Getting India ready first, for the world to get India-ready

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Even as the ‘world is getting India-ready’, as succinctly put by External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar over the West and Russia wooing the nation after the Ukraine War especially, New Delhi is caught in a domestic political cross-fire in neighbouring Maldives. The way it is playing out, Maldives’ re-opened dispute with Mauritius over maritime boundary can become a ‘nationalist issue’ in President Ibrahim Solih’s re-election bid a year from now, with his critics throwing India’s name for added effect, and unjustifiably so.

The issue flows from a reversed Solih government decision to recognise Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos archipelago after splitting the core and sticking to the earlier position on the long-pending border dispute in the ongoing hearing of the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea (ITLOS) at Hamburg, Germany. According to government’s critics, including Parliament Speaker, Mohammed Anni Nasheed, a former President and Solih’s ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chief, Chagos was never a part of Mauritius but was always a Maldivian territory — and surrendering it now could adversely impact on the nation’s territorial claims.

The mood of the nation, or of the polity was known, when Parliament voted 54-1 in the 87-member House, on an ‘emergency motion’ moved by Adam Shareef of the Opposition PPM-PNC combine, to discuss the issue. It was evident that a substantial number of MDP parliamentarians, from both the Solih and Nasheed factions, had voted for the motion, as the party has a high number of 65 seats and the Opposition has a total of 12, with the rest going to government’s allies and Independents.

 Overlapping EEZs

Maldives, under Solih, was among the five nations that voted 116-5 with 56 abstentions at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), on the 2019 ‘non-binding advisory opinion’ of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), upholding Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos and asking the UK to hand over possession. This changed after President Solih wrote to Mauritian Prime Minister Anerood Jaganauth, on 22 August and the Maldivian legal team publicised it at the ITLOS hearing recently.

Critics have claimed that the government cannot ‘cede’ Maldivian territory without parliamentary approval. According to them, the decision could weaken Maldives’ claims to a larger part of the overlapping EEZ, as it stands. Speaker Nasheed, who had agreed with Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam at St Kitts in 2011, to take up their case with the UK together, has now told Parliament that the Mauritius-fixed base-line to determine the ‘median’ and the IMBL under UNCLOS was faulty and denied ‘full EEZ’ to Maldives.

Nasheed has since clarified that the Chagossians who were relocated to Mauritian mainland when the UK handed over Diego Garcia to the US for developing a military base in the sixties were actually Maldivian fishers, especially those from the Southern Atoll of Fuvuhmulah, settled there for long. Adding a new twist, he said that Maldives and Mauritius had discussed ‘dividing’ Chagos in the past, implying that the government conceding the whole of Chagos to the former would cancel out the earlier proposal.

Mauritius was ruling them for the British colonial masters, and once the latter left, the sovereignty should vest back in them, and not any other. They rejected the ICJ rejecting their ‘right to self-determination’ in its 2019 ‘advisory opinion’ and referring to them as ‘Mauritians of Chagossian origin’. Pointing out how they were not representing either in the ICJ earlier and ITLOS at present, they wanted re-hearings in the matter. However, they did not refer to the Maldivian claims to Chagos, either.

Government leaders, starting with President Solih, have asserted that they were only reiterating the Gayoom presidency’s 1992 agreement with the UK, on the sovereignty issue. The 2019 advisory opinion of ITLOS, as the highest dispute-resolving mechanism on International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was however binding on Maldives, especially when backed by a massive UNGA vote, they have indicated. According to the critics, the question why this change-of-heart between the UNGA vote in 2019 and the ITLOS hearing begs justification, still.

 Pressure from ‘Big Brother’

Among the critics, Gasim Ibrahim, leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP) partner in the ruling coalition, claimed that ‘Big Brother’ India had pressured the government to yield on the sovereignty question. Former attorney-general and one-time MDP president Mohamed Munavvar said as much in a rare news conference in years, and claimed that India stood to benefit. However, neither produced any evidence. Both also argued that any such move amounted to ceding Maldivian territory, which required two-thirds support in Parliament.

Of the two, Munavvar is an acknowledged authority on international maritime law, and had written Maldives’ maritime law into the Constitution in the nineties. He said that the Solih government ‘disclosing the nation’s hydrographic survey details to India’ was dangerous to national security as it helped identify shallow and deeper waters for submarine operations when Maldivians themselves did not have any idea about the nation’s continental shelf.

A section of the local media went over-board even more, with an otherwise moderate web-journal claiming that Maldives yielding on Chagos sovereignty was quid pro quo for India to build a military facility in Mauritius. It cited an Al Jazeera ‘investigative report’ of 2021 on India allegedly building a $250-m ‘air-strip and jetty for military use’ on Agaléga island of Mauritius as a part of New Delhi’s SAGAR initiative for ensuring ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ and to expand its ‘influence towards western Africa’.

The Al Jazeera also referred to the virtual cancellation of a similar project to develop the Assumption Island in Seychelles in 2018 as the compulsion for India to find an alternate locale. In its turn, the local web-journal now has referred to the Opposition’s ‘India Out’ campaign in Maldives, against the alleged location of Indian military helicopters in the nation’s islands, likewise.

For his part, Opposition PPM-PNC’s presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen, even while being critical of the government on the sovereignty question, has not dragged India into his more recent speeches across islands in Noonu Atoll. The former President has been going slow on, if not outrightly withdrawing, his months-long ‘India Out/India Military Out’ campaign after a presidential decree outlawed campaigns of the kind against ‘friendly nations’.

The Yameen camp has contested the law before the nation’s judiciary, and seems to be apprehensive about the Election Commission (EC) disqualifying them, for defiance. Even without it, Yameen is facing the possibility of electoral disqualification if either of two pending money-laundering cases against him leads to conviction, after the Supreme Court had acquitted him in an earlier one.

Yameen now wants the government to publish Solih’s letter to Jaganauth, and a party MP has moved Parliament in the matter. Former vice-president and head of Yameen’s legal team, Dr Mohamed Jameel, has said that the Solih government has ‘successfully lost legitimacy’ to stay on in power after the President violated the Constitution, first on the Chagos issue, and then by referring to religious plurality in the country.

Deliberate attempts

For the Maldivian government, the ITLOS legal team under attorney-general Ibrahim Riffath and the foreign ministry have separately defended the official line. Media reports, quoting unnamed diplomatic veterans, claimed that there was no change in the ground situation between 2019 and now, for the government to change its stand and without taking the nation into confidence. Defending the UNGA vote against the ICJ opinion favouring Mauritius, the government publicly stated that the government could not support any proposal that diminished the nation’s territory under the 2008 Constitution, nor could it alter the official position since the nineties.

Addressing the annual commemoration function of the nation embracing Islam, President Solih reaffirmed that his administration is seeking a resolution to the dispute only at ITLOS and not with any specific country. He disapproved of deliberate attempts to mislead the public and create strife for public gain, and said that the Gayoom regime had reached the Chagos agreement with the UK in 1992.

In a series of tweets, Economic Affairs Minister and pro-Solih MDP chairman Fayyaz said that government’s critics had supported a near-similar line while in power. He asked why Nasheed as President agreed to negotiate the borders with Mauritius in 2011, ex-AG Munnavar agreed to similar negotiations with the UK in the nineties, and ANC’s Shareef as defence minister did not act when the ICJ’s opinion was known in 2017.

Intertwined with incumbent

Depending on how the ITLOS proceedings move forward and what the verdict is, and when it is delivered — before or after the Maldivian presidential poll — it could become a more serious ‘nationalist issue’ in the elections than Yameen’s ‘India Out’ campaign. Any electoral benefit from the current campaign will go only to the Yameen camp.

This apart, even if the Yameen camp decides not to revive the ‘India Out/India Military Out’ campaign, whatever be the judicial verdict on the presidential decree, the message is clear. Yameen has occasionally clarified that they were not against India (aid and support) but only against the presence of the Indian military on Maldivian territory.

According to multiple analysts the world over, hiding behind Yameen is China with its adversarial intent for India, as much in the Ocean waters as on land. Neither India, nor the Yameen camp, has done anything to ease the situation, so to say. Conversely, the latter has been able to link all of India’s developmental aid, as different from Covid-centric humanitarian assistance, to the Solih government, with the result, New Delhi’s future participation of the kind has got intertwined with incumbent Solih’s electoral fate.

Cold War lessons

What is true of Maldives is true of most if not all the neighbours as New Delhi is identified with one of the many electoral contenders in a country. Bangladesh is a case in point, where India cannot imagine a future relationship in the absence of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, after losing the 2015 presidential election, said that ‘Indian agencies had worked with their American counterparts and others, for regime-change’.

Though both sides have travelled together since, especially with massive Indian assistance when Sri Lanka’s economy was sinking under the Rajapaksa rule earlier this year, past memories still haunt both sides. In comparison, India’s problems with Bhutan and Nepal, the other two border-nations, are minor, but they do exist. Afghanistan is so near and so far, and a problem for New Delhi, both with and without Pakistan.

For India, China is the watch-word in each of these nations, and Indian leaders have not stopped talking openly about what they see as the ‘Chinese threat’ all round. The old and original adversary, Pakistan, has now returned to share the Indian ‘honours’, after the recent American and German initiatives that have a direct impact on bilateral and geo-strategic equations in the region, centred especially on PoJK.

This has also exposed the limitations in India relying heavily and excessively on western friends, who have since cited ideology and human rights to pull the mainstay economic rug from under China’s feet, as the latter is now being seen not as a partner but a challenger, a threat. The nation’s independent foreign policy, deriving from what Americans call the ‘supreme national self-interest’ can trigger such differences among prospective allies much earlier. New Delhi may be called upon to review the past and prepare for the future, and should not find itself dug deep in a mess from which it could not pull out easily.

Need to do more

In this background, India will have to do more in the immediate neighbourhood and in ways that it does not get identified excessively with one or the other of domestic players with their inevitable electoral priorities, before wanting the world to be India-ready. Any half-way Indian measure can get easily torpedoed along the land and Ocean borders, though not militarily.

An India weakened in the neighbourhood cannot approach the world, or receive the world as boldly and convincingly as it should be even as friends in the US, for instance, keep sending out periodic mind-you notes of the Pakistan kind. And that is saying a lot.

The reasons are not far to seek. The 20th century produced only two super-powers, which have created models of their own. The US befriended neighbours and survived the Cold War. The Soviet Union jack-booted neighbours and went under at the first flash. Today’s Ukraine War is a product of the unfought Cold War in the European theatre, the mainstay of the times.

In its advancement to equal and then possibly challenge the US all round in the post-Cold War era, China, too, seems to have faltered the Soviet way. It has made enemies of all neighbours, going beyond Taiwan, to which it still claims ownership. The recent episodes, involving the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan and American naval vessels in those waters, is an expression on what all is wrong with China’s policy in becoming a super-power in its time.

There is a lesson for India in all these.

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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Getting India ready first, for the world to get India-ready
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