India-Maldives Conflict: Why Tension is Mounting?

The Maldives is experiencing a boycott from its significant source of tourism revenue due to three of its officials making derogatory remarks about India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. This has led to calls from Indian citizens and celebrities to avoid visiting the sun-soaked Maldives and opt for domestic beaches instead. 

The issue arose when Modi shared photos of himself snorkelling and strolling along a beach in Lakshadweep, a group of islands in the Laccadive Sea, off Kerala’s coast in southern India. Although Modi didn’t specifically mention the Maldives in his post, his enthusiastic praise of Lakshadweep’s stunning landscapes might have been perceived as an attempt to attract tourists there instead of the Maldives.

In response, three Maldivian officials labelled Modi as a “clown,” “terrorist,” and a “puppet of Israel,” as reported by Reuters. The Maldivian government acted swiftly, distancing itself from these comments by suspending the three officials – they were deputy ministers within the Ministry of Youth Employment, Information, and Arts, according to a senior Maldives official speaking to Reuters.

In a formal statement, the Maldives government acknowledged the existence of “derogatory” comments made on social media but emphasised that these viewpoints are personal and do not reflect the government’s stance.

“The government believes that the freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, negativity, and hinder close relationships between the Maldives and its international partners,” it said.

This incident arises at a sensitive juncture, coinciding with Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu’s inaugural five-day visit to China since his election victory last October. Muizzu is recognized for his pro-China position and his commitment to discontinuing his predecessor’s “India first” policy in a region where both New Delhi and Beijing vie for influence.

Throughout this visit, he is anticipated to engage with Chinese officials and finalize “crucial agreements aimed at enhancing trade, professional collaborations, and socio-economic progress,” as stated by an official government release.

However, while Muizzu aims to strengthen bonds with Beijing, the small Indian Ocean archipelago, home to approximately half a million inhabitants, cannot afford to alienate its closest neighbor.

The Maldives heavily relies on tourism, with a significant portion of that revenue coming from India. According to the Maldives’ tourism website, India represented the largest group of tourists visiting its tropical beaches last year, as the most populous country globally.

In 2023, statistics disclosed last week revealed that Indian tourists accounted for over 209,000 visits to the Maldives, constituting 11% of its tourism market. Russia contributed a similar number, and China closely followed, providing 187,118 visits, approximately 10% of the total.

However, the remarks made by the officials upset some Indian vacationers, leading them to display screenshots on social media demonstrating their cancellation of trips to the island chain under the hashtag #BoycottMaldives.

Eminent personalities, spanning from Bollywood actors to cricket players, also urged their followers to consider local destinations instead. Another hashtag, #ChaloLakshadweep, signifying “Let’s go to Lakshadweep,” where Modi had visited, gained significant traction.

Among these voices was Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, renowned for his roles in movies with a patriotic theme, who condemned the Maldivian officials’ remarks as “hateful and racist.”

“We are good to our neighbors, 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,” he said.

Afterward, the tour and travel company EaseMyTrip halted all flight bookings to the Maldives. Nishant Pitti, the Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, used social media X to declare the suspension of these bookings. Pitti expressed solidarity with India: “In solidarity with our nation, EasyMyTrip has suspended all Maldives flight bookings”. 

The online travel solution provider also launched a campaign to visit Lakshadweep by #ChaloLakshadeep. On a microblogging site X, Pitti said, “Water & Beaches of Lakshadweep are as good as Maldives/Seychelles. We at EasyMyTrip will come up with crazy special offers. 

However, the Maldives government took action by suspending the ministers responsible for making inappropriate remarks, emphasising zero tolerance for such statements to defuse the situation. However, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs heightened the issue by expressing deep concern to the Maldives High Commissioner to India regarding objectionable comments made on social media by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The situation escalated further as it gained traction across various social media platforms.

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