Days after he was ousted from the office of President of the Maldives it became clear that Nasheed was the victim of a coup staged by the mutinous armed forces of the Indian Ocean paradise of the Maldives with the backing of religious fundamentalists. Some other facts that have since emerged suggest that there is a distinct possibility of the ‘100 per cent Sunni Islam’ spiralling Maldives into either instability or anarchy or move towards an intolerant Wahabi society, abandoning its tolerant, syncretic brand of Islam.

With no coverage in the international media of events (even Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani media virtually paid no attention) during the three-week agitation against Nasheed, his ouster ‘at gun point’ on February 7 was a surprise. So was the swift swearing in of his vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan as the new head of the nation of 400,000 people and 1200 islands.      

On available evidence, it is clear that the government of India too was caught off guard by events in Male. New Delhi, however, refused to interfere saying that it was an ‘internal’ matter for the islanders to sort out. The analogy of 1988 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian forces to prevent rebels with the backing of the LTTE from ousting the then president, Abdul Maumoon Gayoom was irrelevant. No outside force was involved in whatever happened there now.

It is also clear, at least going by media reports and TV discussions,  that opinion is divided in India about the wisdom of such hands- off approach because it amounted to India abandoning its ‘role’ in its strategic backyard. Already the Chinese and the Pakistanis are jockeying for increased influence in the country, which is strategically located near busy, pirate-infested shipping lanes.

The ostensible reason for anger against Nasheed was the dismissal of a senior judge and Nasheed’s refusal to reinstate him even after a Supreme Court order. But that does not tell the complete story. Judge Abdullah Mohammed, according to supporters of Nasheed, was one of the 200 or so judges sworn in ‘illegally’ by the previous regime for life term in office. As head of the country’s criminal court, he had refused to allow prosecution of the relatives and allies of Maumoon Gayoom, facing charges of corruption, rights abuse and criminal acts. The judge was also enjoyed his patronage when he was the head of the state and continue to do so. For all purposes Judge Abdullah is regarded as a part of the army of Gayoom supporters.

The scanty media coverage of events in the Maldives has created the impression that after defeating Gayoom, the strongman of 30 years, in 2008 Nasheed or ‘Anni’ as he is popularly known, had ushered in an era of political stability and democracy. Under his rule, the Maldivian society was also supposed to remain a moderate Islamic nation. But that doesn’t appear to be true with reports now saying that he was given to flip-flops, impulsive actions, and above all appeasement of orthodoxy.

Last year, the practice of flogging of women who were accused of indulging in pre- or extra-marital sex reappeared in the Maldives. There was a time, though centuries ago, when a traveller had noted the licentious habits of the Maldivians. But that was in the 14th century and the author was the Arab traveller Ibn Batuta. If there is any licentious behaviour it is probably on the remote islands popular with the one million tourists who come to the country every year. 

A few months ago, liquor counters and massage parlours in hotels patronised by foreigners became a hot issue. Nasheed first tried to stand up to the pressure and then quietly acquiesced to buy peace. He did try to limit the damage to Maldives image as a tourist watering hole but that was neither here nor there as the orthodoxy had tasted blood.

Saudi-funded Wahabism has been taking roots in the country from the days of Gayoom. He kept them under the lid but did not hesitate to use them whenever it became necessary. Under Gayoom’s watch, a lot of young Maldivians were going to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where they imbibed the spirit of religious extremism more rather than lessons in secular subjects. Nasheed’s active championing of making his country the first one in the world to be carbon-neutral has not gone down well within the orthodox circles, who see it as part of a Christian plot.  The Islamists have called for jihad against Nasheed, branding him ‘Christian’, ‘Jewish agent’ and one who is working to undermine Islam.

Mohammed Jameel, who has been inducted as the Home Minister by the new president, has a degree from London; but he also went to study in Pakistan. Last month he had brought out a pamphlet which abused Nasheed of working to destroy Islam in the island nation. His party alleged that empty liquor bottles were found in the office of Nasheed who was also allegedly trying to sell land to Israel, both unforgivable sins. The new foreign minister, Ahmed Naseem, is also a Pakistan-educated Maldivian. The now ubiquitous headscarf was virtually unknown in Maldives till about a decade ago. During the violence that ousted Nasheed, the Buddhist artefacts in the National Museum were destroyed by religious extremists.

 Nasheed, however, remains a darling of the West where he won many friends during his jail stint as ‘prisoner of conscience’ during the Gayoom era. From all accounts, Gayoom is key suspect in the coup though he was conspicuous by his absence in the country. It is said he was away in Malaysia when his ‘nemesis’ Nasheed was thrown out of power.

The ‘deposed’ president wants early elections to prove expose his detractors. His successor has refused the bait. Instead, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, has gone ahead to consolidate his power and isolate Nasheed by inducting Gayoom followers into his ‘national unity’ government which Nasheed has shunned. It means Nasheed will have to bid for his time till the presidential ballot take place in 2013. How Nasheed will manage to keep himself afloat in the interregnum will be keenly watched; more so, because the Supreme Court has ordered his arrest. In an act of benevolence, President Waheed Hassan asked the police to keep off for the present.

There is little doubt that hard-line Islam has arrived in the country. What remains to be seen is how deep its roots have spread. One thing is clear though. The Maldivians seem to be heading towards a society that is strict to the point of becoming intolerant of liberal and democratic values.

So much so, a power vacuum is certainly not in its interest or of Maldives’s well wishers. This, to a certain extent, explains the swift acknowledgement the new dispensation received from New Delhi, which, like Washington, dispatched a senior diplomat to Male to hear the voices from the ground. The India’s top diplomat, Ganapati, who is Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs, met all sides, Nasheed and Hassan included, in what observers see as a clear signal that India has no favourites or vested interests. Its interest is limited to helping the country to overcome the hiccup in its transition to full-fledged democracy.