Tensions between India and the Maldives have flared up after two Maldivian government ministers made derogatory public remarks against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The incidents have led to strong reactions from both countries, impacting diplomatic relations and tourism.
Maldivian Ministers Suspended for Insulting Modi
Last week, Maldives’ Minister of State for Environment, Climate Change and Technology, Zahiya Zareer, referred to PM Modi as an “India idiot” on Twitter. She made the remarks after Modi’s scheduled visit to Lakshadweep islands was canceled.
Additionally, the Maldives Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Ahmed Muizzu, made offensive comments against PM Modi at a public event. He referred to Modi as a “clown” and “terrorist” who follows the policies of Israel.
In response, the Maldives President’s Office announced the suspension of Zareer, Muizzu, and Minister of State for Education, Mariya Didi, pending an inquiry.
The suspensions followed after the Indian foreign ministry summoned the Maldivian envoy over the “unacceptable” remarks that “undermine the dignity of the Prime Minister of India”.
Widespread Condemnations in Maldives
The offensive comments received widespread criticism from various Maldivian politicians and leaders.
Speaker of Parliament and former President, Mohamed Nasheed, tweeted that the remarks were “unacceptable” and “impinges on our nations’ cordial ties”.
Former Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb said the comments were “deeply sad” and a “slight” that should be condemned. He requested PM Modi to pardon the “crass” remarks.
Former Maldives President, Mohamed Waheed Hassan labelled the comments as “unbecoming” of a minister and stated that bilateral ties should be handled with “responsibility, maturity and farsightedness”.
The remarks were also slammed as “shameful” and “racist” by Independent MP, Ahmed Mahloof. He urged Indians to not boycott the Maldives over the “rogue” comments of “insignificant” ministers.
India Raises Issue, Tourism Likely to Be Impacted
The Indian external affairs ministry summoned the acting Maldivian envoy and raised concerns over the “unacceptable” remarks. India stated that the comments “undermine the dignity” of the Indian PM’s office and are inconsistent with the “close and friendly” India-Maldives ties.
In light of the escalating tensions, major Indian travel companies have suspended bookings to the Maldives. This is likely to negatively impact the island nation’s tourism industry which is highly dependent on Indian tourists.
The incidents have also renewed social media calls for boycotting the Maldives and promoting domestic tourist destinations like Lakshadweep instead. Top Indian celebrities have supported these calls for boycott through their social media handles.
Background and Expected Developments
Relations between India and Maldives have generally remained strong but have witnessed periodic tensions under the former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s rule from 2013-2018. Yameen had signed major infrastructure contracts with China leading to strains with India.
However, ties have improved remarkably since the election of President Ibrahim Solih in 2018. Solih has focused on reviving ties with India through bilateral agreements. His first overseas visit was also to India in 2018.
The latest remarks indicate lingering anti-India sentiments among a faction of Maldivian politicians aligned with former President Yameen. However, these seem to be isolated incidents rather than an institutional stance.
The Maldivian government’s quick suspensions highlight its intent to control damage and maintain cordial India relations. As its major trade partner and source of tourists, strained ties with India would severely impact the island nation’s economy.
Most observers believe bilateral ties will normalize soon considering the close cultural, economic and strategic partnership between the two countries. However, the damage to Maldives’ tourism industry may be long-lasting if negative sentiments prevail among Indian travellers.
|Indian Tourist Arrivals
|% Annual Change
Table: Yearly Indian tourist arrivals in Maldives and annual change
The above table shows the deep impact of COVID-19 on Maldivian tourism industry in 2020 and 2021 with over 70% annual drop in Indian tourists. The recovery in 2022 remains vulnerable if tensions lead to tourist booking cancellations.
Going forward, the Maldivian ministers’ offensive remarks may blow over soon but will remain an unfortunately timed and needless diplomatic flap. However, lasting damage can only be prevented by persistent outreach and bilateral trust-building between both countries.
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