India – Maldives Relations Nosedive

4 Min
India – Maldives Relations Nosedive

Rattan Saldi

The diplomatic ties between India and the Maldives are in deep waters following disparaging social media posts by three Deputy Ministers against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a damage control effort, the three Ministers Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid were suspended by President Mohamed Muizzu, who is currently on a visit to China.  

The Maldivian government has distanced itself from their utterances and said, “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.”

The derogatory remarks have expectedly stirred an explosive response in India. Maldivian Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office, and handed over a protest note. Indian media was abuzz with calls to boycott Maldives for tourism and trade relations on which the Indian ocean archipelago is mainly dependent for sustenance of its economy.

‘Boycott Maldives’ trended on social media platforms from almost all sections of the society including cinema celebrities, sports persons; many intending tourist visitors to Maldives trended that they were cancelling their visits.

The Maldivian Ministers’ despicable comments have sought to mock Prime Minister Modi’s account promoting scenic beauty of pristine beaches of India’s Lakshadweep islands with captivating photographs. In his social media post, Modi said, “Recently, I had the opportunity to be among the people of Lakshadweep. I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands and the incredible warmth of its people….”

Lakshadweep near India’s South-West coast is easily accessible from the mainland with similar beautiful white sand beaches as in the Maldives.

Former Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said in a post on X, “India has always been a good friend to Maldives and we must not allow such callous remarks to negatively impact the age-old friendship between our two countries.”

Apprehending adverse impact to their business as a result of the diplomatic tip off between India and the Maldives, the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry in a statement in Male said, ‘it strongly condemns the derogatory comments made by some deputy ministers on social media platforms, directed towards the Prime Minister of India as well as the people of India.’  They said India has been the ‘consistent and significant contributor to tourism industry in Maldives and has always been first responder to any crisis facing the country.’

Tension started brewing up between India and the Maldives when President Mohamad Muizzu, immediately after assuming office in Nov 2023 asked New Delhi to withdraw Indian troops stationed in the island. Even during his election campaign, he blew the nationalist rhetoric saying that Indian security presence in the island nation is an infringement on its sovereignty.

India had supplied one aircraft and two helicopters to Maldives for maritime emergencies and reaching out medical aid to its over one thousand small islands. India also maintains one observatory in Maldives to keep an eye on intruders in the maritime zones of both India and Maldives in the Arabian sea. Muizzu wanted the Indian manpower operating the helicopters and the observatory out of the country.

Mohamad Muizzu is known for his tilt towards China. He chose China for his overseas visit, breaking thus the tradition of visiting India first by any new President of the Maldives. His very first visit out of the country was to Turkey in November 2023 and he visited United Arab Emirates in December 2023 for COP Summit, where on the sidelines, met he met Prime Minister Modi briefly.

Maldives economy is heavily dependent on tourism as lovers of white sandy beaches amidst serene oceanic beauty and lavish inland tourist resorts flock to the archipelago to spend their holidays and enjoy nature’s bounty. The three Ministers felt that Prime Minister Modi’s promotion of Lakshadweep as a tourist resort could harm the tourism industry of the Maldives.

According to a World Bank report, tourism accounts for almost one third of Maldives economy. According to Maldivian Tourism Ministry statistics, India ranked top among the countries of tourist arrivals in Maldives in 2023 with 2.09 lakh Indian tourists visiting the Indian ocean archipelago, of the total 17.5 lakh arrivals. Russia remained a close second while arrivals from China stood at a third position.

New Delhi is the main supplier of all essential commodities to Maldives and takes care of its security concerns. India is presently engaged in Maldives in a number of infrastructure development projects. It is developing two airports and a port in Maldives and is engaged in the construction of a connectivity project linking capital Male with three adjoining islands through a 6.74-kilometre-long bridge.

Maldives imports rice, sugar, wheat flour, vegetables, including onions and potatoes and construction materials from India and exports fish and fish products and scrap materials to it. Maldives being a small country with just a little over five lakh population, is highly dependent on imports of essential commodities. Its trade with India is grossly imbalanced. During 2022, India’s exports to Maldives stood at $495.40 million while it imported goods worth US $6.42 million from the Maldives.

Maldives is situated in the Indian ocean off West Coast of India, adjacent to the main East-West shipping route and as such is of strategic importance to the countries in the region, including India. Nearly 50 percent of India’s maritime exports and 80 percent of its energy imports are traded through the Indian Ocean East-West shipping route.

It remains to be seen how Male handles the fall – out of Malsha Shareef – Mariyam Shiuna – Abdulla Mahzoom Majid vituperative attacks on India.   Whether they are sacked from the President Muizzu Cabinet or their suspension is simply revoked the outcome will have a bearing on India-Maldives relations, which are delicately poised. It is in the best interest of both countries   that the tension is defused quickly.###