India-Maldives row over Lakshadweep

Wednesday, 17 January 2024 00:00 –      – 19

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Immature social media posts by three Deputy Ministers of the Maldivian Government two weeks ago have led to a high-octane dispute between India and the Maldives. Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna, and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid – all of whom worked for the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts – had been suspended over their disrespectful and rude comments about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The said three politicians had described Modi as a clown, terrorist, and “puppet of Israel” on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), in response to a video which promoted tourism in Lakshadweep, an Indian Union Territory in the Arabian Sea which has similar characteristics as the Maldives in terms of geography. The promotional video, which showcased the Indian Premier relaxing at the Indian Union territory (which is located just 750 km away from the Maldives), was seen by some Maldivians as an attempt to draw tourists away from their country.

Subsequent to the derogatory remarks expressed over social media, India’s Ministry of External Affairs had summoned the Maldivian envoy over the insults and one of India’s largest travel platforms had suspended flight bookings to the archipelago. Vituperative comments by the junior Maldivian politicians are symbolic of sheer callowness and a grave miscalculation since Indians are the largest group of foreign visitors to the Maldives, where tourism and leisure account for almost one-fourth of the economy.

In manifestation of repercussions to the Maldivian tourism industry from the unwarranted actions of some of their politicians, several Bollywood celebrities like Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, and John Abraham have urged people in India to visit Lakshadweep instead of the famous vacation spot. Cricket stars – whom Indians consider as demi gods – have called on their fans to explore the Indian islands like Lakshadweep and the Andamans in place of the Maldives. “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 had posted in his tweet.

The diversion of Indian tourists could adversely affect the economy of the sought-after holiday destination. In terms of tourist arrivals to the Maldives during 2023, visitors from India topped the list with 206,026 arrivals, and represented 11.2% of the total number of visitors. India’s economy is growing, and its number of billionaires and millionaires is rising rapidly.

The latest dispute among the two South Asian states has emerged on the backdrop of the strained ties between New Delhi and Male since the Presidential Election last September in the Maldives, which concluded with Mohamed Muizzu becoming President, whose campaign platform was based on the promise of expelling Indian forces from the islands. Upon his state visit to China a week ago, Muizzu had made a formal request to New Delhi to remove its military personnel from the island nation by 15 March this year.

China and the Maldives elevated their bilateral ties during Muizzu’s first state visit to Beijing by agreeing to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership which lays the foundation for the Asian superpower to step up its investments in the South Asian nation. The development comes amidst the Indian governments having traditionally considered the Maldives to be within its scope of influence. Both India and China have competitively strived for foothold in the archipelago by investing extensively in advancing the Maldives’ infrastructure apart from providing financial assistance.

The escalating rivalry between the two neighbouring states provides a good opportunity for the country to attract high-spending travellers from India. During late 2022, there were talks of establishing a Sri Lanka Islands Development Authority to develop more than 60 small islands across the country as tourist destinations. Wonder whether politicos in the Maldives would behave in the same way as they did with regard to Lakshadweep when efforts would be undertaken by the Sri Lankan tourism authorities to attract travellers to the said islands?

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