Maldives-India row escalates as envoy summoned over ministers' Modi remarks

Relations between New Delhi and Male have strained in recent months

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu, pictured during Cop28 in Dubai, ordered a review of 100 agreements with India. AP
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The Maldives' envoy in New Delhi, Ibrahim Shaheeb, met Indian Foreign Ministry officials on Monday amid a social media row that saw three Maldivian ministers suspended after remarks against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The meeting followed Mr Modi's recent visit to India’s Lakshadweep islands which led to a row over remarks posted on social media by some ministers of the Maldives.

Relations between New Delhi and Male have been strained in recent months after a new government came to power in the Maldives in November last year, with some experts suggesting the new government leans towards China.

Lakshadweep is an archipelago of 36 islands, with only 10 inhabited, in the emerald waters of the Arabian Sea. It sits about 400km off the south-western coastal state of Kerala.

The federally ruled islands are known for their white sand beaches. Mr Modi’s government is attempting to encourage tourism to the area due to its similarities to the Maldives, despite it being an ecologically sensitive region.

In posts on social media, Mr Modi snorkelled in the sea and urged “those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them” to add Lakshadweep to their future travel stops.

While his government did not make any reference to the Maldives, many Indian social media users called for travellers to visit domestic islands instead of the Maldives, prompting fierce reactions that have escalated into a diplomatic row.

Three Maldivian ministers including Mariyam Shiuna, the Deputy Minister of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts, allegedly called the Indian prime minister a “clown” and a “diver in a life jacket” in posts on X, formerly Twitter, that have since been deleted.

Maaiz Mahmood, a politician, also shared a picture, believed to be from Bora Bora islands in French Polynesia, with the caption “Sunset in Maldives. You won’t see this in Lakshadweep.” He also tagged the Indian Prime Minister.

Several Maldivian newspapers carried stories claiming that India had started a campaign against the island nation.

Supporters of Mr Modi have since called for a boycott of the Maldives, which receives more than 200,000 Indian tourists a year, according to the Maldivian government.

Travel website EaseMyTrip announced the suspension of all flight bookings to the Maldives and launched discount offers to Lakshadweep.

The Maldivian Foreign Ministry has since taken action against the ministers suspending three.

“These opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the Government of Maldives. Moreover, the relevant authorities of the Government will not hesitate to take action against those who make such derogatory remarks,” the Maldivian Foreign Ministry said.

The latest row could further strain ties between New Delhi and Male which is believed to be leaning to China, as both the nuclear power nations are vying for influence in the region.

China is the Maldives' largest external creditor, accounting for about 20 per cent of its total public debt. The latest International Monetary Fund data shows the Maldives owes China about $1.3 billion.

While the Maldives has been the biggest beneficiaries of India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and received significant public welfare and humanitarian assistance from New Delhi, the newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu is seen as being pro-Beijing.

After taking charge in November last year, he demanded the removal of 77 Indian security personnel and ordered a review of 100 agreements with India.

On Monday, he will take part in an official state visit to China after an invitation by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Updated: January 08, 2024, 11:20 AM