India looking to engage with the new Maldives govt. on all issues, says MEA

India looking to engage with the new Maldives govt. on all issues, says MEA

New Maldives President-elect meets Indian High Commissioner a day after saying that Indian military personnel would be asked to leave the islands; campaigned on ‘India Out’ poll plank

India looks forward to engaging the new Maldives government on “all issues”, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Thursday, responding to the Maldivian President-elect Mohamed Muizzu’s statement that Indian military personnel would be asked to leave the islands.

On Wednesday evening, Indian High Commissioner to Male Munnu Mahawar met Mr. Muizzu, and handed over a letter from Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating him on his electoral victory.

“Our High Commissioner in Male called on the President-elect, and he had a good discussion on various aspects of our bilateral relationship including development cooperation,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said. 

MEA officials did not comment on who would be sent to represent New Delhi at Mr. Muizzu’s swearing-in ceremony. In an unprecedented gesture in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had attended President Ibu Solih’s inauguration ceremony in Male.

‘India Out’ campaign

Last Saturday’s run-off election saw Mr. Muizzu, the former Mayor of Male, defeat the incumbent President Solih by 19,000 votes, or an 8% margin. The results have been widely seen as an upset for India, that had close ties with the Solih administration. Speaking at a public rally after the elections, Mr. Muizzu, who stood as the candidate for the PNC-PPM coalition that had campaigned on an “India Out” plank, had said that the “sovereignty” of the Maldives was most important.

“The people have decided and don’t want Indian troops to stay in the Maldives. Therefore, foreign soldiers cannot be here against our sentiments, against our will,’’ the President-elect was quoted as saying by Maldivian news outlets on Tuesday.

“So, I have to tell the [Indian] ambassador who is going to meet me that we will have a very good relationship with these values,” he had added. 

Coast Guard project opposed

While India has had a strong military presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for many years, naval and airforce personnel have been stationed in the Addu and Lammu islands since 2013 in order to maintain and operate two helicopters and Dornier aircraft that India had loaned the Maldives for reconnaissance operations over the past decade. In November 2021, the Maldives National Defence Force told a Parliamentary Committee that a total of 75 Indian military personnel were stationed in the Maldives.

In February 2021, the Maldivian opposition protested an MoU or draft agreement on maritime security signed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar with the Maldives Defence Minister, in order to construct a Coast Guard harbour base at the Uthuru Thilafalhu atoll. The construction was inaugurated during a visit by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in May this year, and this has been the focus of the PPM’s “India Out” protests. 

‘Close collaboration needed’

While the MEA spokesperson did not specifically respond to Mr. Muizzu’s threat to remove Indian military personnel — a move that could overturn an important component of India-Maldives strategic ties in the past few years — he said that the two countries needed to cooperate “closely”.

“The focus of our partnership with Maldives has always been on capacity building and working together to address our shared challenges and priorities. As neighbours, we need to collaborate closely to address the challenges confronting our region such as transnational crimes and Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief,” Mr. Bagchi said, adding that the government looks forward to “engaging with the new administration in Maldives on all such issues.” 

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