New Delhi: Maldives is a tropical paradise of about 1200 islands, nestled between India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Its green islands and turquoise waters attract millions of tourists every year, who come to enjoy the resorts, hotels and facilities on its 12 tourist islands. But behind the serene beauty of Maldives lies a turbulent history and a uncertain future, as the island nation is caught between the competing interests of India and China.
From Hindu Kings To Muslim Presidents
Maldives has a rich and diverse cultural heritage, dating back more than 2500 years. According to historical evidence and legends, the first inhabitants of Maldives were probably Gujaratis who migrated from Kalibanga in India to Sri Lanka around 500 BC, and then to Maldives. They were known as Dhevis, and they followed Hinduism and Buddhism. Tamil Chola kings also ruled over Maldives for some time.
However, things changed in the 12th century, when Arab traders brought Islam to Maldives. The kings converted to Islam, and so did the people. A series of six Islamic dynasties ruled over Maldives until the 20th century, when it became a British protectorate. Maldives gained its independence in 1965, with India being the first country to recognize it. Since then, Maldives has been a republic with an elected president as its head of state. Islam is the official religion of Maldives, and non-Muslims cannot become citizens.
A Strategic Location In The Indian Ocean
Maldives is not only a tourist destination, but also a strategic location in the Indian Ocean. It is very close to India’s Lakshadweep islands, and lies on an important shipping route that connects China, Japan and India with energy supplies. About 97 percent of India’s international trade passes through the Indian Ocean, where more than 40 countries and about 40 percent of the world’s population live.
China has been expanding its presence and influence in the Indian Ocean region since the beginning of the 21st century, under the pretext of anti-piracy operations. It has also leased 10 islands in Maldives, where it is developing its naval and military activities on a large scale. This has raised concerns for India, which considers Maldives as part of its sphere of influence and security.
A Political Tug-of-War Between India and China
In recent years, Maldives has witnessed a political tug-of-war between India and China, as the previous government of Maldives tilted towards China and accepted its loans and investments for many big projects. As a result, Maldives became heavily indebted to China, which accounts for about 70 percent of its foreign debt. China also opened its embassy in Maldives in 2011, while India had established its embassy there in 1972.
However, things changed again in 2018, when a new government came to power in Maldives, which promised to restore its ties with India and limit China’s projects. The new president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, visited India as his first foreign trip after taking office, and invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Maldives as his first foreign trip after winning his second term in 2019. Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen their cooperation in various fields, such as trade, tourism, defense, security and climate change.
Maldives is a small country with a big role in the regional and global politics. It is a paradise that faces many challenges and opportunities in the changing world order. It is also a country that has been close to India for centuries in terms of religious and cultural aspects. There are about 25,000 Indians living in Maldives, who are the second largest foreign community there after Bangladeshis. India hopes to maintain its friendship and partnership with Maldives, while respecting its sovereignty and independence.