India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have joined hands to keep the seas in their sphere of influence free from unwanted visitors such as pirates, interlopers and drugrunners.
“With Somali pirates getting closer, we have deep concern and are working closely with India and Sri Lanka in preventing any unwarranted incident. We have over 25,000 fishermen on the high seas on any given day. Our concern is for their protection as well. We have a surveillance programme to monitor fishing vessels but the point is we have to work in cooperation with the two Coast Guards so that they increasingly exchange information on the movement of suspicious vessels,” Ahmed Naseem told The Hindu at the end of his first visit to India as Maldives Foreign Minister.
Mr. Naseem was here to acquaint himself with senior leaders and officials in the Indian trade, security and foreign office establishments. As a follow-up to the visit by Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, Mr. Naseem discussed the next SAARC summit in Male, opening and strengthening of direct trade and communication links and closer security ties.
The emerging regional cooperation follows the realisation that sanitation of the waters around the Maldives and Sri Lanka helps is vital to securing the Indian coast. “If you cannot defend the Maldives, you cannot defend the Indian soft belly, you cannot defend peninsular India. Recently you found your threats materialising from the sea [Mumbai attacks]. Strengthening the security of Maldives is very very important for everybody,” the Maldives President had told The Hindu during an earlier interview.
“Somali pirates can be bold enough to come all the way to the Maldives. They sacked the Mahe port in Seychelles. They could do that here,” he had said adding Indian assistance was instrumental in the Maldives beefing up its surveillance and patrolling capability. The Maldives had seven radars bought and installed with Indian assistance and they were harmonised with the naval grid here. Recently, India-Maldives security partnership led to the capture of two rogue fishing vessels in the Maldives waters.
“We don't go into other country's territories and steal their resources. Everyone else is free to buy our fish but please don't steal our fish. Thankfully because of arrangements with the Indian military and establishment, we were very successful,” the Maldives President had said.
The Maldives had in custody 27 Somali pirates who would be repatriated to Puntland (a part of Somalia) as soon as possible, said Mr. Naseem.
Another area of concern for the Maldives was its students imbibing the tenets of radicalised version of Islam during their stay in Pakistani seminaries. Mr. Nasheed had repeatedly raised this issue with the Indian leadership and his Foreign Minister expressed appreciation of the steps taken by New Delhi in this regard.
“India has been helpful in increasing the scholarships. India is a pre-eminent Muslim society and there are many good institutions where Muslim education can be had. We have been discussing this. Many Maldives parents are here educating their children, which was a good signal that education here is good and useful,” he said.
Mr. Naseem's other focus area was trade and economic ties. “We should now strengthen the trade relations. Many Indian products are coming to the Maldives from different parts of the world. With the opening up of transport networks through the SAARC or bilaterally, the Maldives will collectively benefit as cost of goods would be cheaper from India. We need tremendous improvement. Intra-SAARC trade is just 3 per cent of the gross trade.”