N Sathiya Moorthy 

 South Asia 8 January 2024

Maldives President Mohammed Muizzu has suspended three ministers for mocking Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media after a celebrity-powered Indian backlash on social media asking Indians not to visit the Indian Ocean nation. 

The social media war began soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted photographs of his visit to Lakshadweep promoting it as a tourist destination that Indians must embrace. 

Even before the latest controversy in India-Maldives ties, President Mohamed Muizzu “choosing”  to go to China over India (after his first official overseas visits to Turkiye and the UAE, the latter for COP28 climate conference)  had already grabbed attention in New Delhi. 

Now, three junior ministers in Muizzu’s cabinet have succeeded in making their own contributions to the apparent strain in ties with intemperate and insulting responses to Indian social media posts projecting the Indian Union Territory as a better tourist destination than the Maldives after Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep. 

Ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in April, and on the eve of his Beijing visit, this was an avoidable controversy. India too had the Lok Sabha polls for the Lower House of Parliament around the time.

The M Word

Why does the mention of Lakshadweep jangle nerves in the Maldives? 

If the K-word hobbled India-Pakistan relations, for India-Maldives ties, it is the little known M-word. M stands for Minicoy, which used to be a Maldivian island before its inhabitants voted to join India in 1960. Both President Nasheed and before him, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was in power for 30 long years beginning 1978, had uttered the M word  in different ways and contexts.

To PM Manmohan Singh, Nasheed even proposed joint development of the Lakshadweep group of islands for resort tourism with “our knowhow, your investments” at a bilateral in capital Male, a day after the 11th SAARC summit in his country, in 2011. Hence, whatever references anyone makes to Lakshadweep, part of which many in Maldives believe is theirs, the opinion on the Maldivian street is divided at best.

In 2022, during the Solih presidency, then Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel kicked up a row after he initiated four regulations, including land take-over powers and beef-ban. It kicked up heat and dust not only in Lakshadweep and the rest of India, but also in Maldives. Social media posts specifically referred to Minicoy, and went on to postulate, without basis, that India’s next move would be to take over Maldives.

The social media row has to be seen in this context. And Muizzu, who may have been inclined to do nothing had the issue not snowballed into purported cancellations of Indian bookings, was forced to take a step back and suspend the offending ministers.

But not before former President Nasheed had described deputy minister Mariyam Shauna’s post as ‘appalling’,  pointing out how ‘India is a key ally for the security and prosperity’ of the archipelago-nation. He wanted the government to distance itself from such statements. 

The Muizzu government’s first response was to declare that it ‘will not hesitate to take action against those who make such derogatory remarks’. An official statement further said that ‘opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the government’.  

However, ‘freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, and  hinder close relationships between Maldives and international partners’, the statement added. In effect, it was also an indirect denunciation of Muizzu’s estranged and jailed mentor, Abdulla Yameen’s ‘India Out’ campaign during the Solih era. This statement will hence be tested in the future for its worth.  

Mariyam Shiuna’s now deleted social media post disparaged Modi, and claimed that India would ‘face significant challenges in beach tourism’. Maybe, it is not far from the truth, but there is a question here about the propriety of a minister, even if only a deputy, making such comments about a friendly neighbour and its leader.

Now to Beijing

Muizzu is the first President of democratic Maldives to skip India as his first official overseas destination. Even Muizzu’s estranged mentor Abdulla Yameen, with all his grouses against India during the controversial presidential poll of 2013, made a high-decibel visit to New Delhi first, in the midst of the GMR row. 

For the worsening of ties during Yameen’s term (2013-18), blame mis-communication of the kind that is evident now. Yameen was convinced India was working against him, during and after the 2013 elections,“interfering” in the country’s domestic politics. For its part, New Delhi, under PM Mamohan Singh and his successor Modi, was uncomfortable with the specifics of Yameen’s pro-China, anti-India tilt.

More than symbolic

Across world capitals, Yameen’s successor Mohamed ‘Ibu’ Solih (2018-23) was acknowledged as pro-India and China-neutral, and not anti-China, as Delhi’s strategic analysts tended to portray him. Solih was projected  as the author of Maldives’ ‘India First’ policy though, in fact, it was his boss and now estranged childhood friend, the nation’s first president after it became a democracy, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, who was the chief architect of this policy. The coinage owed to Yameen.

As President, Solih was the only one to keep China out of his otherwise crowded overseas itinerary. Nasheed (2008-12) and his successor Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik (2012-2013) both fitted in one trip to Beijing. Yameen made two. 

It bears mentioning that India did not extend a formal invitation to Muizzu to visit when MoS Kiren Rijju attended his inaugural on 17 November. Nor are there reports of New Delhi sending out one later. Against this, China invited him, according to media reports. What China makes of the India-Maldives strains will be known from the visit.

Given the prevailing circumstances, a visit by Muizzu to India may have to be more than symbolic. First and foremost, both governments have to sort out Muizzu’s persistent demand for India withdrawing the 89 troops, including 12 medical personnel, on Maldivian soil. Both nations appear to believe that there is an honourable way out. Meeting in Dubai, on the sidelines of the COP28 summit, Muizzu and Modi decided to set up a committee to work out the modalities. The details of its work are not public yet.

On all other issues, starting with the $ 500-m Thilamale tri-island sea-bridge, India’s single largest infrastructure project and investment in Maldives, Muizzu, after a professional review, has declared his intention to continue with them. If anything, he wants the project executor to fast-track the work. No complaints have been reported from either the Maldivian government or the Indian builder.

No claim to territory

There is also an all-round realisation that despite the early post-Covid recovery of Maldives’ mainstay tourism sector, its economy is in extremely bad shape. Muizzu will require all the assistance, mainly budgetary support in fiscal terms, to make ends meet. Leave aside the massive debt-repayment commitments, the nation has to make graded interest payments in these three years, topping at an unviable $ 600 m by 2026. The three year total is estimated to be way above $ 1 billion.

This is where India and China count, and India may count more than China. The reasons are not far to seek. The West, reluctant to do business with Maldives even when pro-democracy Solih was in power, has had the habit of directing the nation to the IMF with its conditionalities that are politically suicidal for government leaders. It happened when President Nasheed, who took a limited aid from India that was ready to chip in more, and guided by his Tory mentors in the UK, knocked at the door of the IMF.

Most countries in the region appear to have seen through China’s ‘white elephant projects’ with their burdensome investments, and poor or no returns to clear the debts. The same cannot be said of the Yameen-era Sinimale sea-bridge connecting capital Male and the airport island Hulhule. In this case, the Chinese debt was huge but its utility value for Maldivians was/is bigger.

On the other hand, India-funded projects have been chosen by the Maldivian government of the day, with no Indian influence, and transactions have been transparent. Plus, there is no precedence of India staking claims to any debtor-nation’s territory as happened to mutual neighbour Sri Lanka, in Hambantota.

Fashioning opinions

There is nothing concrete yet to conclude, as Indian and international media have been reporting — that Muizzu is pro-China. This does not mean that it will not happen. But if it does, the contribution of uninformed strategic analysts, uneducated media reporters and unnecessarily hyper Hindutva activists on the social media in India would be substantial.

In a small nation like Maldives, isolated and insulated until not very long ago, India and Sri Lanka used to be the be-all-and-end-all of its foreign policy issues, foreign relations and foreign concerns. It may not be so at present. Yet, many Maldivians, like their counterparts in the rest of South Asia, continue to form their opinions about India from the periodic “strategic” analyses by Indian media.

Muizzu has made promises to unravel the secrecy surrounding multiple agreements that the Solih government had signed with foreign governments and entities. This presumably includes the defence agreements with the US. He had also promised to publicise the details of the maritime border dispute with Mauritius, which the Opposition during Solih’s presidency had claimed was decided in favour of Mauritius. Muizzu has appointed a committee to study the issue. Yet, his focus has been on India, with the demand for the withdrawal of the Indian troops, never mentioning the three Indian aircraft that are at the service of the Maldivian nation and people in the same pitch.

There is no need for India to jump to conclusions and qualify Muizzu as pro-China and/or anti-India. But for perspective on the purely bilateral front, consider this: even while Muizzu was insisting on Indian troop withdrawal, the new chief of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), Lt-Gen Abdul Raheem Abdul Latheef, met Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar. The two discussed defence cooperation in capacity-building and allied areas. That means much more than what is understood in India – at least for now.


(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)


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