The Maldives government on Sunday suspended three of its deputy ministers for making allegedly derogatory comments about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media.

The ministers, Maryam Shiuna, Malsha Shareef and Mahzoom Majid, had responded to supporters of the Modi government claiming that Modi’s recent trip to the Lakshadweep islands would take tourism away from Maldives. Lakshadweep islands lie off the southwestern coast of India, only 70 nautical miles away from Maldives.

As the adverse comments from the Maldivian ministers were shared widely, several Indian celebrities took to social media urging tourists to boycott Maldives and visit Lakshadweep instead. When the social media feud escalated, Male distanced itself from its ministers remarks, saying that the “opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the Government of Maldives”.

Experts observed that the developments are a fallout of the strained relationship between India and Maldives since Mohamed Muizzu was sworn into power as president of the island nation in November. Muizzu came to power riding on a “India Out” political campaign and is seen as being pro-China, which is crucial as Maldives holds strategic importance in the Indian Ocean.

How social media sparked a diplomatic crisis

On January 4, Modi had posted a series of tweets about his trip to Lakshadweep. Besides, talking about the government’s initiatives in the Union Territory, the prime minister also shared photos of him snorkelling in the sea and wrote on X: “For those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list.”

Within hours, several supporters of the prime minister claimed on social media that Modi’s visit would help promote Lakshadweep as an alternative tourist destination to Maldives, which would adversely impact the pro-China government in Male.

Tourism from India is a major source of income for Maldives. Last year, more than 2.09 lakh Indians visited the island nation – the highest among all countries, according to data from Male’s tourism ministry.

In response to tweets from Modi’s supporters, social media users in Maldives, including members of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives and the People’s National Congress, claimed that Lakshadweep was not a fitting alternative to Maldives for tourists. For a few hours on Sunday, the official websites of the Maldivian president and the country’s foreign and tourism ministry also unreachable for Indian internet users.

As the row escalated on social media, several Indian celebrities put up posts promoting Indian coastal tourist spots. Many of them used the common hashtag #exploreindianislands.

The importance of India-Maldives relations

The row was a fallout of anti-India sentiment that had been brewing in Maldives since the lead up to Muizzu coming to power, experts observed. Muizzu was the candidate of an alliance led by former president Abdulla Yameen who was seen as leaning towards China. Muizzu replaced Ibrahim Solih who was seen as pro-India.

Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, a South Asia researcher at Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told Scroll, that there always existed a strong anti-India ecosystem among sections of Maldivian polity. The matter escalated this time as the Indian social media also retorted, he added.

“Throughout Muizzu’s ‘India Out’ campaign, several xenophobic and racist comments were made against Indians by his party members and aides,” Shivamurthy said. “Now these people are in power and they want to continue with the nationalistic rhetoric in the lead up to Parliamentary elections in [Maldives] in March-April.”

On why relations with Maldives was crucial, Shivamurthy explained, that the country holds strategic importance as all major powers are seeking heft in the India-Pacific which is a growing region.

“This is apart from the obvious reason that Maldives is located very close to Lakshadweep and India would not want it to gravitate towards China,” Shivamurthy said. “Lots of ships pass through Maldives and we must remember that it is a part of China’s [global infrastructure development strategy] Belt and Road Initiative.”

Shivamurthy, however, said that the current development is unlikely to escalate further into a diplomatic scuffle, pointing out that the Indian High Commission in Maldives has not issued a statement on the matter. On Monday morning, India summoned the Maldivian envoy in New Delhi but it was not clear what was discussed during the meeting.

Shivamurthy said that New Delhi was employing a wait-and-watch policy as it was not clear to what extent the new regime under Muizzu would warm up to China. He pointed out that while Muizzu has taken certain steps which might appear to be against India’s interests, but those were on expected lines.

“Muizzu has refused to renew an agreement to allow India to conduct hydrographic survey in Maldives and asked India to remove military presence from the country but he has not yet done something that was not expected,” Shivamurthy said. “In fact, his first visit as a president was not to China, but Turkey.”

Dhananjay Tripathi, the chairperson of the international relations department in Delhi’s South Asian University, also said that it was not in the interests of either Maldives or India to allow the relations to worsen further.

“Maldives knows India is its immediate neighbour, not China,” Tripathi said. “Even for Maldivian economy, it is bad if Indian tourists boycott the country.”

Tripathi added that Maldives was of strategic importance for India due to its location in the Indian Ocean. “India too has huge investments in Maldives,” he said. “India is setting up infrastructure projects worth $400 million in the country. There are several Indian companies who operate there in the service sector. If relations worsen, even these companies will be hit.”