India has agreed to the new Maldives government’s request to withdraw about 75 Indian military personnel stationed on the islands to work on humanitarian operations, Maldives President Mohammad Muizzu claimed on Sunday, two days after he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai. The move, that was demanded by Mr. Muizzu during his “India Out” election campaign slogan will come as a disappointment for New Delhi, that has been urging the Maldives to look at the utility of Indian personnel in the Maldives in the “proper perspective”.
“The Indian government has assured the people of Maldives that it will respect their decision regarding the withdrawal of Indian troops from Maldives,” the Maldives President’s office wrote in a tweet, quoting from Mr. Muizzu’s press conference earlier in the day after he returned from the UAE. Government sources on Sunday countered Mr. Muizzu’s claim, saying that the discussions were still “ongoing”, and that the “core group” announced after the Modi-Muizzu meeting would look into all aspects of whether the 75 Indian naval personnel currently working on Indian projects in the Maldives should stay or not.
The Ministry of External Affairs did not comment on the development. However, sources said that the issue of India’s platforms and personnel that work on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) programmes was “briefly discussed” when the leaders met in Dubai. Significantly, the issue had not been mentioned directly in the readouts issued by both governments at the end of talks between Mr. Modi and President Muizzu on Friday, their first meeting since Mr. Muizzu took power. The Maldives Presidency had alluded to the subject of Indian troops in Maldives being discussed as it said they discussed cooperation on matters of “concern and sensitivities for the people of Maldives”. Mr. Muizzu’s statement on Sunday indicates, however, that he is not willing to budge on his demand despite the meeting with Mr. Modi. The Indian personnel issue has been contentious since Mr. Muizzu won presidential elections in October, ousting former President Ibu Solih who was seen as more India-friendly, and reiterates that he would go through with his campaign promise of “ensuring the Maldives’ sovereignty.”
Government sources said the HADR operations, that require Indian personnel to operate and maintain them at present was an “important segment” of the bilateral development partnership.
“The continued usefulness of the Indian platforms as it was recognised in discussions needs to be looked at in a proper perspective,” the sources said, responding to Mr. Muizzu’s statement. “Discussions on how to keep them operational are ongoing. The core group that both sides have agreed to set up will look at details of how to take this forward,” the sources added.
Despite Mr. Muizzu’s statement, it remains to be seen whether the Maldives government will go through with its plans to ask all Indian personnel to leave Addu island where most of them work. Former President Abdullah Yameen had also demanded that all Indian military personnel stationed there would leave the Maldives, and his government held up renewals of all their visas. After months of negotiations, however, the personnel were allowed to stay, and have carried out a number of important operations to rescue survivors and provide food and potable water to those stuck since then. Sending back the personnel will be seen as an affront to India and an indicator that President Muizzu will not be as easy to engage for New Delhi as his predecessor Mr. Solih with his “India first” policy was. President Muizzu’s visit to Turkiye last week, his first bilateral visit anywhere had also raised eyebrows in India.