A presidential decree banning the Opposition PPM-PNC combine’s controversial ‘India Out’ campaign in Maldives is expected to trigger a national discourse on the limits and limitations, if any, to the people’s ‘inalienable yet unbridled right’ to freedom of expression’, especially after police removed banners, both original and modified, in which the legend, read, ‘Indear Out’, instead. An Opposition-backed media promptly claimed that India had forced the ‘decree’ decision on President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih with a 12-hour deadline.
In his early reaction to the presidential decree, Yameen said that it showed ‘how much the government is under the influence of India’. Other party leaders were relatively restrained this time, and stopped with mentioning the option of moving the nation’s Supreme Court in the matter.
The presidential decree follows a relentless, one-point Opposition campaign, variously tagged as ‘India Out’ and ‘India Military Out’, after Yameen admitted to the authorship of the original social media posts and began addressing nationwide rallies with this theme as their centre-piece, after the Supreme Court freed him in the multi-million-dollar ‘money-laundering case’, with two more pending disposal in the trial court.
The ‘India Out’ campaign was a repeat of an old strategy where the Yameen-inclusive Opposition had used (Islamic) religious NGOs, to demand the exit of then president Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed in 2011-12, but by adding Indian infra major, GMR Group, as deflection-point of national concern. This time, the Opposition is assiduously avoiding direct linkage of the anti-India campaign to their unconcealed anticipation for the exit of the Solih government, keeping the campaign focus entirely on India.
The presidential decree, proclaimed under Article 115 (c), (d) of the Constitution, is supported by a decision of the National Security Council, which noted that the ‘India Out’ campaign put the nation at the ‘risk of loss of peace and stability, huge economic and social burden, and isolation in the international arena’. It concluded that ‘failure to save Maldives from the danger could lead to irrevocable losses, and make it difficult to maintain Maldives’ independence, and ascertain the safety of Maldivians living or visiting overseas, and foreigners in Maldives’.
Ahead of the decree-proclamation, the Maldives Police Service (MPS) had issued notice to the Yameen camp to remove the offensive banners, prominently displayed outside their party offices and Yameen’s home. They later obtained a court order and removed the banners. Promptly, the pro-Yameen media questioned the need for the police obtaining a crack-of-dawn court order soon after the early morning prayers, instead of waiting for regular court hours.
Triggering the current process and asking the police to remove the banners outside Yameen’s house, Nasheed, as Speaker, dismissed an Opposition motion in Parliament, for the government to ‘condemn the brutal attacks on Indian Muslims’. He told Parliament that the campaign violated the penal code. However, the pro-Yameen media contested Nasheed’s claim on this score. Not to be missed, the mainline media has also begun carrying agency reports on ‘hate songs’ against Muslims in India.
Reflecting Nasheed’s expressed sentiments in his proclamation, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said that though his administration’s policy was to allow freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to the full extent possible, the ‘India Out’ campaign took undue advantage of the policy, and with the purpose of violating the peace and security in Maldives.
Solih also explained how the campaign was a deliberate attempt to hinder the long-standing relations with India, and international efforts to maintain security in the region. It is in this background that the National Security Council decided that political campaigns targeting a specific country posed a threat to national security, and that the security forces should stop activities that incite hatred towards specific countries.
Solih, who chose the decree route after the party’s parliamentary group was divided in backing a draft legislation, identified the Nasheed camp. The division was on predictable lines, between the camps of President Solih and Speaker Nasheed, the nation’s first ‘democracy President’ who also continued as the party boss for many years.
Yet, for a section of Solih camp MPs, more than the other, their concerns over the curtailment of the citizen’s freedom of expression was a real issue, based on grassroots-level feedback. In context, some recalled the party’s opposition when the short-lived government of president Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik (2012-13) made prior police permission and specification of date, time and venue, prerequisites for staging public protests.
This reality remains. Ruling party MPs who want no fetters on the people’s freedom of expression and assembly, as different from their opposition to the Yameen camp’s ‘misleading campaign’, as also a substantial section of non-member MDP supporters, privately had earlier contested the Nasheed camp’s draft legislation with the party’s previously-avowed preference for ‘unbridled’ freedom of expression, which they got enshrined in the 2008 Constitution.
As may be noted, unlike a draft bill, a presidential decree does not require a parliamentary attestation per se. Hence the views of these MPs will be keenly watched, if and when the Yameen camp rakes up the presidential decree also in Parliament, and more so in the ‘241 national security committee’ of the House, where all they are out-numbered. So will be the views of the MDP’s three ruling combine allies, who are otherwise opposed to the Opposition campaign and Yameen’s kind of politics.
In a relatively unrelated development, Maldivian defence minister Mariya Didi met with visiting Indian naval chief, Admiral R Hari Kumar, and highlighted how much were there to gain from the collaboration between the two ‘sisterly nations’ — a term otherwise used in reference to India by government leaders in common neighbour Sri Lanka.
The minister thanked India for always providing swift, unconditional support to the Maldives, and pointed out how bilateral defence and security partnership is at its pinnacle. She expressed confidence that training and joint exercises such as ‘EKATHA’ will continue.
Admiral Hari Kumar had chosen the Maldives for his maiden overseas visit after assuming office and also called on President Solih during his three-day visit, hosting a reception onboard ‘Sutledge’, the visiting hydrographic ship of the Indian Navy on work in Maldivian waters, and also presented a $8000 cheque to minister Mariya Didi as her nation’s share from the joint sale of the nation’s hydrographic maps.
Simultaneously, the Maldives Police Service, in response to an RTI query, clarified that Indian trainers at the ‘Institute of Security and Law Enforcement Studies’ would extend only logistical support, and were subject to exclusion from specific or special treatment. The police said no policy regarding recruitment had been made yet, and attested that the trainers’ numbers will be decided based on requirements and after mutual consultations.
Overkill or what
On issues of domestic politics, Nasheed continued the pressure on the Solih leadership ahead of next month’s election for MDP chairman, where both camps have fielded candidates. In a social media post, he claimed that the MDP would find it difficult to secure the 50 per cent vote-share required to win next year’s presidential elections despite the government’s claims to the contrary. In a social media post, the second in a few days, he said that the government had not stood by the party’s poll pledges, especially on fisheries development.
In a stray incident that went beyond the Opposition’s anti-India campaign that involved wall graffiti and the like, a government MP told Parliament that Opposition cadres had vandalised the artificial turf material meant for installation at the Ihavandhoo stadium. That was before the presidential decree.
In the midst of it all, the question arises if the government group would have done well by letting the ‘India Out’ campaign die a natural death, given the lack of popular support for the Yameen initiative — and sow seeds of confusion in his ranks about the contradiction of it all when India has ensured ‘food security’ and the rest for all of Maldives and all Maldivians through the year, and for decades now. The ruling party’s overkill, if it could be dubbed, may flag unanswered queries if the Opposition’s campaign had an element of truth to it, however minuscule it be.
The writer is a Policy Analyst and Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Views expressed are personal.