Tue. Jun 15th, 2021

The Maldives has made no decision on opening an Indian consulate in its southern Addu Atoll, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said on Tuesday, a fortnight after the Indian Cabinet cleared a proposal for it.

The President remarked on the proposed Indian consulate, during a press conference on the COVID-19 situation in the country, spokesman Mabrook Azeez told The Hindu from capital Male. “He [Mr. Solih] pointed out that having multiple sites offering consular services in one country is quite common,” Mr. Azeez said.

President Solih’s comments appeared to keep the option open, amid an ongoing “#SaveAddu” social media campaign by a section of Maldivians sceptical of another Indian mission presence, in addition to the Embassy in Male.

Legislators from Addu and local body representatives — from the ruling coalition widely perceived as India-friendly — have pledged support to the initiative. Speaker Mohamed Nasheed, who is currently in Berlin, recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt last month, said in a recent tweet that Addu’s thinking has always been one that is open to the world. “Both Addu and Maldives will benefit from the creation of an Indian consulate in Addu,” he said in a Dhivehi language tweet on June 5. Opposition voices, which earlier led an ‘#Indiaout’ campaign against enhanced military cooperation between the neighbours, have opposed the proposed consulate.

Apart from its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Addu is the second largest city in the Indian Ocean archipelago, home to over 30,000 people. Indian government sources familiar with the proposal said the rationale for the consulate was to help Addu residents with speedy visa services. Currently, those applying for an Indian visa have to travel to capital Male — some 550 km and a 1.5-hour flight away — to the Embassy’s consular section. India remains one of the most popular destinations for Maldivian travellers, especially those pursuing higher education or seeking medical attention. Even after the pandemic struck, at least 8,000 visas were issued to Maldivians on medical and educational grounds, according to official sources.

All the same, the frequent visa requirements of locals is yet to convince Maldivians who see a new consulate with suspicion, especially on the heels of a $33-million Maldivian police training facility that India is helping build in Addu. On June 3, local publication Times of Addu ran an editorial titled ‘Indian consulate in Addu City; A possible ‘safe house’ for Indian spies?’

Local sensitivities

Further, the fact that the announcement appeared in the Indian media last month, before either government made an announcement, has prompted criticism of Indian “heavy handedness”. According to the Maldives’s former Ambassador to India Ahmed Mohamed, who served former President Abdulla Yameen’s administration, New Delhi must be more aware of the “sensitivities” within the Maldives.

“We saw similar apprehensions among our people when India [in 2018] was reluctant to take back the helicopters sent here, even after our [former President Yameen] government requested them. It was seen as boots on the ground, a challenge on our independence and a violation of our sovereignty,” he told The Hindu. The decision to open a consulate in Addu invokes similar suspicion, in his view. “The fact that the decision was first reported in the Indian media also shows that sort of heavy handedness. Especially since President Solih has said no such decision has been made yet [by Male].”

While observing that “India is an important neighbour” — citing examples of swift Indian assistance during the 1988 coup, tsunami in 2004, water crisis in 2014, and the ongoing pandemic —Mr. Mohamed said it is important for New Delhi to treat Male as an “equal partner”, respecting the country’s sovereignty and domestic sensitivities.

U.K.-based Maldivian academic Hassan Ugail, who hails from Addu, underscored the need for a data-driven approach to establish a consulate. “In principle, I am supportive of consulates of countries, including India, to be established in Addu. However, I am not supportive of the present set-up being proposed,” he said. Pointing to the “economic growth prospects” argument made by some in favour of opening a consulate, he said there are no signs yet of “such economic growth, investments or mass tourism from India to Addu city”.

“We must first demonstrate the case with facts, figures and numbers, and demonstrate signs that such activities are actually taking place. The argument of ‘let us establish a consulate and let us wait for economic growth to take place’ makes little sense,” Prof. Ugail said.

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