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Exclusive| India to handle Maldives Yoga Day protest 'firmly but discreetly'

A mob chanting Islamist slogans stormed the Maldivian national stadium where over 150 people, including ambassadors from India, Bangladesh and the UK, were taking part in an International Day of Yoga event, co-organized by the Indian High Commission in Maldives.

June 22, 2022 / 05:23 PM IST
Aerial viewof Maldivian Capital city Malé. (Representative Image) Image : Reuters

Aerial viewof Maldivian Capital city Malé. (Representative Image) Image : Reuters


India is firmly but discreetly handling an incident in the Maldives where a radical Islamist mob stormed an International Day of Yoga event jointly organised by the Indian High Commission’s cultural centre and the youth ministry of the Maldives, officials aware of the matter said.

The Maldives assured India that all actions are being taken to prosecute those responsible, they added.

“In line with its established foreign policy practices, India believes calm diplomacy will bear results rather than public statements, especially when it involves nations in the subcontinent or in the immediate Indian Ocean region. India has always dealt with issues firmly but discreetly,” a senior official said.

Generally, after such incidents, an official protest is lodged, with a demarche handed over to the other nation’s ambassador. However, New Delhi has decided to not drag out the issue and set a negative precedent.

The large mob chanting Islamist slogans stormed the Maldivian national stadium where more than 150 people, including diplomats and government officers, were taking part in an event celebrating the International Day of Yoga on June 21. The mob was protesting yoga as a religious practice that was not in line with Islamic principles.

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The crowd threatened the participants and remained at Galolhu National Stadium until the riot police came and dispersed them, firing pepper spray and tear gas.

While no one was hurt, the protestors vandalised the venue, tore up banners of the event and scattered yoga accessories around. The incident represented a serious breach of diplomatic security since apart from Indian high commissioner Munu Mahawar, ambassadors from Bangladesh and the UK were also present.

While it was not immediately clear who was behind the protests, the Maldivian government has pointed to the ‘IlmuveringeGulhun,’ a group of Islamic scholars who had written a letter to the Islamic ministry a day earlier, arguing that yoga is a practice closely associated with Hinduism and threatened Islam and the Maldivian constitution in the name of an exercise.

The protestors also chanted slogans against Nupur Sharma, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party who was at the centre of a controversy over comments on Prophet Muhammad.

Maldivian actions

Senior officials from the Maldives assured the Indian government of strong action against those behind the incident. As of June 22 morning, about a dozen protestors had been arrested, while the police are looking for the conspirators, local media reported.

Incidentally, United Nations General Assembly president Abdulla Shahid inaugurated the International Day of Yoga celebrations at the UN headquarters in New York on the same day. Shahid has been foreign minister of the Maldives since 2018.

“This is being treated as a matter of serious concern and those responsible will be swiftly brought before the law,” Maldives President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih tweeted immediately after the event.

“Such malicious acts of violence aimed at disrupting public safety and undermining security of individuals and the diplomatic corps will not be tolerated,” the Maldivian foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.

The country’s Election Commission warned that action will be taken if the police investigation showed the involvement of a political party. The Maldivian press reported that police found items used by the mob had originated from offices of the main opposition party.

Polarised islands

Solih and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) are known to be allies of India. Coming to power in 2018, Solih reaffirmed the country’s previous ‘India-first’ approach to foreign policy. New Delhi is involved in development projects in the country financed under a $1.3 billion financial package offered by India.

Since its inception, the MDP has called for stronger ties with India and has opposed growing Chinese interests in the Maldives. MDP leader and ex-President Mohammed Nasheed had taken refuge at the Indian High Commission in the Maldivian capital of Malé.

The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the main opposition party in the country, represents the anti-India bloc in Maldivian politics. PPM leader Abdullah Yameen, who was president from 2013 to 2018, had invited China to heavily invest in the island chain.

However, officials said the genesis of the latest protests against India and elements of Indian culture started in 2021. Last year, an ‘India Out’ campaign started on social media, protesting against the Indian military’s presence in the country. It has expanded to a civil movement seeking to end alleged Indian interference in the country’s government.

Maldivians critical of the Solih administration’s closeness to India have vehemently opposed any new cooperative effort launched by both governments, including the opening of an Indian consulate in its southern Addu atoll.

The government of the island nation had, however, called out the campaign as a political ploy to confuse Maldivians. It said that it “strongly rejects attempts to spread false information” criticising its ties with India, its “closest ally and trusted neighbour.”

Maldivian ministers said June 21 that the government believes the PPM has been instrumental in the campaign and its role is being investigated.
Subhayan Chakraborty has been regularly reporting on international trade, diplomacy and foreign policy, for the past 7 years. He has also extensively covered evolving industry issues and government policy. He was earlier with the Business Standard newspaper.
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