India says it hopes to resolve issue of troops in Maldives

India says it hopes to resolve issue of troops in Maldives

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson says discussions still going on, next round of India-Maldives high-level talks to be held soon; declines to comment on the March 15 deadline to withdraw troops; says India is committed to development projects in the islands

India on Thursday said it continues to hope for a resolution of the tussle with the Maldives over stationing of Indian troops in the islands, despite the Maldivian government setting a deadline of March 15 for their removal. Answering a number of questions about the tensions between the two countries, that have visibly increased since the new President Mohamed Muizzu took power and made sending back Indian military personnel attached to Indian aircraft given to the Maldives for humanitarian and maintenance operations a priority, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson said India remains “committed” to its partnership with the Maldives. He said discussions between officials who were part of “High-Level Core Group” talks held in Male on January 14 would continue “soon” , when a Maldivian delegation travels to India.

“Both sides held discussions on finding mutually workable solutions to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medevac services to the Maldivian people,” said spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal, referring to a press release issued by the MEA on January 14. “The next visit is due to be held in India to take discussions forward,” Mr. Jaiswal added, but did not announce a date for the talks. 

In a press conference after the core group talks in Male however, Principal Secretary to President Muizzu on Public Policy Abdullah Nazim Ibrahim, had told journalists that Indian military personnel will no longer be permitted to reside there, and all Indian troops, estimated to be about 88, have been asked to leave by March 15, 2024. After a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early December on the sidelines of the CoP Climate Conference in Dubai, President Muizzu had also claimed that India had “agreed” to withdraw its troops. 

However, when asked pointedly about the Maldives deadline, the MEA spokesperson declined to respond, repeating that the India-Maldives talks about enabling continued operation of the aircraft were an “ongoing discussion”. The spokesperson also declined to respond to Mr. Muizzu’s latest comments on his return from Beijing this week, believed to be aimed at India, where he said the Maldives “cannot be bullied” by bigger countries.

More is expected to be heard on Mr. Muizzu’s position during his address to the Parliament due to be held on February 5. The date for the removal of troops is significant, as the next Maldives Majlis or Parliamentary elections are due to be held on March 17, especially important for Mr. Muizzu after his ruling coalition lost the Male Mayoral election this week. 

Some reports had also claimed that Mr. Muizzu, who has travelled to Turkey, UAE and China since he was sworn in, had originally requested a visit to New Delhi, which was not accepted by the Indian government. Mr. Muizzu is the first Maldivian President not to make his first visit abroad to India. Mr. Jaiswal did not deny the reports of the “rebuff” by India, saying only that “both India and Maldives remain engaged to facilitate high-level visits with a constructive agenda at mutually convenient dates and times”.

The tussle over the troops has also led to questions about the future of nearly 50 High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs), and major infrastructure projects including a 2021 agreement for a Coastguard Harbour project in Uthara Thila Failu that was signed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and then-Maldives Defence Minister Marya Didi, and are to be built by India. 

“We remain committed to taking our development projects forward. We have been an important partner of the Maldives and we are committed to doing all that we can on development projects according to the Maldives’ priorities,” Mr. Jaiswal said, in response to questions about whether India was worried about taking them forward.

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