In an announcement that sparked both relief and scepticism, the Ministry of Defence on Tuesday revealed that a civilian crew from India had arrived in the Maldives to take over operations of a helicopter previously managed by Indian military personnel. 

This move comes as part of a broader agreement between the Maldives and India, aiming to replace military personnel with civilian staff across three aviation platforms by 10 May 2024. The transition begins with a crew set to manage operations in Addu City, marking a significant shift in the defence operations within the region.

The Defence Ministry’s statement elucidates the logistical details of this transition, including the replacement of the helicopter for maintenance and the scheduled test flights. This step is seen as a stride towards fulfilling the diplomatic arrangements agreed upon by both nations, addressing concerns over foreign military presence on Maldivian soil. 

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) confirmed that the number of incoming civilian crew members mirrors the military personnel they replace, ensuring a seamless transition in operational control.

However, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which led the previous government, views this development through a critical lens. The party refutes allegations of a large-scale Indian military presence in the Maldives, a contentious issue that significantly influenced the political landscape and contributed to the MDP’s defeat in the 2023 presidential election. 

The MDP accuses the current administration of perpetuating falsehoods about the Indian military’s presence, arguing that the lack of concrete evidence undermines the credibility of such claims.

This narrative of military withdrawal is further complicated by the political context in which it unfolds. The current government, under President Dr Mohamed Muizzu, had leveraged an “India Out” campaign narrative, promising the removal of Indian military personnel. 

The replacement of military staff with civilians, while technically aligning with this promise, has been criticised by the opposition as a mere cosmetic change, failing to address the underlying concerns of sovereignty and self-determination.

The controversy surrounding the Indian military’s presence and the subsequent replacement with civilian crews underscores a deeper geopolitical tension within the Maldives. The agreement between the Maldives and India, while aimed at easing these tensions, raises questions about the nature of sovereignty, the influence of foreign powers, and the transparency of governmental actions.