Three Maldivian officials’ remarks on India triggered a major diplomatic row even as Male went into damage control and suspended the officials.
Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu’s rhetoric during his recent election campaign and his newly formed government’s cold stance toward India may have emboldened three junior ministers who took to social media to mock Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his visit to Lakshadweep, analysts said.
Modi had visited Lakshadweep last week to promote tourism in the archipelago of 36 atolls and coral reefs in the Laccadive Sea, off the coast of Kerala.
Muizzu suspended the three ministers following growing outrage but has not publicly reacted to the controversy even as calls rose in India to boycott the Maldives, a popular tourist destination for Indians.
The ministry of external affairs on Monday summoned Maldivian High Commissioner Ibrahim Saheeb, who was curtly told in four minutes that the onus is on Muizzu to repair the damaged relationship, Hindustan Times reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
The ministry stressed that the three junior ministers should be dismissed and not just suspended.
The three ministers at the center of the controversy are Mariyum Shiuna, Malsha Shareef, and Hassan Zihan.
While Shiuna made a mocking and disrespectful reference to Modi on X (the erstwhile Twitter), the other two passed derogatory remarks on the social media following the prime minister’s Lakshadweep visit. Their posts led to a chain reaction, with a string of racial comments directed at Indian tourists visiting the Maldives.
The report suggested that ministry of external affairs is wondering whether there was a link between the ministers’ remarks and Muizzu’s visit to China.
Muizzu arrived in China on Monday for a day’s visit and is expected to sign key agreements to boost trade and socio-economic cooperation.
Muizzu, who assumed office in November, is considered a pro-Beijing leader and is visiting China for the first time. He is expected to attend the Invest Maldives Forum in Fuzhou and meet senior Chinese business leaders.
Muizzu, on assuming office, broke the tradition and visited Turkey instead of India. The relations between Male and New Delhi were further strained as he followed up on his campaign promise and demanded that India withdraw its troops stationed in the archipelago.
However, in early December, there were some signs of improvement as Modi and Muizzu met in Dubai on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Summit (COP28) and agreed to set up a core group to carry forward the relations between the two countries.
Indian tourists boycott Maldives
Indian tourists contribute 11% to Maldives’ inbound tourism, with 209,198 Indians reportedly visiting the island nation in 2023.
Reacting to the comments by the Maldivians, Indian tourists announced the cancelation of their travel plans to the archipelago country.
Subhash Goyal, chairman of the Aviation and Tourism Committee, Indian Chamber of Commerce, told Press Insider that many Indian tourists were canceling their plans to visit the Maldives.
He, however, added that it is too early to estimate cancelation numbers, and said tourists who have made advance payments in full will not cancel.
“Tourists are worried about their safety as they are concerned about what common people’s reaction towards Indian tourists is after educated Maldivian ministers are passing such anti-Indian remarks on social media,” Goyal said.
“The statements made by junior ministers in Maldives have not gone down well with the Indian tourism sector and Indian tourists traveling to Maldives. There has been lot of cancellations. We have stopped accepting bookings for Maldives and most of the Indian tour operators and wedding planners have decided to boycott Maldives as far as their future bookings are concerned,” he added.
Online travel company EaseMyTrip announced that it had suspended flight bookings to the Maldives after the row. EaseMyTrip chief executive Nishant Pitti said the decision was “in solidarity with our nation.”
Promoting Lakshadweep as a tourist destination, EaseMyTrip has announced plans to develop “crazy special-offers to promote this pristine destination.”
With a 7,500-km coastline, Goyal said India offers several beautiful destinations like Lakshadweep, Andaman, and Nicobar Islands, with better coral reefs and water sports than Maldives.
Those looking to go abroad can choose Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Bali, and Thailand, he added.
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