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#Maldives: A Victim of Indian Foreign Policy? Nov 3, 1988 terrorist attack and GMR in perspective.

#Maldives: As November 3, 2012, the 24th anniversary of the terrorist attack on Maldives approaches, public sentiment against the Indian multinational GMR's lease of the Maldives' international airport has gained momentum. Inflammatory speeches by local politicians and local media reports associate the GMR-MACL lease agreement on a scale with the November 3rd 1988 terrorist attack. The 1988 terror attack was by a group of Maldivians headed by Sikka Ahmed Ismail Maniku (uncle of former President Nasheed) who brought 80 Tamil mercenaries to overthrow the government of the time. India's role then was that of the knight in shining armor, the Indian military and navy charging to the rescue in Operation Cactus. Nineteen people were killed in the terror attack.

Amidst the increasingly strident calls on the Maldivian Government to "throw GMR out" and to recapture the "Maldivians' airport for Maldivians", Maldivian commentators on social media question the Indian government's role in both "operations", Cactus and GMR. Commentators question whether November 3rd terror attack was solely the brainchild of its leader Sikka Ahmed Ismail and his "associate" Abdulla Luthufee, or whether it was a covert Indian government operation designed to jump start its security relations with the Maldives. Others question the national and regional security implications of Indian control of the Maldivian international airport.

The evidence cited is quite thought provoking. These include reports by Maldivians in Trivandrum during October/November 1988 that Indian military preparations in Trivandrum began weeks in advance of Operation Cactus to Maldives. Indian Joint Chiefs of the Navy and Army were reportedly present in the preparations, an unprecedented first. Others cite video footage of November 1988 in which the Indian troop commander in Male' Colonel Joshi says that they got the call to be ready two weeks prior to November 3, 1988. Additional issues include the links between the Indian Peacekeeping Forces in Sri Lanka and the PLOTE (People's Liberation of Tamile Eelam) which provided its mercenaries to Sikka Ahmed Ismail for his attack on the Maldives.

Indian troops arrived in Maldives within 12 hours of the call by President Gayoom to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Indian Cabinet approved the dispatch of forces to the Maldives at 1530 hrs on November 3rd. Within 6 hours of cabinet approval, Operation Cactus was launched. In a display of military strength and political decisiveness, 1,600 elite Indian paratroopers led by Brigadier F. F. C. Bulsara, the Army Task Force Commander, were air lifted to the Maldives.

However, as reported by the Commander of the 44th Squadron which flew the troops in, he was ordered to put three aircraft on ‘Stand By Three Hours’ notice at 0715 hrs on November 3rd. The mercenaries had landed in Maldives just three hours earlier, at 0415 hrs. The squadron, based in Agra, was ready by 1000 hours and briefings were begun. Although the location was not divulged, media reports on a coup in Maldives prompted the flight leaders and navigators to prepare for a mission to the Maldives. The flights were to be from Agra to Maldives via Trivandrum. The 50 Independent Parachute Brigade, also at Agra, had been activated and their Commander Brigadier Farook Balsara was busy getting his battalions together. The first three squadrons were ready at Agra tarmac by 1230 hours, and the full brigade were amazingly ready for deployment by 1500 hours. Orders were delivered by officers from Army and Air HQs, Brigadier VP Malik and then Group Captain Ashok Goel.

The first pair of Indian Air Force IL-76MDs taking off from Agra embarked troops from 6 Para Bn. and 17 Para Field Regiment (the regiment's heavy weapons unit). The 6 Para was commanded by Colonel Subhash Joshi. The lead aircraft carried the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, Mr. Bannerjee, who then was in New Delhi and Brigadier Bulsara. Bannerjie provided the flight commanders and troop commanders with detailed first hand information on the Hulhule and locations of important installations. According to both flight commanders and troop commanders of the first units to land, Bannerjee presence and information was crucial to the success of the deployment.

The first troops touched down at the airport in Hulhule after a non-stop 4 hour flight. The paratroopers made an uncontested landing and the island was secured within 30 minutes. From there, Brigadier Bulsara made a significant call to President Gayoom, saying, "Mr. President, we have arrived". The troops then crossed to the capital Male' in comandeered boats and liberated Maldivian President Gayoom who was in hiding at the time. Control of the country was restored to Gayoom within hours of the Indian arrival.

Indian Navy frigates Godavari and Betwa were used to intercept and eventually sink the hijacked freighter in which some coup leaders and their mercenaries had escaped together with a number of Maldivian hostages. The freighter was travelling towards Sri Lanka when it was intercepted and hostages rescued by the Indian Navy. A contingent of Indian troops remained in Maldives for one year after the November 3 1988 attack, to provide training for the Maldives National Security Services.

Additional reports note that both the British and the Sri Lankan military were also put into readiness to deploy to Maldives. However, they stood down when India took the decision to proceed with the rescue. On that day, the US Marine Security Det. on Diego Garcia was put on alert and were told to standby for deployment to the Maldives. A P-3 Orion and C-141 were also put on standby alert. Similarly, 150 Special Task Force commandos from Sri Lanka were brought into readiness, but the mission was aborted when India took over.

The same international airport which provided the base to land Indian troops is now the focus of potential diveregence between India and Maldives. The Indian Government has reportedly entered into negotiations with the Maldivian Government and leaders of political parties to address the increasingly vociferous opposition to the continued lease of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport to the GMR-Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) consortium which won a controversial bid to lease and develop it over a 25 year period. Indian High Commissioner Mulley is reportedly working actively to diffuse the situation, while aspiring leaders of small political parties in the Maldives such as Dhivehi Qaumee Party's Dr. Hassan Saeed have jumped on to the anti-GMR bandwagon.

Some say that the GMR investment in the Maldives' international airport is part of the age-old Indian foreign policy outlook, the Greater India policy. Others see it as part and parcel of the "Look East" Policy, initially begun by Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1991, and subsequently actively pursued by the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments. The geopolitical strategy in the Look East Policy follows a philosophy articulated by Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew where India develops its strategic economic partnerships with Asian countries in order to further its engagement with the rest of the world. Under this policy, India aggressively fostered trade partnerships, Indian investments and industrial development in East and Souteast Asia and the Middle East. Indian trade with East and South Asian countries accounts for over 45% of its external trade.

The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pursued the Look East policy as not merely an external economic policy, but one in which India's strategy has been to position India as a global player on security issues. Hence, this policy also forms the cornerstone of Indian economic and security cooperation with the United States. India is also a crucial cog on the US fight with Iran on nucelar proliferation. India, one of the world's biggest importers and consumers of oil, is Iran's biggest customer for Iranian oil. US led trade sanctions require India's active participation, although there are reports that India and Iran have trade agreements that circumvent sanctions.

Build into this geopolitical concerns of both India and the US with regard to the sheltering of religious extremism in Pakistan. India and Pakistan are on two sides of the Afghanistan war, India opposing the Pakistan supported Talibans.

Religious extremism is also the flagship in which the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed invited India to enter the Maldives in a major way in 2009. As reported by the Indian Express in August 2009 Indian Express in August 2009, the move came after the Maldives approached India in early 2009 "over fears that one of its island resorts could be taken over by terrorists given its lack of military assets and surveillance capabilities". It reported that Indian Defence Minister A. K. Antony, on a visit in August 2009,  signed a defence accord with Maldives under which India would be increasing its military presence in Maldives. The agreement was reached after Antony held back to back meetings with President Nasheed and Defence Minister Ameen Faisal.

Under the defence accord, India would permanently base two helicopters in Maldives to enhance its surveillance capabilities and ability to respond swiftly to threats. It would also set up a coastal radar network for seamless coverage of approaching vessels and aircraft. This coastal radar chain in Maldives would be integrated with the Indian coastal radar system along its entire coastline. The network would be monitored by India’s Coastal Command. Additionally, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) would carry out regular Dornier sorties over the Maldives. India's Southern Naval Command would oversee the inclusion of Maldives into the Indian security grid. Military teams from Maldives would visit the tri-services Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC) to observe how India manages security and surveillance of the Maldives.

Indian Defence Minister Antony was also the first Indian bigwig to visit Maldives after the transfer of power in February this year. On this vist in Spetember 2012, A. K. Antony inaugurated a military hospital inMale', to be operated with Indian assistance. The Indian Defence Minister, accompanied by the Defence Secretary and Indian Western Navy Commander, held talks around increasing exchanges and military co-operation between the two nations. Antony also took stock of the Indian endeavour to set up a chain of coastal radars in the Maldives according to the agreement signed during his last visit in 2009. His visit to Maldives was immediately after inaugurating a similar chain of coastal radars in Kerala on September 15.

With the defence accord of 2009 came a US $ 100 million dollar economic bailout of the Nasheed Government by the Indian Government, together with 18 trade and commerce agreements that spanned several social and economic fields.  Some of these failed, such as the proposed takeover of the country's biggest hospital by India's Apollo Hospitals. Others stayed, such as the high end housing investments by Tata Housing (a member of the Tata Group). Still others, arrived later and reneged on their agreements, such as the GMR consortium. Tata is also facing problems (related to land disputes) in its Male' housing project.

The Male' International Airport issue is taken up by its proponents as one of an illegal sale of a valuable state asset. Several laws and provisions of the Constitution were violated in the lease of the airport to GMR. In addition, the list of concessions and variations to the agreement now mean that, instead of receiving payment for the lease, the Maldivian government, through its SOE MACL, is now paying GMR to run the airport. Additional problems have been created due to GMR not undertaking the promised investments, plus its raising of airport charges and fuelling costs, leading to reduction in flights to Maldives by leading international airlines. The resulting crunch on the Maldivian tourism has brought a strong tourism lobby into the political fray surrounding the controversial GMR agreement.

On the pro-GMR side, leaders of the biggest political party other than President Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporting GMR's continued stay in Maldives, the Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party (DRP) are accused of taking US $ 1 million dollars in bribes to support the GMR Agreement. Politicians named in the deal are DRP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali and Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid. The current Trade Minister Ahmed Mohamed, under whom foreign investments come, is also the Deputy Leader of DRP.

India is facing opposition to its involvement in the domestic affairs of smaller neighbours not just in Maldives, but also in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. Indian backed governments in both Nepal and Bangladesh are facing opposition from segments of the citizenry on a variety of issues. Just weeks prior to the toppling of the Indian backed government of Nasheed in Maldives, Bangladesh witnessed a failed coup attempt which was reported by international media as by "extremist elements" and fanatics" trying to destroy a "democratic" government. The blame was placed on non-resident Bangladeshi's acting in collusion with retired and serving Army Officers.

Just replacing the word 'Bangladesh' with the word 'Maldives' in these international media reports on Bangladesh would give the same message as those by the actual international reports on February 7th and later. The Nasheed Government too collapsed while it was trying to portray its failures in governance, human rights and democracy as due to rise of Islamic extremism. Nasheed resigned amidst Indian Government efforts to broker a peace period in which Nasheed could regain his political footing. One similarity between the Nasheed Government and that of Prime Minister Haseena is their support for secular rule in the two countries. The other is the strong support given by India to shore up both governments. Another are the wide ranging political and security cooperation arrangements brokered with India.

The case of Nepal shows a link between political strife and GMR investments. In May 2011, a mob of people torched the camp office of the Upper Karnali power project in Nepal, being executed by GMR. This was the second time in two months that the project was being attacked. The attacks were protrayed as an attack by "Maoist elements" working against "pro-democratic forces". The attack came a time that key amendments were being made to the Nepalese Constitution.

Although the present Maldivian Government has repeatedly stated that it is looking at all options on the GMR Agreement, the lack of progress or change in the stalemate is taken by political opponents as a sign that GMR and / or the Indian Government has coerced the ruling party of President Waheed to not interfere with the project. During the short 9 months in office, President Waheed has been bailed out of financial crisis situationsby the Indian Government at least three times, the last being just a couple of weeks ago.

Political opponents have planned another rally for the afternoon of November 3rd, an event which will be watched and analysed with much interest by Maldivian and foreign political analysts alike. 

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