What’s going on between India and the Maldives?

Tense relations with India aren’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the picturesque Maldives.

What’s going on between India and the Maldives?
President of the Maldives Mohamed Muizzu delivers a national statement at the World Climate Action Summit during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 1, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky/File Photo

The backstory: Tense relations with India aren’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the picturesque Maldives. But the small Indian Ocean nation has more strained ties with its neighbor ever since President Mohamed Muizzu took office. Muizzu is known for favoring relations with China, having also run on an “India Out” campaign to distance the country from the “India first” policy of the previous administration. His campaign argued that India is trying to erode the nation’s autonomy, something that India has rejected. But since taking office, Muizzu has seemed to tone down his stance on India, as well as rejecting comments that he’s “pro-Beijing,” saying he is only “pro-Maldives.”

But typically, after a president is sworn in in the Maldives, New Delhi is their first stop. But for Muizzu, it was Ankara, Turkey. Now, he’s on a state visit to China, which began January 7. Many see the fact that he’s yet to visit India as a snub. 

The development: If you’ve been on social media lately, you may have come across the #BoycottMaldives trends going viral and even drawing in bigwigs and celebs across India. Essentially what happened is that Maldives is facing major backlash and boycotts from India, one of its largest tourism income sources.

The whole thing started when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted himself on X enjoying the beach in Lakshadweep, a southern Indian island chain in the Laccadive Sea, which is also right next to the Maldives. Some in the Maldives saw this as trying to draw tourists away from their nation and to Indian islands instead. After the post, three government ministers threw some shade, with one calling Modi a “clown” and another a “terrorist.” While these comments have since been deleted, the internet has taken over with hashtags like #ChaloLakshadweep – meaning “Let’s go to Lakshadweep” – going viral. 

The Maldives government quickly jumped into damage control, suspending the three officials and saying that their comments were made in a personal capacity and didn’t reflect the country’s viewpoints.

Key comments:

“Lakshadweep is not just a group of islands; it's a timeless legacy of traditions and a testament to the spirit of its people. My visit has been an enriching journey of learning and growing. And those early morning walks along the pristine beaches were also moments of pure bliss,” said Modi on January 4 on X. 

“We are good to our neighbors but why should we tolerate such unprovoked hate? I’ve visited the Maldives many times and always praised it, but dignity first. Let us decide to #ExploreIndianIslands and support our own tourism,” said Bollywood star Akshay Kumar on X.

“Until the Maldives tender an apology or ensure remedial measures, the trading community in India will refrain from doing business with them,” said Praveen Khandelwal, Secretary-General of The Confederation of All India Traders, which represents thousands of traders and trade associations in the country.

“In solidarity with our nation, @EaseMyTrip has suspended all Maldives flight bookings,” said Nishant Pitti, CEO and co-founder of EaseMyTrip on X.

“The recent remarks against foreign leaders and our close neighbours are unacceptable and do not reflect the official position of the Government of #Maldives. We remain committed to fostering a positive and constructive dialogue with all our partners, especially our neighbours, based on mutual respect and understanding,” said Maldives Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer on X.

“The government believes that the freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, negativity, and hinder close relationships between the Maldives and international partners,” the Maldives government said in a statement.

“This dispute that’s been playing out in recent days suggests that there will be some challenges ahead, but I would argue that at the end of the day the new leadership in Maldives does not want to risk losing its relationship with India,” said Michael Kugelman, director of South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. “I would contend that this government in Maldives is going to want to balance its relations with both India and China.”