Why PM Modi's Lakshadweep Visit Has Triggered Diplomatic Row Between India, Maldives | Explained

  oliver oliver   3028   08 Jan, 2024 

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A series of photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi staring pensively out into the Arabian Sea surrounded by Lakshadweep’s coastal splendour, has not only set off a social media war between India and the Maldives but also triggered a low-key diplomatic row between the two friendly countries. When he visited the island, known for its largely untouched natural beauty, last week for promoting infrastructural development and tourism, the prime minister may not have anticipated such a harsh and rather uncharacteristic reaction from the Maldives. A row erupted on social media last week when a minister and some other leaders in the Maldives used derogatory remarks against Prime Minister Modi after he posted a video of him on a pristine beach in Lakshadweep. While the Maldivian government on Sunday distanced itself from “derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals”, it also suspended three government officials whose comments on social media platform X seemingly triggered the row in the first place. In his post on social media site X, the PM had mentioned “the stunning beauty” of the union territory and “the incredible warmth of its people”. And, in doing so, advised travel enthusiasts and adventurers that “Lakshadweep has to be on your list”. But, nowhere in his post or his official statement did he mention the Maldives or any other island nation popular among tourists. So, what exactly happened? WHO STARTED IT? The row was mainly triggered by a senior minister in the Muizzu-led government, Abdulla Mahzoom Majid, who accused India of targeting the Maldives. He said India faces significant challenges in competing with the Maldives when it comes to beach tourism. His tweet came after PM Modi put out his Lakshadweep post, which went viral and prompted many social media users to suggest that the union territory could be an alternate tourist destination to the Maldives. Majid later deleted his tweet, but the damage was done. His remarks were followed by offensive and derogatory comments made by high-ranking officials of the Maldivian government, as well as prominent social media users. These remarks were not only targeted at Modi but Indians at large. Mariyam Shiuna, deputy minister of youth empowerment, information and arts, called Modi a “clown” and “puppet of Israel” in a post on X. While Shiuna has deleted the post since, her government also suspended her. Shiuna apparently also compared India to cow dung. “What a clown. The puppet of Israel Mr. Narendra diver with life jacket. #VisitMaldives #SunnySideOfLife,” she said in her post. Malsha Sharif, another deputy minister in the same ministry, also made derogatory comments of a similar nature against India. Both have now been suspended along with another government official, Hasan Zihan, deputy minister of transport and civil. A social media user, Zahid Rameez, who calls himself a member of the Progressive Party of Maldives, while lauding the move to promote tourism in Lakshadweep said India was being “delusional” if the country thought about competing with Maldives. He said this especially with regard to the services offered by the island nation, but went on to make offensive comments about “permanent smell in the rooms”. His post was shared by Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, condemning the derogatory language used against Indians. According to a report published by The Indian Express, the social media outrage led some Maldivian news websites to run sensational headlines in the Dhivehi language. Many of them alleged that India was running a campaign against tourism in the Maldives. The IE report also stated in response to the central Indian government’s attempts at promoting tourism in the Lakshadweep, Maldivian officials and supporters of the new ruling coalition have pushed a #VisitMaldives hashtag featuring photos of holiday resorts, beaches and hotels in the country. HOW IS THIS RELEVANT? The Maldives is India’s key maritime neighbour in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and occupies a special place in its initiatives like SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and the Neighbourhood First Policy of the Narendra Modi-led government. According to official figures by the Maldivian government, Indian tourists are among the top ten nationalities who travel to the island every year. Indians also prefer this island nation, often linked to luxury and exclusivity, as a destination wedding option. More than 28 percent of the island nation’s GDP is attributed to the tourism industry. In 2023, Indians formed the largest group of tourists with over 2,00,000 travellers, followed by Russians and the Chinese. In 2021 and 2022, India continued as the top market with over 2.91 lakh and 2.41 lakh Indian tourist arrivals. These figures are quite high considering that Covid-19 was at its peak in 2021. Last year, India with 1,00,915 tourist arrivals (until June 13, 2023) remained a sought-after market for Maldives. Now, the social media war has led to en-masse cancellations of trips to the Maldives by Indians. Also running on social media is ‘Boycott Maldives’. There are several Indians who have cancelled their bookings in the last 24 to 48 hours. There were many Indians who also spoke about India’s assistance to the Maldives for years. Indian cine stars such as Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Shraddha Kapoor along with other prominent personalities also appealed to fans to “explore Indian islands” and coastal destinations. In social media posts, Kumar, cricketer Hardik Pandya and veteran player Venkatesh Prasad also urged people to support the Indian tourism sector as they condemned the comments by Maldivian ministers on X. In an X post, Salman Khan said it was “cool” to see Modi enjoy the clean and stunning beaches of Lakshadweep. “… and the best part is that yeh hamare India mein hain,” the ‘Tiger 3’ star wrote. Tiger Shroff said the Lakshadweep islands had captured his heart. “The rich culture, tranquil beaches, and the genuine warmth of its people create an enchanting allure. Join me in celebrating the inclusivity and unparalleled beauty of these islands – a treasure trove waiting for us to explore!” he posted. Shraddha Kapoor and other stars shared posts on X using the hashtags ‘Explore Indian Islands’ and ‘Lakshadweep’. “All these images and memes making me super FOMO now. Lakshadweep has such pristine beaches and coastlines, thriving local culture, I’m on the verge of booking an impulse chhutti. This year, why not #ExploreIndianIslands (sic)” Shraddha shared on X. Akshay Kumar, who rang in the New Year in the Maldives with his family, condemned the “hateful and racist” remarks by prominent public figures from the Maldives. “Surprised that they are doing this to a country that sends them the maximum number of tourists… We are good to our neighbours but why should we tolerate such unprovoked hate? “I’ve visited the Maldives many times and always praised it, but dignity first. Let us decide to #ExploreIndianIslands and support our own tourism,” the actor wrote on the microblogging site. Speaking in the same vein, former cricketer Venkatesh Prasad posted, “A deputy minister using such language for our country. Maldives is a largely poor country largely dependent on upmarket tourism with over 15% tourists from India. India has very many unexplored beautiful coastal towns, and this is a great opportunity to develop many of them into tourist destinations,” he added in his X post. Cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar said he rang in his 50th birthday in Sindhudurg and the coastal town in Maharashtra offered everything “we wanted, and more”. “Gorgeous locations combined with wonderful hospitality left us with a treasure trove of memories. India is blessed with beautiful coastlines and pristine islands. With our ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ philosophy, we have so much to explore, so many memories waiting to be created,” Tendulkar added. Pandya said it is “extremely sad” to see what’s being said about India. “With its gorgeous marine life, beautiful beaches, Lakshadweep is the perfect getaway spot and surely a must visit for me for my next holiday,” he added in his X post. Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar and actors John Abraham, Kangana Ranaut, and Randeep Hooda were also among some of the Indian film personalities to promote Lakshadweep through social media. Ranaut called Lakshadweep an “almost untouched, unexplored and unexploited natural island”. Hooda, who shot his upcoming film “Veer Savarkar” in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said he was awed by the pristine beauty and the rich history of the region. “Incredible India is not just a tag, our beautiful country has some of the most incredible and stunning locales and #Lakshadweep is an example of it- a heaven like place in India itself! Can’t wait to explore this beautiful Indian island,” Kartik Aaryan wrote on X. “With the amazing Indian hospitality, the idea of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ and a vast marine life to explore. Lakshadweep is the place to go,” said Abraham. WHAT IS THE MALDIVIAN GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE TO THIS? The Maldivian government suspended three of its ministers for their “derogatory” remarks against Modi. The ministers suspended are – Hassan Zihan, deputy minister of transport and civil; Mariyam Shiuna, deputy minister of youth empowerment, information and arts; and Malsha Sharif, deputy minister of ministry of youth empowerment. The country’s government also distanced itself from social media row and said these opinions are “personal and do not represent the views of the government” after opposition leaders slammed the “appalling language” used by the senior official. In a statement, the Maldivian foreign ministry said they were aware of the “derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals”. “These opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the Government of Maldives,” it said. The Maldivian government said it believes that the freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, and negativity, and hinder close relationships between the Maldives and its international partners. It warned that relevant authorities of the Government will not hesitate to take action against those who make such derogatory remarks. WHY SUCH “ANTI-INDIA” SENTIMENT? The row comes amid strained ties between the two countries following President Mohammed Muizzu’s ascent to power. Muizzu, from the Progressive Alliance – a coalition of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), is considered pro-China. He is also scheduled to travel for a state visit to China between January 8 and 12. His opponent, former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, had good ties with New Delhi and the bilateral relations progressed between the two nations under Solih’s rule. “This is a deliberate anti-India pattern ever since a new Maldives government came into place. The present regime is seen as close to China and antagonistic to India while we have helped Maldives in all aspects, including providing them Covid-19 vaccines,” a government source told News18. But, this is not new. In 2020, the ‘India Out’ campaign started as on-ground protests in the Maldives and later spread widely across social media. This became an active and visible campaign by the second half of 2021, as a reaction against the Solih-led government. The new government has, however, claimed that the campaign was the protest the presence of the Indian military. In fact, when the Muizzu government came to power, the first thing on the agenda was to speak to India about removing its soldiers from the Maldives. Muizzu spoke to Indian officials about the same on the sidelines of the COP28 summit in December 2023. The military was in the country to operate and manage two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft. HAS THERE BEEN ANY CRITICISM AGAINST THE SOCIAL MEDIA ESCALATION FROM THE MALDIVES? Not all in the Maldives supported the remarks by some government officials and the social media rant against India. Former president Mohamed Nasheed described the remarks as “appalling” and asked Muizzu’s government to distance itself from these comments. “What appalling language by Maldives Government official @shiuna_m towards the leader of a key ally, that is instrumental for Maldives’ security and prosperity. @MMuizzu gov must distance itself from these comments and give clear assurance to India they do not reflect gov policy, he posted on X. Former vice-president Ahmed Adeeb strongly condemned the derogatory and racist comments made by a group of Maldivian politicians towards prime minister Modi. “We established the Maldives tourism industry based on the principles of hospitality, tolerance, peace, and harmony. Through strategic positioning and collaborations with global brands and investments, including those from India, we have successfully positioned Maldives as a premier luxury resort destination,” Adeeb said. He added: “I strongly condemn any derogatory and racist comments made by a group of Maldivian politicians towards His Excellency PM Modi @PMOIndia and beloved citizens of India, he added. He commended the Maldives Government for distancing itself from the views expressed by these officials and emphasizing that they do not reflect the government’s position. Considering the global economic challenges and the vulnerability of the Maldives tourism industry and economy, it is crucial for us to maintain a friendly and humble approach while fostering positive relations, with all nations.” Maldives National Party in a post on X wrote that it condemns racist and derogatory comments made by a government official against a foreign leader. “This is unacceptable. We urge the government to take necessary action against those involved,” it added.

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