Amid the “India Out” campaign that has been roiling Maldives for months, its President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih Thursday issued a decree banning protests against the country, citing a threat to national security.
The decree, titled “Stopping Campaigns that Incite Hatred Against Various Countries Under Different Slogans”, makes specific mention of the India Out protests as an organised campaign that aims to disrupt relations between the two countries and efforts to maintain peace and security in the region by inciting unrest.
President Solih has ordered all relevant authorities to implement the decree by taking steps under available provisions of the law.
The decree, issued in the Dhivehi language, says the state has a duty to ensure the security of diplomats posted to the country and diplomatic missions. Some months ago, following threats to Indian diplomats and the mission over social media as the campaign gathered momentum, the Indian mission had requested additional security, which the Solih government provided.
The anti-India campaign was first led by a social media activist, but former President Abdulla Yameen has become its face since his release from prison last December.
On Wednesday, a huge “India Out” banner was seen hanging out of his residence in Male. It was taken down by the police on Thursday with a court order.
During his stint in office from 2013 to 2018, Yameen gave Maldives’ foreign policy a pronounced pro-China tilt. This was a time Beijing was projecting its power in the Indian Ocean region and marketing its Belt and Road Initiative.
Yameen is now seen using the India Out campaign as his re-election vehicle. The presidential elections are due by September 2023.
“They are using these protests as a means to create large-scale unrest and instability in the entire country. They want to engineer an uprising against the government,” said Mohammed Aslam, who heads the parliamentary committee on national security.
The presidential decree says while the government is committed to protect the freedoms of expression and assembly, those behind the campaign were exploiting these freedoms for their own ends in a manner that would cause unrest in the Maldives, and isolate it in the international community.
It said the National Security Council had concluded that the campaign, which intended “to incite hatred against India”, was a threat to the country’s national security, could hinder the state’s capacity to maintain sovereignty, and posed a threat to the safety and security of Maldivians living abroad.
The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party had earlier considered bringing in legislation to ban the India Out campaign. A draft of the proposed law had been circulated, but the idea was scrapped.
After taking office, the Solih government sent out clear signals that it intended to repair ties with India, which had taken a hit during the Yameen presidency. The government also declared an India First foreign policy.
Since then, Delhi and Male have signed a security cooperation pact with a credit line of $50 million from India for capacity building in the maritime domain. India is also helping to develop a coast guard base at the Uthuru Thilafalhu atoll. The pact includes cooperation in fighting terrorism and extremism.
Maldives is part of the New Delhi-driven Colombo Security Conclave, which also includes Sri Lanka and, lately, Mauritius. The minilateral envisages cooperation on “shared security objectives” in a part of the Indian Ocean where India sees itself as first responder and net security provider.
The India Out campaign has claimed that New Delhi maintains a military presence in Maldives, something the Maldives government denies. This has become the focus of the campaign.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited Maldives in March. He announced a number of new projects under the High Impact Community Development Project (HICDP) in various atolls of the Maldivian archipelago.
The projects cover setting up hospitals, sports facilities and museums. India already has 20 other HICDPs in Maldives. These projects are finalised on the basis of requests and proposals from local communities. India is also executing the biggest infra project in Maldives — the Greater Male Connectivity Project.
Maldives is home to a large community of expatriate Indians who are mostly employed in the hospitality, education and health sectors.