Indian aspiration versus capability in Maldives

By Sumantra Maitra
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, February 16, 2018
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An airport in Maldives [Photo/Xinhua]

The strategic community in India is divided over Maldives. If one is paying attention, there's a huge debate going on about whether to intervene in the small Indian Ocean nation or not.

The former Maldives prime minister has repeatedly said India should intervene to "restore democracy" and has also asked the U.S. and the U.K. to get involved. India apparently has troops, special forces and tanks ready at a certain Southern Indian base, although, it has shown no official inclination of carrying out an actual military intervention. 

That, has divided the strategic community. The hawks in New Delhi, journalists and think tank analysts, want India to intervene. It is not clear what exactly they want, whether a show of force, or an actual force projection. 

Intervention is a vague term, which can mean a lot of things. A flyby of fighters, or a circling of Navy ships can be deemed an intervention. Dispatching a contingent of troops can be intervention. Decapitation strike, gunboat diplomacy and regime change also under this heading. What the foreign policy hawks want, is not clear, except that India should treat the Maldives as her own backyard. 

It is an understanding that stems from New Delhi's policy in regard to the Indian ocean. India considers herself the regional security guarantor, and considers the Maldives as coming within its sphere of influence. 

There is history of Indian intervention, in fact. In 1988, this occurred at the request of the then president Gayoom, who is now under arrest under the current president and his half-brother. Unfortunately, the reality has changed since 1988. The Cold War is over, and the world is no longer stable and bipolar. 

Realists in the Indian defense sector realize that. There has been no call for intervention from New Delhi defense think tanks, nor from government ministries, other than mildly-worded statements about disappointment over what is happening in the island chain. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump have spoken on the phone, and there has also been communication between India and China. 

There are two considerations stopping India from taking direct action. First, India has, at least rhetorically, repeatedly opposed interventionism and regime change. It comes from self-interest, of course, but it is a logical platform. 

India supports sovereignty over internationalist human rights laws. It is legally easy to intervene in a country when the government of that state is inviting a great power to send in troops. Consider the 1988 instance, or even Russian intervention in Syria. There's always the call that comes from the regime, rather than the opposition. 

Except this time, the call for India has come from the opposition, seeking to topple the Maldivian regime. That's hard for a country, which aspires to be a great power, and talks about international law. If India sets a precedent of intervening for regime change, then it loses the platform to say anything against any other power deciding it wants to force change in any parts of the globe. 

Secondly, India lacks capability. A short-term humanitarian intervention, or a decapitation strike, or even a standoff and show of force is different than an action actively seeking regime change. The latter involves risks of prolonged instability.

India's record is mixed. For example, its three-year intervention in Sri Lanka was an unmitigated disaster. It's unlikely, but even if India proceeds with a regime change, then there will inevitably be a backlash and insurgency and escalation against Indian interests elsewhere. 

Is India capable, willing or prepared to face such contingencies? These are questions that need to be pondered by anyone trying to decide on use of force on any sovereign territory, without legal or international mandate. 

India, America, Britain and China all know the stakes in Maldives. All sides should also keep in mind the necessity of keeping the channels of communication open. The last thing anyone wants is a regional proxy conflict and stand-off in the Indian ocean. 

Sumantra Maitra is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

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