Indian dentist Ibrahim Sayeed* has been living and working in the Maldives since 2016 and doesn’t want to return home anytime soon. Back in Kerala he would work for 12 hours a day and earn US$300 a month. In the Maldives he earns US$1,000 – as well as a commission per patient – for the same hours.
“Life is good here,” he says, “but it’s only after the elections in September that I will know if I can continue this. What if one day the president says, we don’t want Indians any more?”
As diplomatic ties deteriorate between the two countries, conversations with Indian expatriates reveal a mix of anxiety, uncertainty and fear over their future.
After Bangladesh, Indians are the second-biggest expat group in the Maldives. Nearly 21,000 of them work in the construction, hospitality, health and education sectors although their actual numbers are often said to be around 30,000, especially given the prevalence of human trafficking in the country.
For months now, says Sayeed, he has been reading about the erosion of democracy in the Maldives and tension between the two neighbours. In February he came across reports of India refusing dependent visas to Maldivians living in Kerala.
In an apparent retaliation the Maldives government stalled work visas for Indians. Both countries have since denied any change in their visa policies. But Sayeed knew things weren’t the same when his wife couldn’t renew her three-month dependent visa.
“Then I started coming across comments on social media from Maldivians saying they don’t want Indians in the country any more,” says Sayeed. His employers, he says, also started taking advantage of his vulnerability. They reduced his commission by 50 percent. On at least one occasion they threatened to fire him for turning up to work late. “If you fight back, they’ll say: ‘You go. There’s lots of dentists in India and Malaysia willing to come here.’”
– ‘A slow poison’ –
India and the Maldives have traditionally enjoyed a close relationship, helped by their ethnic, linguistic and cultural similarities. India exports medicines, textiles, agriculture and poultry produce to the island-state worth around US$100 million. Thousands of Maldivians go to India for education and medical treatment every year. As a result, many Maldivians have grown up regarding India as the ‘big brother’.
In the past four years, however, President Abdulla Yameen’s government has watered down the country’s traditional ‘India-first’ foreign policy to successfully court investment and assistance from New Delhi’s geopolitical rivals – China, Pakistan – and Saudi Arabia. It has also jailed several pro-India opposition figures, including former presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
In December 2017, days after signing a Free Trade Agreement with China, it suspended three members of a local council for meeting Akhilesh Mishra, the Indian ambassador in the Maldives. In April Malé called upon India to take back gifted helicopters.
Until late 2017 India had responded to the political developments mostly in platitudes, expressing its commitment towards “strengthening of democratic institutions” in the country.
But when Yameen extended a state of emergency by 30 days, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in unusually strong words that it was deeply disappointed and dismayed. The decision, it added, was in contravention to the Maldives’ own constitution. Last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the political developments in the country have been “a matter of considerable international concern.”
As much as the Maldives might deny it, the ongoing dispute seems to have resulted in visa exceptionalism.
“I know of many resorts, construction companies that have requested visas for Indians but haven’t received it,” says Archit Loni* a top official in a food import company. “I once asked a friend from the department of immigration about it. He told me that those working for the ministry of education or health have a chance at visas but not those in the private sector.” Such applications, he adds, don’t say “visa rejected” only that they are “pending for approval.”
With permits hard to come by, Loni hasn’t been able to recruit anyone from India since February. “The government seems to be using religion and political vitriol to slowly poison the minds of the people. If they continue to lead even after the elections, we will be forced to recruit from Sri Lanka,” he says.
– ‘Like a family’ –
This is the second time in seven years that anti-Indian sentiment has been part of public discourse.
In 2011, when the Gayoom-led political opposition was protesting against the government’s lease of the Ibrahim Nasir Airport to Indian developer GMR, the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) called it a bid to “enslave the nation and economy”. Urging that the deal be abandoned due to the “devious” nature of Indians, the party said the project would bring in Indian employees and create a “visa-free zone for Indians to come and go” in Hulhumalé.
The animosity continued even after Nasheed resigned in February 2012 and his successor Dr Mohamed Waheed scrapped the deal. In February 2013, the Indian embassy in Malé issued a statement panning the local media for “misrepresentation and twisting of issues” pertaining to India that have “the potential to create negative public sentiment.”
But the diplomatic slug-fest and top-down hostility hasn’t yet affected how most Maldivians treat Indians in everyday life, says Nikhil Anand*, an Indian teacher who has been in the country for the five years.
“Everyone I know here has been friendly, like a family,” he says. “In the past few years, the tourism in my island has increased and along with it, people’s standard of living. Many can finally go to India. At such times, I call up my friends back home and make arrangements for them to stay.”
Anand, who works at at a public school on an island in Malé atoll, says he hasn’t faced any problems with visa renewal. The same goes for his Indian teaching friends living in the Maldives. “We all want to continue here,” he says. “The job satisfaction and salary we get here isn’t the same in other countries. Besides, for all the rumours, the Indian embassy hasn’t issued any warnings yet.”
Before signing off Anand, like everyone the Maldives Independent spoke to for the article, asked that his real name be withheld.
His contract with the Ministry of Education, he says, forbids him from commenting on political matters. “I don’t know if it’s a crime to speak,” he says, “but I’d rather be safe.”
*Names have been changed.
Photo shows 2018 Independence Day celebrations at the Indian embassy in Malé: Sun Photo/Fayaz Moosa
This article has been amended in the ninth paragraph to better reflect India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.