Three Maldivian deputy ministers disciplined over social media comments about India's PM

One of the uninhabited islands of Lakshadweep. Image by Lenish Namath via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

One of the uninhabited islands of Lakshadweep. Image by Lenish Namath via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Words can have consequences. On January 7, 2024, three deputy ministers in the Maldives were suspended following a social media spat about India and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, over the Lakshadweep islands.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lakshadweep, an archipelago close to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, on January 2 and 3, 2024. It all started when Modi shared a few photos of the picturesque atolls on X (formerly Twitter).

Since that post, “Lakshadweep” has consistently been the most frequently searched keyword on Google's search engine in India — a fact the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) media were quick to tout.

This has prompted a section of Indian social media commentators calling to boost tourism in Lakshadweep as an alternate destination to the Maldives. As per the Maldives Tourism Ministry, in 2023, a total of 1.7 million tourists arrived in the Maldives, which is known for its luxurious island resorts and pristine white-sand beaches. India contributed the highest number of visitors (209,198), followed by Russia (209,146) and China (187,118).

Some Maldivians reacted to these promotions of Lakshadweep on social media. On January 4, 2024, Zahid Rameez, a member of the senate from the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), commented on a post from Indian Political commentator Mr. Sinha on X, calling the idea of replacing the Maldives “delusional”:

Some Maldives government officials also engaged in the spat, and on January 6, 2024, Indian hackers took down the Maldives president's and tourism ministry's websites in retaliation.

The love-hate relationship between India and the Maldives

Under the leadership of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) from 2013 to 2018, the Maldives forged closer ties with China. Pro-Indian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) came to power in 2018 and soon implemented an “India first” policy to mend relations.

By late 2020, the opposition coalition comprising the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People's National Congress (PNC) launched an “India Out” campaign protesting against India's military presence and challenging Solih's presidency.

In the September 2023 presidential election, Mohamed Muizzu, the leader of the People's National Congress (PNC), defeated the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in a second-round run-off.

After assuming office, Muizzu formally requested India pull its troops from the archipelago and also opted not to renew a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding with India that allowed them to conduct hydrographic surveys around the Maldives. These moves deteriorated the relationship with India.

Tourism prospects of Lakshadweep

Lakshadweep in India. Image by TUBS via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Location of Lakshadweep. Image by TUBS via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Comprising 36 atolls and coral reefs, the Lakshadweep (which means one hundred thousand islands in Sanskrit) archipelago is situated 200 to 440 kilometres (120 to 270 miles) off the Malabar Coast of India. Tourists can reach Lakshadweep only from Kochi, Kerala, via flights and ships. So far, there have not been many local tourists here because a permit issued by the Lakshadweep Administration is required for the visitors, and they can only apply for it in Kochi.

The #BoycottMaldives campaign

The heated spat between Maldivian and Indian users on X escalated when Maldivian government officials started sharing derogatory remarks against the Indian Prime Minister and Lakshadweep. For example, Mariyam Shiuna, a Deputy Minister at the Maldives Ministry of Youth and Empowerment, called PM Modi “a puppet” and a “clown”.

Bollywood celebrities like Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan and John Abraham joined in the protest against such hateful comments.

Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed denounced these comments:

Soon, the hashtag #BoycottMaldives started to trend as a section of Indian social media users started to demand a boycott of Indian tourism in the Maldives.

The Indian Chamber of Commerce has urged travel agencies to “stop promoting Maldives” as a tourist destination.

And then the boycott became real:

The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) condemned the derogatory comments in a statement and acknowledged that India is a consistent and significant contributor to the Maldives’ tourism industry and is often a first responder in times of crisis.

The Maldivian high commissioner to India, Ibrahim Shaheeb, was summoned to India's external affairs ministry to discuss these remarks and the escalated situation. The Maldivian Foreign Ministry, however, said in a statement on January 7, 2024, that “these opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the Government of Maldives”.

President Muizzu finally made a statement late on January 7:

Also, the news broke that deputy ministers Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid were disciplined for their comments against Modi on social media and were suspended. Users reported that some of the suspended ministers deactivated their social media accounts.

Indian journalist and researcher Sanjay Murari Chaturvedi commented:

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