New Delhi: A day after being sworn in, the new Maldives president has officially asked India to “honour [the] democratic will” of the Maldivian people by withdrawing Indian troops from the island nation.
The request was made public by the president’s office on Saturday (November 18).
It was made by the new President Mohamed Muizzu in his meeting with Indian earth sciences minister Kiren Rijiju, who called on him at the president’s office.
The Indian minister had attended Muizzu’s swearing-in ceremony on Friday.
While the Maldives president’s office revealed the request, there has been official silence from the Indian side.
A post on X (formerly Twitter) by Rijiju only stated that he conveyed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s greetings and “reiterated India’s commitment to further strengthen the substantive bilateral cooperation and robust people-to-people ties”.
Privileged to call on President H.E. Dr. Mohamed Muizzu.
Conveyed greetings from Hon’ble PM @NarendraModi and reiterated India’s commitment to further strengthen the substantive bilateral cooperation and robust people-to-people ties. pic.twitter.com/nFa95QD9ES
— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) November 18, 2023
Speaking to The Wire on phone from Malé, Ibrahim Khaleel, minister of strategic communication at the president’s office, noted that soon after Muizzu won the election, he had started dialogue with the Indian high commissioner about the issue of Indian troops.
“He has now formally requested India to withdraw troops in his meeting with the Indian minister,” he said.
Stating that the meeting had been “very positive”, Khaleel dismissed concerns that the request would negatively impact India-Maldives relations, asserting that “both countries respect each other”.
In contrast, the English language press release was more expansive and also included praise for the operation of the Indian choppers.
“The President noted that at the Presidential Election held in September, the Maldivian people had given him a strong mandate to make the request to India and expressed the hope that India will honour the democratic will of the people of the Maldives,” it said.
Muizzu also “acknowledged the significant role of the two helicopters in providing numerous emergency medical evacuations”.
While there is no official response from New Delhi, Indian sources indicated that India has taken a conciliatory position on the demand for the withdrawal of its military personnel “present in [the] Maldives for operating aircraft for medical evacuation and counter-drug trafficking purposes.”
“It was agreed that the two Governments would discuss workable solutions for continued cooperation through the use of these platforms as this serves the interests of the people of Maldives,” said sources about India’s response to the demand.
Indian sources also highlighted Muizzu’s appreciation for the role of Indian helicopters and aircraft in the medical evacuation of Maldivian citizens.
“They are also central to the confidence that international tourists have staying on remote islands. He appreciated their role in monitoring and combating drug trafficking,” they added.
“I look forward to working with you on issues of mutual interest and concern, and to recalibrate and advance the time-tested relationship between our two countries for the betterment of our people,” he replied to Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Over a month ago, Muizzu convincingly defeated incumbent Ibrahim Solih after a campaign which was largely centred around a commitment to force India to withdraw its troops allegedly stationed in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.
The leitmotif of the opposition’s campaign has been the ‘India Out’ slogan, attempting to corner Solih for his allegedly close ties with New Delhi.
In an interview with Channel News Asia on Friday, the new president was quick to point out that resetting the Maldives’s foreign policy would be one of his priorities in the first 100 days of his government.
He had reiterated that the withdrawal of Indian troops would be at the top of his agenda.
“The people of [the] Maldives have very clearly spoken during this campaign, that they have given me a mandate of removing foreign military presence from the Maldives. Whether it’s India or any other country, it doesn’t matter to us,” he told the Singapore-based news channel.
This is not the first time that a Maldives president has asked for the withdrawal of Indian troops.
In June 2018, President Abdulla Yameen had refused to renew the contract for two advanced light helicopters gifted by New Delhi and called for the removal of Indian security personnel.
At that time, India had around six navy pilots and several ground personnel to operate the two choppers, which were being used as air ambulances.
Relations between India and the Maldives had already nosedived under Yameen’s administration, but the demand to India to withdraw its personnel was not carried out.
A few months later, Yameen lost elections to joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih. The Indian PM had attended Solih’s swearing-in ceremony in November 2018.
Under the Solih administration, India has also funded several major projects, including the Greater Malé Connectivity project, which was touted as the largest such infrastructure development project in the Maldives.
President Muizzu also underlined the “importance of accelerating the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP), highlighted the importance of addressing and overcoming the issues delaying the project”, the Maldivian readout noted.