Mumbo jumbo in the Maldives

How sorcery plays a role in Maldivian politics

Political folklorists say, there’s a charmed circle around every powerful person. Political gossipers would tell you stories about what many do to get into that circle, or to get others out. Several of our Panchatantra tales are about tricks played by people to get into the king’s favour, or how the jealous would poison the king’s ears against others.

Fathimath Shamnaz Ali’s is one such. She had been politically close to Mohamed Muizzu when he was mayor of Male, and she a town council member. She followed Muizzu when he rode to power in the Maldives last year, and moved into the presidential mansion Muliaage.

Blame it on the flawed vaastu of Muliaage, Muizzu soon despatched her to the environment ministry. Pretty vital, we would think, considering that climate change is a lifeline matter for the Maldives as is the actual line of control for us Indians. Many of the isles will sink if the globe warms by a degree or two, the polar ice melts, and the sea rises.

Imaging: Deni Lal Imaging: Deni Lal

But Shamnaz Ali thought she was being sent out to count the waves, and was desperate to get back into Muizzu’s charmed circle. She engaged a sorcerer to bewitch him. Made of sterner stuff, Muizzu didn’t fall for the spell; he got her arrested along with her sorcerer and his apprentices.

Sorcery is practised widely as fanditha (white and benign magic) and sihuru (black and invoking demons) in the Maldives. At times ‘white’ wizards are hired to ‘dispel’ the spells cast by the black. Politicians are known to hire, on the sly, persons who practise both. Sorcerers had a field day during the 2013 presidential poll, as jyotishis have during our elections, with one of the contestants, Abdulla Yameen, suspected to have been a firm believer in sorcery. He kept a ‘charm circle’ around him, and his presidential order to uproot trees in a town square was believed to have been on the suspicion that the rival party had cast a spell on them to make him ill.

Yameen was even caught in a video discussing with a Lankan national Asela Wickramasinghe on how to cast a spell on his rival Mohammed Nasheed so as to make him go "temporarily crazy" or take his life. In the end, he decides against murder, saying, "but Asela, human life is so precious, so precious." The video, that came out in 2016 after Asela complained that he had not been paid for his services, has since been banned in the Maldives.

Yameen may have gone to jail on other charges, but sorcerers are still haunting the charmed woods on the islands, blessing and cursing leaders and lesser folk. Four men, including two high-ranking civil servants, were arrested on Kulhudhuffushi isle for ‘working magic’ for the opposition in last year’s presidential polls. Two months ago, a 60-year-old sorcerer was arrested from Sh. Funadhoo for having cast a black spell on the island’s trees against the local MP-elect Mohamed Mamdhooh.

Coconuts, a favourite voodoo object, with spells written on them, were found near polling stations, purportedly to influence swing voters. A suspect coconut was recently ‘detained’ on Guraidhoo island, until a ‘white’ magician arrived and judged it harmless. Police caught a man couriering five cursed coconuts after his wife found them hidden under the bed and raised a hue and cry.

The penal code does not have a specific provision against sorcery. A 1978 law allows fanditha under health ministry licence, but both fanditha and sihuru are considered taboo and un-Islamic. In December, 2015, the Islamic ministry issued a warning against black magic. That’s still a cry in the enchanted wilderness.