"I knew Maldivians will be receiving us with a warm welcome, But it was beyond expectation, It was just unbelievable," said Ibrahim Manikufaanu, the leader of a group of 26 people from the India’s Minicoy Island, locally known as Maliku, in the union territory of Lakshadweep. The island is just off India’s southern state of Kerala.
"It felt like I was on my own island, surely we do belong to one bloodline," he told WION.
India’s Maliku is like a long lost cousin of Maldives, and actually was officially a part of Maldives centuries ago.
This was the first time in decades a group of Maliku people visited Maldives. The trip was arranged by a non governmental organisation (NGO) called Ihavandhoo Masveringde Gulhun (IMAGU) from Ihavandhoo, an island of a northern atoll in Maldives. The trip celebrated the NGO’s 20th anniversary.
IMAGU’s president Adnaan Mohamed told WION that they decided to invite the people of Maliku because it’s a dream for Maldivians to meet Malikuns.
"People from other Atolls and Islands came to Ihavandhoo just to meet these people from Maliku," he said.
The Malikuns were in Maldives for a week to celebrate Eid Al Adha with Maldivians. The special visitors made the holidays extra festive.
Historic ties and separation
Minicoy is an Indian island, but is situated closer to Maldives than to any part of India. Minicoy was the northernmost atoll of the kingdom of Maldives before the mid 16th century. Since then, Maliku has fallen under Indian administrations.
India held a plebiscite in Minicoy in 1956 to determine whether or not its people wished to join the Indian Union. The majority decided to join, and Maliku was incorporated into the Union Territory of Laccadive, renamed Lakshadweep in 1973.
A 1970 Pakistan Times article alleged that Maldivian government officials harboured great resentment against India for not returning Minicoy Island, "taken over" long ago by an Indian Maharaja. Muslim inhabitants of the island were clamouring to join Maldives.
Even the recent media reports says Islamabad supports Minicoy Island as being part of the Maldives, and rejected India’s territorial claim. But both India and the Maldives seems to ignore these media reports from Pakistan press.
In December 1976, India and Maldives signed a maritime boundary treaty under, which Minicoy was placed on the Indian side of the boundary.
However, in a public speech on Maldivian independence day, 1982, the Minister of Atolls Abdulla Hameed, also the half-brother of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, claimed that Minicoy was a part of Maldives.
This ambiguous statement was interpreted as an official claim over the island, and caused a minor diplomatic crisis between India and Maldives.
President Gayoom had to clarify that Maldives did not intend to make a political claim over the island, and Hameed's speech only meant to highlight the linguistic, cultural, and religious ties between Maldives and Minicoy.
In 2015, at the official function celebrating the 50th anniversary of Maldives’ independence, President Yamin Abdul Gayoom described losing Maliku as one of the dark experiences in Maldives’ history.
"The long history of the Maldives shows that Maliku or Minicoy was once part of the Maldives," he said. Whereas roughly the same comment ignited a diplomatic row in the 80s, this time absolutely nothing happened.
The culture of Minicoy Island is very different from the other Indian islands of Lakshadweep. Even today, it is believed that the language, religion, ethnicity and culture of Maliku people closely resembles that of Maldives.
Ashraf Ali, the president of the Dhivehi Bahuge Academy of Maldives (an institution that protects, promotes and develops Dhivehi language), told WION that the Maldivian people are proud that their language and way of life is connected to a culturally rich country like India.
"The language they use, Mahal bas, is just a dialect of Dhivehi Bas (a Maldivian language). Their culture, eating habits, language are very similar to Maldivians," he said.
Ali said Indian institutions devoted to preserving Mahal Bas and Maldives provide language trainings to Manicoys.
IMAGU President Mohamed said his Maldivian hosts and their Indian guests have noticed the similarities between the two during the recent trip. "Maldivians have this bond with the people of Maliku. We did not feel like they are from some other country. Other than Maldivians they are the only people who have Maldivian language as their mother tongue."
Ibrahim Manikufaanu, who is devoted to maintaining the culture, traditions and language of Minicoy Island, said Minicoy will always resemble Maldives. "Maldivian customs and traditions are still very visible in Maliku. We are from one origin, one bloodline" he said.
Though the nearest island to India’s Minicoy is the Maldivian island of Thuraanuku, the Indian government has forbidden the direct travel between the two islands since 1956, despite their geographic proximity and ethnographic similarities. A special permit from the Indian government is still needed to enter Minicoy.
"It was not easy to travel between Maliku and Maldives. We were not allowed to travel directly. We rarely meet Maldivians," Manikufaanu said.
Difficulty visiting Maldives did not stop Minicoys from giving up Maldivian customs and traditions. Maldivian media connected Minicoys to Maldives ever since they started getting the radio signal of the Voice of Maldives, the Maldives’ state broadcaster’s station. Manikufaanu says that over the years, Maldivian media played a huge role in Minicoy to keep Maldives alive in their heart.
"Now Maliku people have access to public service broadcaster, as well as some private broadcasters, and they read the online news websites of Maldives" he said.
To make it easier to travel between Maliku and Maldives, two months ago a travel agency called Under Water Travel and Tours introduced a tour package which connects the two islands. "We need a passport copy of the passenger, we get the permits from the authorities. We arrange everything," said director of Under Water Travel and Tours, Mohamed Imthiyaaz, to WION.
Before 1956, people of Minicoy and people from Maldives’ northern atolls used to travel often across the islands. Even today, both
Maldivians and Malikun wish to travel directly between the islands. But since 1956, the journey of few hours has become long; it takes 12 hours to reach Cochin city of the Indian state of Kerela in a ferry, and it’s around a two hour flight to reach Ibrahim Nasir International Airport of Maldives — from there it will take more hours to reach the northern atolls, depending on the travel arrangements.
However Imthiyaaz said they are trying to make direct travel possible from Maldives to Maliku in a near future.
"We are negotiating with both Maldivian and Indian government. We are hoping this happens soon," he said.
This is surely long-awaited good news for both Maldivians and Minocoys.
Hopefully soon the cultural cousins won’t need to wait for Eid to be together again.