Disclaimer – It’s very hard to find information about Minicoy. The things I say here may not be 100% accurate. Also, I don’t mean to suggest that Minicoy is a utopian society without any flaws, because it isn’t.
Let us begin.
There is probably no island on the Maldivian archipelago more shrouded in mystery to the average Maldivian than Minicoy (or Maliku, as Maldivians call it). Even though this island was historically a part of the Maldives, and its population is ethnically/culturally/linguistically Maldivian, it is now a part of India; the southernmost island in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep, to be specific. Few “mainland” Maldivians have set foot there since the 1960s (possibly earlier).
But the fact is, there are plenty of Maldivians who would like to reestablish some sort of connection with their estranged brothers and sisters, as evidenced by the fact that on a rare occasion when people from Mincoy visited one of the northern islands, people from as far south as Addu came to meet them. Some Maldivians would also like to have Minicoy returned to Maldivian governance. That scenario is a long way off from happening (it’s hard enough for Indian citizens to travel to Lakshadweep; they’re not about give a whole island away. As for Maldives annexing Minicoy, pfft…please.) but it’s interesting to think about.
I used to be of the opinion that Minicoy should definitely be returned to the Maldives. It was a matter of principle: They’re Dhivehi, we’re Dhivehi, why should be we be separated? But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it might be a very bad idea to return Minicoy to Maldivian governance. The reasons for this can be summarised by the words “toxic Maldivian culture”.
Toxic Maldivian Culture
Culture refers to a society’s shared set of beliefs, values and traditions. More broadly, it encompasses everything that can be taught (as opposed to everything passed down genetically). Present day Maldivian culture leaves a lot to be desired and does not make a good case for reunification. Let’s explore exactly what this means.
*Brace yourselves, we’re about to go into another round of pointing out the flaws of the Maldives*
On the surface, Language is something that unites Maldivians and Minicoyans. Maldivians speak Dhivehi and Minicoyans speak Mahl, which is basically Dhivehi. However, the attitudes that each group has towards their own language is what divides them.
Maldivians are quite happy to relegate their language to history’s trash heap in favour of a more “modern” and “sophisticated” language like English (and occasionally Arabic). Basically, no one feels the need to develop the language, and those who do have no means to propagate this development because of the way it is used (or not used) in the education system. This leads to embarrassing signs like this being increasingly common:
I don’t know what the exact language situation is in Minicoy. I know they have to learn Dhivehi in schools, but I don’t know if it is the medium of instruction for other subjects. According to this, the government should work to promote the language but there’s no way of knowing what this looks like in practice. However, I think I can safely say that Minicoyans would not be happy with always using English words, and you would be hard pressed to find a sign like the one shown above in Minicoy (at least to the same extent that you see them in the Maldives).
Ironically, it was for reasons to do with language that I was initially in support of reunification. Whereas Dhivehi in Maldives has to compete with English, Dhivehi (or Mahl) in Minicoy has to compete with Malayalam and Hindi, as well as English. Though this appears to make Minicoy Dhivehi more vulnerable, the reality is the opposite, where people feel a greater need to preserve their language due to all the external pressure.
Another less drastic thing that could happen if Minicoy became part of the Maldives is the loss of their dialect (which isn’t all that different to the standard). Of course, if a country is to run itself properly there has to be some sort of communication standard. Still, it would make the country less colourful. And even if this were to happen, it wouldn’t be instantaneous – the southern Dhivehi dialects are still in use today despite the Malé variant being the standard.
Religion in Minicoy and in the Maldives, just like language, is the same only on the outside. Minicoy did not have to go through years of Wahhabi indoctrination, meaning that the Islam practised there is still quite Dhivehi (probably with some Indian influence). And while Wahhabi Islam is by no means popular in the Maldives, you cannot deny that it has a strong foothold. And the effect that this has on Maldivians over the past two decades are very clear.
Let’s look at two ways Maldivian society has changed due to Wahhabi influence; one, visible and superficial, and the other more hidden and deep-rooted.
One of its most obvious effects is on the way people (women in particular) dress. I remember reading somewhere something along the lines of “try to find a pre-2004 picture of Maldivian women wearing buruga (hijab) en masse”. And it’s true; in the past only a few people wore the hijab, most of whom were old. These days, babies have barely finished crowning before a hijab is slapped onto their heads. This would not be the case if it weren’t for years of ideology peddling.
Adopting the hijab is one thing, but the way Maldivians went about it is another. For the better part of a decade, Maldivian women went through a phase of “black-is-the-new-everything”, donning outfits which gave them the oh-so-trendy “sticky” and “smelly” looks (not my words. A Maldivian female said that). Whether black was considered to be a more appropriate colour for women (you know, because Saudis are the repository of all Islamic knowledge) or whether they actually thought it looked good is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, that era is over, but the hijab is here to stay. (Yes, that rant was totally irrelevant.)
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the hijab (most women in Minicoy wear it already); it is the underlying attitudes towards religion, modesty and culture which is important. You can bet that if Maldivian sheikhs and mullahs were given free reign over Minicoy, the place would go from looking like this:
But it may prove a bit difficult for them – Minicoyans may still be very much entrenched in their way of life.
And speaking of underlying attitudes…
The effect of Wahhabism on people’s clothes is very visible, but its effects on their attitudes is less so, particularly when it comes to tolerance, as there would be little opportunity for Wahhabi intolerance to manifest itself into something more concrete. When I say tolerance, I’m talking about people’s willingness to accept different groups of people and their ideas, whether they be religious, political, social or otherwise. In broader terms, I’m referring to open-mindedness.
It’s no secret that Maldivian Wahhabis (like most Wahhabis) are not very open-minded. These are people who believe that democracy is evil; that wifehood and motherhood are the only positions to which women should aspire; that non-Muslims are subhuman; that their own religion should not be examined critically; that the solutions to all of life’s problems can only be found in a 1400 year old book; that there is only one way to correctly interpret their religion; and overall that modernity is blasphemous. But the thing is, it’s not just the Wahhabis who hold these beliefs; some “moderate” people also think the same way, especially when it comes to Jews and Israel.
So it is possible for a significant proportion of the population to be swayed towards these new beliefs even if very few of them actually become religious zealots. And that would be enough to undermine and degrade the culture of Minicoy as it exists today (keep in mind that Minicoy is a matriarchal, matrilineal society – a complete no-no for Wahhabis).
It may very well be the case that Minicoyans already think that way, which would be disappointing. However, even this wouldn’t justify letting actual fanatics loose in order to reassure them that they are justified in their way of thinking. But like I said before, there would be little opportunity for these attitudes to manifest themselves into something more concrete, due to the homogeneity of the island. You would have to use the church-in-a-textbook litmus test to gauge overall open-mindedness.
There’s no escaping the drugs in Maldives. You would think that such a problem would be relatively easy to manage in such a small country, but then you have to remember that the people who are supposed to be managing the issue (government and police) are in on the whole thing.
Does Minicoy have drugs? Yes. Does it have a drug problem? Probably not. So we don’t want Maldivians going there to meth the place up (see what I did there?). Because it’s not only drugs that they would bring to the place, they would bring the whole culture of drugs to place, which entails gangs, violence and crime. And nobody wants that.
Want to hear a two word horror story? Maldivian politics. I’m not going to list out all the problems with the political system – there are too many. But there is no way we want to bring the innocent people of Minicoy into this mess. And it really is a huge mess, partly because this issue is connected to the drug issue and religion as well.
I said just before that Maldivian politicians are complicit in the whole drug trade. That only means that it would be too easy to export that whole problem to Minicoy; you wouldn’t even need to rely on people at the bottom, because everyone at the top would do it much more efficiently. Then they would inevitably use their power in this new land to spread the same kind of corruption that they did in the Maldives.
As for politics and religion, returning Minicoy to the Maldives would represent a huge loss of freedom for the people who live there. This is because India is a secular state, meaning that if someone in Minicoy decided that they no longer wanted to be a Muslim, they could make that decision without fearing any repercussions from the government (although there may be some backlash from their community). If they did the same thing in the Maldives, they could potentially have their citizenship revoked. I don’t know if anyone in Minicoy actually wants to convert from Islam, but no one in their right mind would give up freedom of religion for so little in return.
However, if the Maldivian political system were to be cleaned up
a bit a lot, it may be beneficial to Minicoyans in terms of political representation. As Indian citizens, each person in Minicoy is one in over a billion. If they were Maldivian, they would be on one of the most populated islands, and would potentially have a lot of political power.
Maldivians are so relentless in their desire for wealth and development that they have a complete disregard for the environment which sustains them. In fact I said in an earlier post that they still haven’t made the connection between the health of the environment and their quality of life.
According to this, the general attitude in Lakshadweep when it comes to development and tourism is one of caution. They would like tourism to some extent, but they don’t want too much exposure. They want to protect their culture from too much outside influence and they don’t want to destroy their environment (or at least the government would like to promote a super sustainable tourism industry).
Give Minicoy to Maldives and BAM! Lagoon reclaimed, trees slashed, coral bleached, reef destroyed, ugly airport built, streets filled with cars, and trash dumped into the ocean. And then then the island will be neglected, leaving people with no choice but to relocate to Malé.
What Can We Do?
I said before that the chances of Minicoy being returned to Maldivian governance anywhere in the near future are basically nil. However, Maldivians should be prepared for the (very) unlikely event of a plebiscite where Minicoyans decide which country they should join (because it’s up to them in the end – everyone seems to forget this). They can do this by addressing all of the issues given above. They should make Maldives worth joining, because the fact is, Maldives does present some advantages over India (greater political representation, a more powerful passport etc.), but right now, these are dwarfed by the disadvantages. And even if Minicoyans decide to stay with India, at least Maldives would be a much better place for Maldivians.
Having said that, there are a few things I would like to see happen, which are more likely than the aforementioned plebiscite:
- India should allow Maldivian citizens to travel directly to Minicoy, instead of going through Kochi. Progress was made in this area around two years ago when India announced that Minicoy and another island would become authorised transit points for entry into India. Then there was something more recent about passport free travel. But just because it’s allowed, doesn’t mean it’s possible. Which brings me to my next point.
- Establish some sort of regular public transport between Maldives and Minicoy. This can be done by either side (or both).
- (Ancillary to the first two points) Establish some conditions of entry, by which I mean rules that Maldivians have to follow. No drugs is an obvious one. I would also suggest no proselytising and no plastic wrappers.
- The Union Territory of Lakshadweep should make Dhivehi an official language, alongside Malayalam. It’s spoken by 15% of the people, which I think is enough to justify official status.
- Make Dhivehi/Mahl the medium of instruction in Minicoy (if it isn’t already), and perhaps also teach it as a second language on the other islands.
- Maldives could make it easier for Minicoyans to study in the Maldives. I say could because some people might find it unfair how the same opportunities aren’t given to actual citizens.
Should Minicoy be part of Maldives? There are arguments in support of this and (plenty of) arguments against it. The outcome is potentially bad either way – Minicoy could end up losing its Maldivianness, or worse, it could actually become Maldivian. And that’s the dilemma. I would like to say we should leave well enough alone, but I don’t think things are well enough. Some kind of middle ground solution would probably be best.