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Trouble in paradise as Modi’s India beach pictures provoke bizarre diplomatic spat with Maldives

 (Narendra Modi/Twitter)
(Narendra Modi/Twitter)

Narendra Modi’s photos from the serene beaches of the Lakshadweep archipelago have unwittingly ruffled feathers in the Maldives, exposing faultlines in the two countries’ close relationship under Malé’s new China-leaning president.

The pictures from his recent visit to the tiny Indian Ocean outpost showed a side of the Indian prime minister that is not often put on display – Mr Modi was seen walking on sun-kissed white beaches and snorkelling in the island’s turquoise-blue waters.

It was clearly an effort to promote domestic tourism, as Modi said he was in “awe of the stunning beauty of its islands” and gushed that “for those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list” of destinations to visit. No other country was mentioned in the posts.

But after many responded by suggesting Lakshadweep could be India’s own Maldives, comparisons between the two quickly became an ugly virtual slugfest.

It has led to a full-blown diplomatic crisis between the two neighbours, which were already tense after the pro-China Maldivian president Mohamed Muizzu won an election last year on an “India Out” campaign – pledging to remove Indian troops stationed in the archipelago and embrace closer ties with Beijing instead.

Some Maldivians suggested Modi was deliberately promoting Lakshadweep in order to undermine the Maldives’ travel industry, with the country’s economy heavily dependent on tourism. An estimated 200,000 Indians visit the Maldives for holidays every year.

The row escalated when it emerged that members of Muizzu’s cabinet were among those weighing in, calling Modi an economic “terrorist” and aiming xenophobic remars against him and Indians at large.

The row has enveloped some of India’s wealthiest celebrities, hundreds of whom took to Twitter/X to promote Lakshadweep. Indians also denounced Maldivian politicians for their derogatory remarks about Modi and called for a boycott of travel to the nation.

Experts in India suggested Malé “crossed a line” with personal and racist attacks on Modi that would ultimately harm the image of their own country.

Three ministers who worked for the archipelago’s Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts called Modi a "clown", "terrorist" and "puppet of Israel" in posts on X, according to the Reuters news agency. Most of the posts have since been deleted.

Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna, and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid were the ministers who led the attack on Modi and were swiftly suspended by the Maldivian government.

“What a clown. The puppet of Israel Mr Narendra diver with life jacket,” said Shiuna, who also compared India to cow dung in a now-deleted tweet.

The foreign ministry in Malé distanced itself from the comments by the ministers.

“The government of Maldives is aware of derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals. These opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the government of Maldives,” the Maldives foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Indian foreign ministry, which is yet to react to the issue, summoned the Maldives envoy to India on Tuesday over the remarks.

Harsh V Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation thinktank, tells The Independent that the incident blew up from Modi’s seemingly innocuous photos in part because of the growing perception that Muizzu’s new government is anti-India from the outset.

“This whole episode crossed a line and I think therefore you saw it reverberating in the social media space as Mr Modi’s visit to India’s territory or even its promotion did not warrant such backlash and vicious personal attack,” Pant says.

He says it would be counterproductive for the Maldives to be associated with xenophobic views and could cause wider harm to its image, particularly for a country whose economy is so reliant on welcoming foreigners.

Indian travel company Ease My Trip waded into the controversy and said it was suspending all flights and packages to the Maldives, while promoting Lakshadweep instead. In a statement to The Independent, Prashant Pitti, the CEO of the company said their decision would impact 240,000 annual bookings that are made through the platform.

He said bookings to the Maldives surged by approximately 40 per cent last year as compared with 2022, but that “nationalism is greater than any personal interest”.

Former Maldives president Ibrahim Solih, who was considered pro-India, said: “India has always been a good friend to the Maldives and we must not allow such callous remarks to negatively impact the age-old friendship between our two countries.”

A beach in Maldives
A beach in Maldives

Muizzu met Modi in Dubai on the sidelines of the Cop28 summit and raised his demand for the withdrawal of all Indian troops stationed in the country. India has a small contingent of 75 military personnel in the Maldives, an island archipelago of just over half a million people, to maintain three maritime rescue and surveillance aircraft that were donated by the Indian army.

The row also coincides with Muizzu’s five-day visit to China this week, one of his first bilateral foreign trips since becoming president. It is being seen as a diplomatic snub to India and a departure from the tradition of previous Maldivian leaders visiting India first after taking office.

Muizzu made his first official visit to Turkey after he took over in November. No visit to India has yet been confirmed by either country, though some media reports claimed one was being planned for later in January before the current diplomatic row erupted.

Both India and China have heavily invested in the Maldives. In 2014 Malé became part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative that envisages building networks of ports, railways and roads to expand trade and China’s influence across Asia, Africa and Europe.

“Muizzu has explicitly not made an anti-India comment since coming to power,” Pant says. “But actions speak louder than words, and he is signalling with his visit to China and pressure campaign on India to remove troops.”

Lakshadweep is a largely under-developed chain of tropical islands off India’s southwestern coast that requires a special permit for entry, even for Indian nationals. The island is made up of 36 islands and it is known for its pristine coral reefs, crystal-clear waters, and diverse marine wildlife.

The Indian archipelago is much smaller in terms of land area, number of islands, population and infrastructure when compared to the Maldives, whose shorelines are dotted with luxury resorts, overwater bungalows and vibrant coral reefs.

Tourism accounts for almost 28 per cent of the Maldives’ GDP, with Indian nationals making up the largest number of foreign visitors in 2023 at 209,198, according to the Maldives tourism ministry. This is in part after it became popular among Bollywood celebrities, who regularly post images from visits for a get-away or honeymoon.

The Maldives is 300 nautical miles off mainland India’s western coast and just 70 nautical miles from Lakshadweep’s Minicoy island.

“Its strategically important placement in the Indian Ocean makes it an important neighbour for India and if the government in Malé is not friendly to Delhi and inclined towards its adversaries then it becomes a question of India also drawing some red lines,” Pant says.