Maldives: Maldivians debate India’s ‘boycott’ of their nation

A beach in Male the capital of Maldives
Image caption,A small island nation, Maldives depends on India for food, tourism and other resources

In cafés and restaurants lining the narrow streets of Male, the capital of Maldives, the hot topic of discussion is how a spat with India got out of control – and what would be Delhi’s reaction to it.

Following the “derogatory” comments made by three Maldivian junior ministers against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the tourism paradise is in danger of facing a boycott by Indian tourists – who are one of the largest contributors to the country’s income.

Indians were the largest group of tourists by nationality that visited the Maldives last year. Tourism accounts for almost one third of the country’s economy.

The ministers, who have since been suspended, had called Mr Modi a “clown”, a “terrorist” and a “puppet of Israel” on social media.

The comments sparked outrage and boycott calls against Maldives on Indian social media.

The controversial posts were deleted following the uproar and the Maldivian foreign ministry put out a statement saying the comments made by the ministers were personal and did not represent the views of the government.

The Maldives consists of about 1,200 coral islands and atolls located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The archipelago has a population of about 520,000 compared to India’s 1.4 billion.

As a small island nation, the country depends on its giant neighbour India for most of its food, infrastructure building, and technological advancement.

Several residents in Male say they are worried the diplomatic spat could hamper relations between the two countries.

“We were disappointed with the boycott calls [from India]. But we were more disappointed with our government. There was a lack of good judgement on the part of our officials”, Mariyam Eem Shafeeg, a student at the Maldivian National University told the BBC.

Others point out that Maldives also has strong cultural ties with India as people there grow up watching Bollywood films and dramas.

“We also depend on India for food, education and healthcare, Ms Shafeeg, a supporter of Maldivian Democratic Party, added. The Maldivian Democratic Party has had a “India first” policy and is believed to have close ties with Delhi.

A busy road in Male, Maldives' capital
Image caption,Residents of Male worry the diplomatic row could affect relations between India and Maldives

The three Maldivian officials made the controversial comments in response to Mr Modi’s post on X (formerly Twitter) which included photos promoting tourism to the Indian island chain of Lakshadweep.

Following the uproar, many Indians on social media said they were cancelling their holiday plans in the Maldives.

Shortly after, the CEO of Indian ticket-booking site EaseMyTrip announced that his company had suspended all flight bookings to the country.

Abdulla Ghiyas, president of the Maldives association of travel agents and tour operators, said there have not been a lot of cancellations at resorts and hotels. “But we have seen some sort of slowdown in bookings,” he added.

The entire controversy has erupted at a time when the Maldivian president Mohamed Muizzu has embarked on a state visit to Beijing. Mr Muizzu, who’s known for his pro-China policy, has requested Beijing to send more tourists to Maldives.

Chinese tourists used to dominate visitors to the Maldives before the Covid-19 pandemic. But tour operators say the number has dropped significantly, perhaps due to high ticket prices and fewer flights.

“China was our number one market pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position,” Mr Muizzu said during his visit.

Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu and Chinese President Xi Jinping walking during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 10 January
Image caption,Maldives has been warming up to China since President Mohamed Muizzu took charge of the country last year

But several Maldivians have criticised Mr Muizzu for not taking stronger action against the three lawmakers for their controversial remarks.

“The ministers should have been sacked straightaway. We are worried now about India’s reaction as we depend on our neighbour for most of our food items,” Aik Ahmed Easa, a lawyer affiliated with the opposition told the BBC.

The Confederation of All India Traders, one of the biggest trade bodies in the country, has asked its members to stop doing business with the Maldives until the authorities there issue an apology.

Many, however, point out that calls for a boycott could also affect Indians who live in the Maldives. It is estimated that around 33,000 Indians work in the country’s construction, hospitality and retail sectors.

“A significant number of Indians are also working in the Maldives tourism sector, many of them as managers and front office staff,” Mr Ghiyas said.

Already, there is tension between India and the island nation after Mr Muizzu asked a contingent of 77 Indian troops to leave the country after he came to power in November last year.

India says its security personnel are in the island nation to maintain three maritime rescue and surveillance aircraft it had donated to the country.

The Indian Ocean archipelago has long been under India’s sphere of influence and analysts say Mr Muizzu wants to change that. His election campaign was centred on ‘India out’ policy, with a promise to send Indian troops home and reduce Delhi’s influence.

“Mr Muizzu’s rhetoric really reinforced anti-India sentiment within his voter base. That possibly could have encouraged the junior ministers to make such controversial statements openly against India,” Azim Zahir, a Maldivian political analyst, said.

Though many in the Maldives say they reject the “disrespectful” comments on India and Mr Modi, there’s also an argument that any possible coercive diplomatic action by Delhi could backfire.

“It could push Mr Muizzu further towards China or any other power in the region” Mr Zahir said.

A former senior Indian diplomat, Nirupama Menon Rao, said Delhi could have stepped in to reassure Male amid calls for economic boycott on social media.

“This is where we need Indian government spokesmen to step in and course correct keeping larger, and crucial, security and strategic interests in mind. Maldives is NOT our Cuba,” she wrote on X.

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