On June 22, “India Out” supporters disrupted the International Day for Yoga event at the Maldives National Stadium in Male. Video footage of the incident captured by Maldivian media shows angry men carrying white flags with black Shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) and raging toward participants. The demonstration ostensibly aimed to show opposition to Yoga due to its association with Hinduism and its Indian origin. While the Government of Maldives, led by President Mohamed Solih, “strongly condemned” the incident, police investigation revealed that the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), the opposition party led by Abdulla Yameen, had facilitated the demonstration.
As the Maldives celebrated its independence this month, the “India Out” campaign continues unabated. This disinformation campaign, which advocates for India to decrease its presence in the Maldives, has gained significant traction within the last year. Despite the government’s efforts to ban the campaign and change the narrative, it has spread from an online campaign in the digital sphere to public demonstrations in person. Moreover, with the 2023 presidential elections on the horizon and “India Out” being one of the main slogans of Yameen’s PPM, the campaign is unlikely to slow down. If former president Abdulla Yameen – who has spearheaded the “India Out” campaign – wins the election, he is more likely to pursue his anti-India agenda and tilt the country again toward China. As a result, the Maldives could lose a valuable partner and a net security provider, further isolating itself from future regional forums in South Asia.
The India Out Campaign on Social Media and in Politics
The “India Out” campaign has its roots in Twitter, periodically trending on the social media platform in the Maldives. For example, Ahmed Azaan, a Yameen ally and co-founder of Dhiyares, a local online news outlet at the helm of the online campaign, uses Twitter as his “weapon of choice” to drive the anti-India sentiments. His politically controversial messages cause friction within the Maldives by implying that the archipelago’s sovereignty is threatened by India’s security assistance to the Solih government, and that Indians are not welcome in the Maldives.
Support for the Twitter campaigns associated with “India Out” very likely reflects the public sentiment in the Maldives. During the second half of June alone, #IndiaOut was tweeted 1,382 times. Many of the top Twitter accounts using hashtags in support of the “India Out” campaign were affiliated with the PPM. Meanwhile, Solih’s ruling party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), commenced a counter social media campaign with the hashtag #Baakeenuvey (“don’t separate”) as a call not to break ties with India. Between June 14 and June 30, #Baakeenuvey was tweeted 714 times, drastically underperforming the #IndiaOut campaign.
The “India Out” campaign has become more politicized in the run-up to the 2023 presidential elections. A few months ago, Solih issued a decree banning the “India Out” movement, describing it as an “organized campaign that intends to disrupt the longstanding bilateral relations between Maldives and India.” He also argued that the “India Out” campaign puts the Maldives at risk of instability and poses a “huge economic and social burden” that will lead to “isolation in the international arena.” The decree will benefit the MDP as the campaign would threaten the ruling party’s performance in upcoming elections. Acting on the decree, local authorities removed posters and banners expressing “India Out.” Perceiving the ban as a violation of their fundamental rights, Azaan announced that he filed a case at the Supreme Court to nullify the president’s decree, calling it an “abuse of power on multiple counts.”1
Additionally, recent arrests of Yameen's supporters who had attended "India Out" rallies have raised questions about freedom of expression. Sensing an opening to gain political capital, Yameen's PPM released a statement saying the government has "adopted authoritarian measures to curtail rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression by brutal attacks at the hands of the security forces and now through unconstitutional laws.” The party has been branding its press releases with the “India Out” slogan since December 2021, a month after Yameen was acquitted from a money-laundering and embezzlement conviction. Soon after the acquittal, which effectively legitimized his return to politics, Yameen formally adopted the “India Out” campaign and has been showing up at rallies in urban areas across the Maldives, wearing his trademark red T-shirt emblazoned with an "India Out" slogan.
India Out, Yameen In?
As the presidential elections inch closer, it is very likely that Yameen will be more aggressive in pushing anti-India sentiments that have become the core of his campaign. As Yameen runs against the incumbent President Solih, “India Out” will remain a hot-button issue ahead of 2023.
Given his anti-India sentiments and his “India Out” campaign, Yameen’s victory would negatively impact the Maldives-India relations. All Maldivian presidents – except Mohammed Waheed Hassan (2012-2013) and Abdulla Yameen (2013-2018) – have recognized India’s role as an important partner to the Maldives. After moving closer to China in 2012, Solih’s election in 2018 reaffirmed the Maldives’ traditional “India First” policy.
Historically, India has always supported the Maldives in times of crisis. New Delhi helped the Maldives to defend its independence in November 1988, provided help to deal with the water crisis in 2014, and has been assisting the country with COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts. Economically, India has offered financial packages, including a total Line of Credit (LOC) of approximately USD1.4 billion, to bolster the domestic economy. Unlike Chinese loans—which lack transparency and debt sustainability—India’s loans are more transparent and provide more favorable terms to the Maldives. Militarily, India remains a valuable net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. It has provided training, aircraft, and helicopters to the Maldives defense force. Most recently, India helped the country to build a new Coast Guard facility near its capital, Male. For the Maldives, India has acted as a counter to China’s impending influence by enacting as a security provider, providing an alternative to investments, and allowing access to a potentially greater export market.
However, India’s bonhomie with the Maldives has been also been fueling the “India Out” movement. The campaign’s grievances are based on New Delhi’s military intervention in the country in 1988. Proponents believe that India’s greater role in the country would lead to a loss of autonomy and sovereignty. They accuse New Delhi of bearing intentions to annex the country and being militaristic as evident from its actions in Jammu and Kashmir.
Additionally, the Maldives’ partnership with India has helped it become the newest member of the Colombo Security Conclave, a security grouping of countries in the central Indian Ocean. The Conclave focuses on a range of transnational security issues that are priorities for the smaller states in the region, including maritime safety and security, terrorism and radicalization, trafficking and organized crime, and cyber security. Foreign Minister of the Maldives, Abdulla Shahid explicitly stated that the country’s territorial waters should “not be used by non-state actors — be it terrorists, mercenaries, pirates, or narco-terrorists. FM Shahid regards the ocean as the country’s “wealth”. A Maldivian government influenced by Chinese interests could endanger such “wealth” by derailing agenda meetings and, eventually, the security initiative’s overarching goals. Consequently, the Maldives could lose out in defending itself against the threat of non-state actors to its national security by losing out on vital intelligence cooperation.
On the other hand, given Yameen’s tilt toward China, Beijing will likely set its eyes on the Maldives to sustain its footing in the Indian Ocean region. China has undoubtedly lost its influence in Sri Lanka with the Rajapaksas’ resignation after the family fled the country due to ongoing protests over the island’s economic crisis. China will now look to other countries, including the Maldives, to maintain its power in the region. As described by Chinese diplomat Liu Jinsong, China and the Maldives are “partners of mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual assistance.” Jinsong also stated that he hoped that the Maldives will guard against the Cold War mentality and “unilateralism” to safeguard the common interests of China, the Maldives, and other developing countries – a subtle recognition that the country has prioritized India and bandwagoned with the “Western Bloc” including the United States and Japan. While relations between the Maldives and China are likely to improve immensely with Yameen’s victory, adhering to the zero-sum logic, China’s gain would be India’s loss.
Should Yameen win reelection from current President Solih by garnering further support for the “India Out” campaign, China would likely gain an advantage in the country. The Maldives could lose India’s role as a major security partner. The incumbent government could attempt to mitigate the tide of anti-India sentiment by reworking its policies in response. It could tamp down on measures restricting “India Out” and instead focus on public education and provide transparency on military relations with India. An evolving democracy like the Maldives should have its citizens on its side. For that to happen, the government should react quickly and debunk any further disinformation originating from the “India Out” campaign. The Maldives must make a crucial choice next year—either stay the current course or upend relations with its biggest neighbor, which has provided diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian assistance during the country’s toughest times.