The Maldives

In a mess in Male

Print edition : March 22, 2013

Mohamed Nasheed entering the Indian High Commission in Male on February 13 to escape arrest. Photo: AFP/MALDIVIAN DEMOCRATIC PARTY

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former President. He has mocked Nasheed for evading arrest. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

Dnyaneshwar M. Mulay, Indian High Commissioner. He was away when the drama began.

President Mohamed Waheed Hasan said that he could not interfere with the court process. Photo: Kamal Singh/PTI

India is caught unawares as former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed takes refuge in the Indian High Commission in Male.

AT SOME POINT DURING FORMER MALDIVIAN PRESID- ent Mohamed Nasheed’s visit to India in the first week of February, an Indian official made an unintended, off-the-cuff remark to him. It went something like this, and was in response to the doomsday portrait that Nasheed painted of the Maldives, and of himself: “Worst-case scenario, there is always the Indian High Commission.”

Nasheed latched on to the idea and acted on it after he was issued a warrant of arrest by a local court. At the stroke of noon on February 13, he entered Athireege-aage (which means new house of Athireege), the heritage building in which the Indian High Commission is located in the capital, Male, and made it his residence for 10 days.

New Delhi was unaware of his motive; the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, Dnyaneshwar Mulay, was not back in the Maldives as yet. Mulay’s transfer orders were out, and he was busy making preparations ahead of leaving the post. He was expected back in the Maldives later in the day.

When this correspondent spoke to Indian officials in New Delhi soon after Nasheed entered the Indian High Commission and made himself comfortable there, they denied that Nasheed had sought refuge. Officials of the Ministry of External Affairs insisted that “it was not a crisis situation”. Nasheed was waiting to meet the Indian High Commissioner—who was not present there—and he had not sought refuge in the Indian High Commission, they insisted. In short, India was caught unawares.

That afternoon, by the mere act of walking into the Indian High Commission and refusing to leave, Nasheed set India’s Maldives policy: an unusually strong and biased stand in favour of him.

Last-ditch effort

Yet Nasheed’s act of walking into the High Commission was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It appeared to be his last-ditch effort to get India firmly on his side. The events that preceded it were an indication that Nasheed was running out of options: he had stayed away from the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court for the second hearing on February 10 in the case relating to his “abduction” of Judge Abdulla Mohamed (when he was President he had ordered the arrest of the judge), and the court order to arrest Nasheed was issued on February 11. He was to be produced in the court on February 13. The legal team of Nasheed’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), appealed in the High Court against the arrest. The court threw out the appeal.

Since the police were bent on arresting him on February 13, Nasheed made his way to the Indian High Commission, a territory out of bounds for the police under international conventions. Relying on semantics, the President’s spokesperson, Masood Imad, said that the court directive did not amount to an arrest. “The police have been asked to produce him in court since he had not responded to summons issued in the case relating to the kidnapping of a judge. If the police do not carry out the order, they will be in contempt of court,” he added.

International sentiments

MDP supporters pulled their weight on February 13. In a series of furious tweets, they awakened the Indian media to the issue. Before anyone in New Delhi figured out what was happening, they informed the international media that Nasheed had sought refuge in the Indian mission. It all seemed well planned. The only people who were not in the loop were Nasheed’s hosts, the Indian officialdom.

The MDP has a point when it says that the ruling combine and its supporters were ganging up against Nasheed. The MDP’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Gafoor, said that the arrest warrant and the charges against him were politically motivated. “The regime is fearful of Nasheed’s popularity, so they are pulling out all the stops to prevent his name appearing on the ballot paper,” he said. The presidential election is scheduled to be held on September 7. The MDP wanted the international community to intervene immediately to ensure a free and fair trial. India came out with the strongest statement and, for the first time, said that Nasheed should be allowed to contest the presidential election. In an unusually muted, and delayed, statement, the United States, while demanding free and fair elections, stopped short of saying that Nasheed should be allowed to contest. The United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United Nations Secretary-General issued statements that toed the U.S. line.

But these statements did not count for much. The nascent democracy—the Maldives had its first free and fair elections in 2008—was too preoccupied with personalities in the drama to take note of international sentiments. In a country of just over 300,000 people, where personal egos have often overshadowed political positions, and sometimes passed off for studied stands, the lead actors on the government side hardened their positions.

President Mohamed Waheed Hasan, a former international bureaucrat who has for now the backing of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, made it clear that he could not interfere with the court process.

On February 20, after meeting the Indian delegation, which flew down to Male to sort out the situation, the Maldivian government refused to climb down from its stated position: that the law will take its own course and that it could not influence the judiciary. “As far as the government is concerned, it is 100 per cent sure that we cannot produce the result that has been asked of us [by the Indians],” Masood Imad said. “The government will make sure that the elections are free and fair, but we are not in a position to ensure that Nasheed contests the polls. That is for the Election Commission to decide,” he added.

That same day, the local court issued yet another warrant against Nasheed. That evening, the police informed the court of their inability to arrest Nasheed. The government even sought the cooperation of the Indian High Commission to carry out the court order.

The Maldivian government made its frustration over its inability to arrest Nasheed clear, first by summoning Mulay to the Foreign Office and protesting against the “Indian interference” in the Maldives’ internal politics and later by its President refusing to meet the Indian team. “It is believed that the Joint Secretary of the Indian External Affairs Ministry, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who arrived in the Maldives on Tuesday evening [February 12], was unable to meet Waheed due to the President’s busy schedule,” the pro-government Haveeru News website reported.

End of Act I

Late on February 21, an MDP functionary alerted this correspondent to possible developments on the next day. After the Indian team came close to reading the Maldivian government the riot act, it seems to have backed off.

Nasheed left the premises of the High Commission of India at 4-15 p.m. on February 22. “It will be recalled that the former President had entered the Indian Mission in Male on 13 February 2013 on his own volition and had similarly decided to leave on his own. It is hoped that with this development the former President will again resume his social and political life,” a press note from the Indian External Affairs Ministry said.

The note said India urged all parties to maintain peace and calm and hoped to continue its positive engagement in the spirit of the close and friendly relations between the two countries. “India would be happy to support all efforts to create favourable conditions for free, fair, credible and inclusive presidential elections in September 2013 that can contribute to durable peace, stability and prosperity in Maldives and the region,” the note added.

For now, the curtains are down on one act. The long-winding, never-short-of-excitement play, however, drags on.

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