushed to Male to put out a fire that is the fallout of that capital’s politico-religious schizophrenia. And he will certainly not be the last.
A few months before the December 2004 tsunami, India defused a political earthquake when Shyam Saran, like Ganapathi now, flew into Male by special aircraft and ensured that normality was not disrupted.
That was a turning point when the political cauldron in the Maldives began boiling: the trigger was Evan Naseem, an ordinary prisoner in dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s notorious Maafushi jail, an alleged drug dealer who was beaten to death a year earlier, merely for disobeying orders by prison guards to come out of his cell.
Naseem became the Maldives’s Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, whose self-immolation in December 2010 was a catalyst for the current turmoil in the Arab world.
Popular revolutions had not yet become the norm, otherwise what followed Naseem’s death, which was pronounced at Male’s Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, would have been called a Maldives Spring. Besides, the Maldives is so tiny that nobody cared, except India.
Sensing the direction in which new political winds had begun blowing in the Maldives, India’s professional diplomats began talking to the opposition. They did not want to be caught unawares by a Maldives Spring.
For India, one of the problems of being the biggest country in South Asia is having to deal with sensitivities of smaller neighbours that often border on the irrational. Gayoom was apoplectic that Indian diplomats were talking to members of Nasheed’s nascent Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) that was still operating primarily in exile from Sri Lanka.
Saran, with his long experience of having handled such sensitivities in Nepal, Mauritius, Myanmar and Indonesia, ensured that a potential flashpoint was defused. But as foreign secretary, Saran had inherited a baggage on the Maldives that hung around his neck like an albatross.
Under sheer pressure, South Block often lurches from one patchwork to another and has little time for long-term strategic thinking, but Saran managed to get rid of the Maldivian albatross. Yet the curse that came with the albatross as in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner did not go away.
That is what India is paying for in the latest crisis in the atolls to its south-west that are critical for national security.
It is a matter of criminal neglect by successive Indian governments after Rajiv Gandhi’s that none of them paid attention — like a big brother should do — to the political problems in the Maldives the way New Delhi tracks and attends to similar problems in Nepal or Bhutan. There was never enough time for the Maldives.
Or willingness, for that matter. For as long as two years slightly before the Naseem episode, India did not have a high commissioner in Male.
Most Indian Foreign Service officers are unwilling to go to Male unless they are forced to because it is a diplomatic wasteland in the traditional sense and because a posting to the Maldives is often viewed as a stamp of inadequacy in later career.
During the two-year period when Male went without an Indian envoy, an attempt was made to send an otherwise competent IFS officer, who had previously suffered in his career because he dared divorce a member of one of India’s best known political families.
Indian politics was much more feudal and one-party oriented during those years and the officer paid a price for his personal choice. But he was not going to be sent to the Maldives, which he saw as another slight to his already damaged career.
Luckily for this officer, he had two dogs, which were now like his family and the Maldives does not allow any dogs for religious reasons. The only dogs that can be found anywhere in this nation of atolls are at the airport in Male to sniff passenger baggage for drugs. But those dogs are handled only by Sri Lankans under an outsourcing arrangement with Colombo.
So the officer in question put in a request that on compassionate grounds his assignment should be cancelled since he cannot take his dogs to Male. The request was granted. Another officer sought to be excused because his mother was ill and he could not go to Male.
South Block then scraped the bottom of the barrel and came up with the name of a consul general serving in North America. He too refused and there was enough political support to persuade the leadership of the IFS to thwart his posting. His plea was that he had hydrophobia, which made the Maldives unsuitable.
An aside to this story is that this consul general subsequently dug his heels and stayed put in Canada for well over a year. Fortuitously, his host government discovered that he had surreptitiously acquired Canadian permanent residency for his immediate family in violation of diplomatic rules.
Canada’s foreign minister then wrote a personal letter to Jaswant Singh drawing his attention to this violation. Singh, then external affairs minister, ordered his repatriation from Canada in seven days flat.
This reporter vividly recalls a nugget on the Maldives that was doing the rounds in South Block at that time. Kanwal Sibal, who was then foreign secretary, had persuaded then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to go to the Maldives at the end of September 2002: it would have been the first prime ministerial visit to Male in five years.
But there was no high commissioner in place to receive Vajpayee. The story goes that Neelam Deo, who was the joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs handling the Maldives, was narrating her tale of woe to her IFS batchmate, Shashishekhar M. Gavai, then consul general in Edinburgh.
To Deo’s great surprise and relief, Gavai volunteered to go as high commissioner to Male. As soon as she put the phone down, Deo rushed into the foreign secretary’s office to convey Gavai’s readiness to move from the UK.
It is to Sibal’s credit that in the course of just two days he cut through the long bureaucratic process of appointing an envoy. It is a reflection of India’s clout in Male that the Maldivians approved Gavai’s appointment in one week and fixed a date for his presentation of credentials.
Gavai rushed from Edinburgh to take charge as high commissioner just three days before Vajpayee landed in Male on September 22, 2002. It was probably the only instance in Indian diplomacy where an IFS officer held two jobs simultaneously on two continents. Gavai went back to Edinburgh after Vajpayee left Male to relinquish his charge as consul general.