New Delhi: Ibrahim Zaki, special envoy of former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, on Thursday warned India against the rise of fundamentalist forces in his country that were, he said, also threatening Indian economic interests there.
Zaki, 67, a former minister in successive Maldivian governments headed by former presidents Maumoon Gayoom and Nasheed, said he would have called for Indian forces to protect the multi-million-dollar investment by Indian infrastructure firm GMR Group.
“The attack on GMR contract is an Islamic fundamentalist issue,” he told reporters, adding that a majority of people in Maldives were not against the project.
“If we were in the government, definitely we would have done it by now... definitely (asked for) their (Indian forces) to be on the ground,” said Zaki, who is known in India as the man who telephoned then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to seek help when Gayoom was threatened by a coup in 1988. In response, India had sent elite paratroopers to prevent Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries from ousting Gayoom.
New Delhi considers Maldives atoll nation within its sphere of influence, given that the islands sit astride some of the busiest shipping lanes connecting Asia, Africa and West Asia. Delhi is also wary of growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region—in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
“When Islamic fundamentalism takes over the country, if the Lashkar-e-Taiba can take over the country, then I have no choice” but to call in forces from India, Zaki said referring to the Pakistan-based militant group that India blames for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.
The $511-million airport development project, a joint venture between GMR Infrastructure Ltd and Malaysia Airports Holding Bhd., has been in the eye of a political storm in the Maldives in recent months after Nasheed quit in February.
India was one of the first countries to recognize current President Mohammed Waheed Hassan’s government after the resignation of Nasheed, who came to power in elections in 2008 at the end of the three-decade-old rule of Gayoom.
A day after quitting as president, Nasheed alleged he had been forced to quit “almost at gunpoint” in a coup.
It was Nasheed’s government that gave the go-ahead to the GMR project in 2010 but the project has run into trouble with the Adhaalath Party, which is part of Waheed’s coalition government, demanding that the present administration scrap the “illegal” project signed despite opposition from the country’s parliament, according to news reports.
According to Zaki, who met India’s national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai and other senior officials since his arrival in India on Wednesday, many top figures in the Adhaalath Party are educated in Pakistan and draw their philosophy from the hardline Salafist form of Islam. He described the selection of GMR and its Malaysian partner as a fair process in accordance with international best practices.
“So nobody should blame us,” he said, adding that Nasheed had mobilized his supporters to protect the project against the fundamentalists.
Security analyst C.U. Bhaskar, associated with the South Asia Monitor thinktank in New Delhi, was of the view that it was not “improbable that the Indian card would be used (by rival Maldivian parties) to seek advantage in their internal contestation.”
Zaki, who according to news reports was attacked and badly beaten by police commandos at the behest of Waheed, sought to underscore the illegality of the Waheed government while describing his former boss Gayoom as a “dictator.” When asked if he was satisfied with the Indian government’s response to his visit, Zaki said: “Satisfaction is a very interesting word. I respect what they (Indian officials who Zaki met) say.”