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8 Jan, 2024 12:55

Maldives sacks ministers over ‘derogatory remarks’ toward Indian PM

A diplomatic spat has erupted over comments that followed a trip by Narendra Modi to promote domestic tourism
Maldives sacks ministers over ‘derogatory remarks’ toward Indian PM

India and Maldives on Monday summoned each other’s envoys after the island nation’s government suspended three deputy ministers over disrespectful remarks about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The statements were posted on social media after Modi visited the island chain of Lakshadweep, located off the Malabar coast of India, seeking to promote tourism in the archipelago.

Modi, who was in the islands in early January to inaugurate government projects, posted pictures of his diving and early morning walks on the beach, writing: “For those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list. During my stay, I also tried snorkelling – what an exhilarating experience it was.”

After Modi’s post promoting Lakshadweep went viral, some social media users in the Maldives began levelling accusations against India for what they called an attempt to “compete” with their country as a tropical vacation destination, The Indian Express reported. The economy of the Maldives is heavily dependent on tourism, a significant portion of which comes from India.

Maldivian officials Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna, and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid reacted to Modi’s post on X (formerly Twitter), calling him a “clown,” a “terrorist,” and a “puppet of Israel” respectively. On Sunday, all three were dismissed. “All government officials responsible for the comments have been suspended from their post effective immediately,” spokesperson Ibrahim Khaleel said, according to Maldivian outlet Atoll Times.

Amid the ensuing row, the Maldivian Foreign Ministry said it was aware of “derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals.” Distancing itself from the statements, the ministry clarified that the opinions “are personal and do not represent the views of the Government of Maldives.”

Following the incident, on Monday the Indian Ministry of External Affairs summoned Maldivian High Commissioner Ibrahim Shaheeb, insisting that the three junior ministers should be dismissed and not just suspended, Indian newspaper Hindustan Times reported. In what appeared to be a tit-for-tat move, the Maldivian government also summoned Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar the same day.

Traditionally, the Maldives is a key Indian ally in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The island nation also has a special place in Indian initiatives such as ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and is a focus for the Modi government under its ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’. However, tensions flared last year when Maldives’ newly-elected President Mohamed Muizzu, who is seen as close to China, asked a contingent of about 75 Indian troops to leave Maldives after he came to power.

Notably, the “derogatory” comment incident coincides with Muizzu’s first trip to China. On Monday, Muizzu and First Lady Sajidha Mohamed arrived in Beijing on a five-day state visit. “This visit is at the invitation of the President of China, H.E. Xi Jinping,” Muizzu announced on X.

Former Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih strongly condemned what he termed “hateful language against India” by the three deputy ministers. “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,” he cautioned. 

Mohamed Nasheed, another former president of the country, condemned Shiuna for her appalling language.” He urged the Muizzu government to distance itself from the comments “and give clear assurance to India they do not reflect [government] policy.”

Against the backdrop of the dispute, several Maldives government websites, including those of the president, foreign ministry, and tourism ministry, came under attack from suspected hackers. The sites were restored later in the day after being down for several hours due to an “unexpected technical disruption.” 

Meanwhile, several Indian celebrities and sports personalities have extended their support to Prime Minister Modi and resolved to visit the Indian island chain. “Lakshadweep’s unparalleled beauty has earned a top spot on my Travel List! Crystal-clear waters and tranquil shores await, promising an unforgettable escape”, wrote Shilpa Shetty Kundra, an Indian actress best known for winning the 2007 edition of the UK reality show ‘Celebrity Big Brother’.

Nishant Pitti, the CEO of Indian ticket-booking site EaseMyTrip, said his company had suspended all flight bookings to the Maldives “in solidarity with our nation.” Amid the outrage, hashtags such as #BoycottMaldives and #ExploreIndianIslands were also seen trending on X.

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