As the Political Game of Chess Continues in Maldives, India Still Stuck in Decision-Making Mode

Maldivian opposition leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed has asked India to intervene 'with military backing'.

Maldivian opposition leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed has already asked for India to intervene “with military backing”. Credit: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

New Delhi: Even as the Indian government issued its first public statement on Tuesday condemning the island nation’s government for declaring a state of emergency, it has yet to decide what role it will play in the ongoing Maldives crisis.

The decision, which has to be taken by the political leadership, has been stalled largely because many of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s key advisors on foreign policy are not in the country. External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is in Saudi Arabia and will be returning day after tomorrow; foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale is in Bhutan and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is currently not in New Delhi.

According to well-informed sources, various options have been suggested to the political leadership and the next step is being deliberated. Maldivian opposition leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed has already asked for India to intervene “with military backing”.

The emergency declaration

On February 1, a full bench of the Maldives Supreme Court had issued an order which released all political prisoners, reinstated seats of ruling part MPs who had defected and clarified the supremacy of the top judicial body over the Judicial Services Commission.

Four days later, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared a state of emergency for 15 days, arrested the chief justice of the Supreme Court Abdulla Saeed and another judge Ali Hamid, as well as former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Less than 24 hours after the emergency declaration, the truncated Maldives Supreme Court revoked key sections of the landmark February 1 ruling which triggered the government crackdown.

India’s first official response on the emergency clearly expressed displeasure with the government of President Abdullah Yameen.

Also read: As Maldives Declares Emergency, India Ponders ‘Tough’ Response

“We are disturbed by the declaration of a State of Emergency in the Maldives following the refusal of the Government to abide by the unanimous ruling of the full bench of the Supreme Court on 1 February, and also by the suspension of Constitutional rights of the people of Maldives. The arrest of the Supreme Court Chief Justice and political figures are also reasons for concern,” said the press release of the Ministry of External Affairs issued on Tuesday evening.

It added that India “continues to carefully monitor the situation”.

After the US and the UK strongly condemned Yameen, the European Union and Germany also made their stands clear.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres also expressed “serious concern” at the post-emergency situation and urged the “Government to uphold the rule of law and ensure the safety of the people of the island nation”.

China remained circumspect, with no direct criticism of Yameen. “We hope various parties of the Maldives will properly resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation, resume the normal order as soon as possible and maintain national and social stability. We believe the Maldives government, political parties and people have the wisdom and capabilities to cope with the current situation independently,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.

Meanwhile, the Maldives government, through its overseas missions, have gone into overdrive trying to assure that foreign tourists remains safe – even as western countries, India and China have issued advisory for their citizens to avoid travel to the Indian ocean island nation.

Diplomatic sources told The Wire that the international community expects India to act now. However, they also point out that India, as a “responsible power”, requires to take on board other countries with whom it has a strategic partnerships.

While the international community is “on board” with India, according to sources, New Delhi will have to take tough decisions.

On Tuesday morning, Nasheed issued a statement from Colombo calling for a “physical presence” from India and financial sanctions by United States.

However, an appeal by Nasheed may not be enough. A special envoy from India is also not in the works for now as since with declaration of emergency, that option has been taken out.

Sources in the higher judiciary who had spoken to The Wire late night on February 3 had asserted that India should take more robust measures. In fact, it has been learnt that the Supreme Court chief justice directly asked India for help.

A more helpful input for Indian decision-making, however, would have been a public appeal to India for help from chief justice Abdullah Saeed and even from former President Gayoom.

For the Indian government, the imprisonment of Gayoom is also a major concern and key issue. India had previously militarily intervened in Maldives in 1988 after an appeal from Gayoom. Besides, the safety and security of Indian diplomats and the large community of 25,000 Indian expatriates will also be considered while in deciding the next steps.

Restrictions on visas to India and imports from India could also proportionally impact the ordinary citizens of Maldives. Therefore, they may not be on the table.

Hope for a ‘robust response’

There is a bit of disappointment among Maldivian opposition members over India’s first public statement. “They expected a more robust response, not the language of concern,” said MDP international spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor.

Opposition members are hoping for the imposition of targeted sanctions against Maldivian government officials to put pressure on the administration.

One of the lawyers who met with Gayoom at Dhoonidhoo detention facility on Tuesday afternoon said that the 80-year-old former president remained “in good spirits”. “The conditions that he has been remanded under is obviously not what a 80-year-old and a former president should be kept in,” said lawyer Hussain Shameem to The Wire.

He is also the personal lawyer of Gayoom’s son, member of parliament Faris Maumoon who was released on Tuesday morning. Maumoon was one of the nine political prisoners who were released by the February 1 order of Supreme Court.

Also read: Maldives Crisis Escalates as Judges Take Refuge in Supreme Court to Avoid Arrest

Shameem said that Faris’s release order did not mention the reason for setting him free on Tuesday morning, but it was likely due to the execution of the Criminal Court’s order. “He is back home. But, we expect him to be re-arrested at any moment,” he said.

Following the emergency, six persons have been arrested so far – chief justice Abdulla Saeed, SC judge Ali Hameed, chief judicial administrator Hassan Saeed Hussain, former president Maumoon Gayoon, his son-in-law Mohamed Nadheem and Ibrahim Siyad, the son of opposition leader Gasim Ibrahim.

Opposition lawyers claim that the two Supreme Court judges in detention have still not got access to their lawyers.

The game of chess continues

Meanwhile, the government issued two amendments to the Emergency decree. The first amendment added one more section in the constitution that will be suspended during the emergency – article 47 which restricts search and seizure without reasonable cause and requirement of court authorisation to enter residential property.

The second amendment lifted section 145(c) from the sections of the Maldivian constitution that had been restricted under emergency. Article 145 (c) states that the Supreme Court shall be the final authority on the interpretation of the constitution.

With this amendment, the Supreme Court was technically revived after being effectively suspended after the emergency.

Immediately, the three remaining judges of the Supreme Court issued a new order which revoked parts of the February 1 order which released political prisoners and that restricted the Judicial Services Commission from investigating members of Maldives’ apex court.

The Maldives administration was quick to “welcome” the latest Supreme Court order.

The opposition have termed the Emergency decree as legally invalid, as the current decree goes beyond the constitutional extent of restriction of rights as listed in article 255.

Under the constitution, President Yameen has to get the emergency declaration ratified by the parliament in 48 hours, if the house was in session. But when the parliament is not session, the president gets a period of 14 days before approval is mandatory.

The Maldives parliament was supposed to open on Monday, but its scheduled inauguration was cancelled two days earlier. If the dozen members of parliament are reinstated as per the February 1 Supreme Court order, the ruling party will lose its majority.

Earlier in the day, President Yameen appeared on television to give a speech to justify the declaration of emergency.

Yameen claimed that there was a “motion” introduced by chief justice to remove the president. Sources had however told The Wire that no such motion had been tabled in the SC chambers.

The Maldives president accused the Supreme court of attempting to hold the government “hostage” by obstructing its works by quashing orders of the criminal court and rejecting submissions of state legal officers. He also accused the Chief Justice of “refusing to communicate with the executive offices, constitutionally established independent bodies, and with the President of the Republic of the Maldives after repeated attempts to resolve the matters”.