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India-Maldives War of Words on Social Media Triggers Diplomatic Row

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India-Maldives War of Words on Social Media Triggers Diplomatic Row

Neither Modi nor Muizzu can absolve themselves of responsibility for the spat.

India-Maldives War of Words on Social Media Triggers Diplomatic Row

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi promotes India’s Lakshadweep Islands on his X account, Jan. 4, 2024.

Credit: X/Narendra Modi

The already troubled India-Maldives relationship is under fresh strain following a spat over disparaging remarks made by Maldivian ministers about India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media.

Although the Maldivian government under newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu was swift in distancing itself from the offensive remarks — its Foreign Ministry issued a statement that the remarks reflect “opinions [that] are personal and do not represent the views of the Government of Maldives” — and suspended three deputy ministers who made the comments, India was not appeased.

A day after the ministers were suspended, India’s Ministry of External Affairs summoned the Maldivian envoy in New Delhi to express its concern over the ministers’ comments. In a tit-for-tat move, the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Indian high commissioner in Male.

The war of words that erupted on social media has escalated into a diplomatic row.

It all began on January 4, when the Indian prime minister, who was visiting India’s Lakshadweep Islands, made a series of posts on X, formerly Twitter, praising the “stunning beauty of the islands.”

“For those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list,” he said.

An archipelago of 36 islands in the Arabian Sea, Lakshadweep lies off the coast of the southern Indian state of Kerala. To its west is the Maldives, an archipelago of around 1,192 islands. Both Lakshadweep and the Maldives are tourist destinations, although the latter is far more developed to attract high-end tourists.

Modi made no mention of the Maldives in his posts.

However, within a few hours of his posts on Lakshadweep, some of his supporters claimed on social media that his visit to the island chain would promote tourism there, even as an alternative tourist destination to the Maldives. Some indulged in name-calling too.

An account under the name “Mr Sinha,” who describes himself on X as an “Indian Political commentator,” “Hindu Rights Activist” and “Proud Bhartiya [Indian]” lauded Modi on the “excellent move,” which would boost tourism in Lakshadweep.

“It’s a big setback to the new Chinese puppet gvt [government] of Maldives,” he wrote on X, in a post viewed 3.2 million times.

Since Muizzu took over the Maldivian presidency, he has taken several decisions that have contributed to the perception in India that he is pro-China.

A wave of posts by Indian and Maldivian nationals, many of them supporters of the Modi and Muizzu governments, respectively, swept social media. Soon three deputy ministers in the Maldivian Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Art Maryam Shiuna, Malsha Shareef, and Mahzoom Majid waded into the mud-slinging match.

In a now-deleted post on X, Shiuna mocked Modi as a “diver with a life jacket,” and described him as a “clown,” “terrorist” and a “puppet of Israel” and also compared India to cow dung.

That raised hackles in India.

Meanwhile, the situation on social media escalated with Indians and Maldivians lobbing insults at each other. It did not stop there. Indian film stars, cricketers, and others weighed in with posts urging Indians to boycott Maldives and visit Indian tourist destinations. Soon #BoycottMaldives was trending on social media.

It looks like the online war of words could have implications that go beyond social media.

Tourism is the Maldives’ largest industry, contributing to 28 percent of its GDP and over 60 percent of its foreign exchange earnings. According to recent data released by the Maldivian tourism ministry, of the 1.8 million foreign tourists who visited the Maldives in 2023, 11.2 percent were from India, followed closely by Russia (11.1 percent) and China (10 percent).

So far, one major online travel booking portal – EaseMyTrip – has suspended the sale of flight tickets to the Maldives. A statement from the Aviation and Tourism Committee of the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has called on tourism trade organizations  to “stop promoting Maldives in view of the anti-India feelings expressed by the ministers of Maldives.” It has also urged airline companies to suspend operations to the Maldives. So far, no Indian carrier has announced any changes to its flights to the Maldives, although bookings are reported to have dropped since the controversy erupted.

Interestingly, online searches for Lakshadweep have surged since the crisis erupted.

Indo-Maldivian relations were strong for decades. Economic and security cooperation thrived; thousands of Maldivians have studied in India and come to the country for medical treatment. India has always been the Maldives’ first responder in times of crisis, whether during an attempted coup in 1988, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the water shortage in 2014, or the COVID-19 pandemic.

Relations were strained in the 2013-2018 period when the Maldives’ foreign policy under President Abdulla Yameen took a distinctly pro-China tilt. That tilt was corrected under former President Ibrahim Solih, who adopted an “India First” foreign policy. That provided fodder for the opposition-led “India Out” campaign. During his election campaign, Muizzu fed the anti-India sentiment in the Maldives with pledges to oust Indian security personnel from the archipelago.

Since his inauguration in November, Muizzu has called on India to withdraw its military personnel from the Maldives. His government has also decided against renewing a 2019 hydrographic survey agreement with India. Unlike his predecessors, who would visit India first after assuming the presidential mantle, Muizzu chose Turkey for his first official visit. He has ignored New Delhi so far.

Adding salt to India’s injuries, Muizzu headed to China, even as the row over the disparaging remarks raged on social media. He is reported to have asked the Chinese to step up tourist numbers to the Maldives. Several investment and other deals are likely to be signed during his current visit to Beijing.

While posts on social media fueled the ongoing row, neither Modi nor Muizzu can absolve themselves of responsibility for the crisis. While Muizzu is guilty of fueling anti-India sentiment in Maldives, Modi has done little to rein in his supporters from trolling his critics.

Given the circumstances, the latest India-Maldives row was waiting to happen.