Indian dentist Ibrahim Sayeed* has been living and working in the Maldives since 2016, and does not want to return home anytime soon. In Kerala, his home state, he would work for 12 hours a day and earn $300 a month. In the Maldives he earns $1,000 a month – as well as a commission per patient – for the same hours of work.

“Life is good here,” he said. “But it is only after the [presidential] elections in September that I will know if I can continue this. What if one day the president says, ‘We do not want Indians any more’?”

For months now, Indian expatriates in the Maldives have been living with anxiety over their future in the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago. As the nation’s ties with China deepen, its once strong relations with India seem to be on a free-fall.

A tweet on August 24 by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy has not helped matters. Swamy said that India should invade the Maldives if there is any rigging in the country’s presidential elections that are scheduled for September 23.

His comments led to an outcry. Maldivian citizens, ministers and even pro-India Opposition leaders severely criticised Swamy’s remarks. The country’s foreign ministry summoned Akhilesh Mishra, the Indian ambassador to the Maldives.

But Swamy remained unapologetic. On August 26, he published another tweet, saying India has to “protect its citizens”.

The Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi issued a statement that day, saying that Swamy did not represent the Indian government’s views.

Indians in the Maldives

After Bangladeshis, Indians are the second-largest expatriate group in the Maldives, a nation of around 4.44 lakh people. Indians are said to number 21,000, but their actual strength is probably closer to 30,000, given the prevalence of human trafficking in the country. They mainly work in the construction, hospitality, health and education sectors.

Sayeed said that the hostility towards Indians seems to have started in February after the local media reported that New Delhi was refusing to issue dependent visas to Maldivians living in Kerala.

In an apparent retaliation, the Maldives government seems to have stalled work visas for Indians.

Both countries have since denied any change in their visa policies. But Sayeed knew things had changed when his wife could not renew her dependent visa in the Maldives.

“Then I started coming across comments on social media from Maldivians saying they do not want Indians in the country any more,” said Sayeed. He claims that his employers have also started taking advantage of his vulnerability, reducing his commission by 50%. He said they threatened to fire him on at least one occasion, for turning up late to work. “If you fight back, they will say, ‘You go. There are lots of dentists in India and Malaysia willing to come here.’”

A once close relationship

India and the Maldives have traditionally enjoyed a close relationship, helped by their ethnic, linguistic and cultural similarities. India exports medicines, textiles, agriculture and poultry produce worth around $100 million to the tropical nation every year. Thousands of Maldivians go to India for education and medical treatment every year too. As a result, many citizens of the Maldives have grown up regarding India as “big brother”.

In the past four years, however, President Abdulla Yameen’s government has watered down the country’s traditional India-first foreign policy to successfully court investment and assistance from New Delhi’s geopolitical rivals China and Pakistan, as well as Saudi Arabia. It has also jailed several pro-India Opposition figures, including former presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Last December, days after signing a Free Trade Agreement with China, the Maldives suspended three members of a local council for meeting Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra. In April, Malé called upon India to take back two helicopters it had gifted the nation in 2013.

Over the years, Yameen’s government has also become increasingly authoritarian, jailing political opponents, clamping down on the media and suppressing dissent.

Until late 2017, India had responded to the political developments in the Maldives mostly with platitudes, expressing its commitment towards “strengthening of democratic institutions” in the country.

But when Yameen extended a state of emergency in February, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in unusually strong words that it was “deeply dismayed”. It said that the decision was in contravention to the Constitution of the Maldives.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the political developments in the Maldives have been “a matter of considerable international concern”.

As much as the Maldives might deny it, the ongoing dispute seems to have resulted in problems with the issuance of visas to Indians.

“I know of many resorts, construction companies that have requested visas for Indians but have not received it,” said Archit Loni*, an Indian who is a top official in a food import company in the Maldives. “I once asked a friend from the department of immigration about it. He told me that those working for the ministry of education or health have a chance at visas but not those in the private sector.” He added that such applications do not say that the visa has been rejected but that the application is “pending for approval”.

With work permits hard to come by, Loni has not been able to recruit anyone from India since February. “The government seems to be using religion and political vitriol to slowly poison the minds of the people,” he said. “If they continue to lead even after the elections, we will be forced to recruit from Sri Lanka.”

Anti-India sentiment

This is the second time in seven years that anti-Indian sentiment has become part of the public discourse in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

In 2011, when the Gayoom-led Opposition was protesting against the Nasheed-led government’s lease of the Ibrahim Nasir Airport (now the Velana International Airport) to Indian developer GMR, the Dhivehi Qaumee Party called it a bid to “enslave the nation and economy”. Urging that the deal be abandoned due to what it described as the “devious” nature of Indians, the party said the project would bring in Indian employees and create a “visa-free zone for Indians to come and go” in Hulhumalé, a reclaimed island in the south of the North Male atoll.

The animosity continued even after Nasheed resigned in February 2012 and his successor Dr Mohamed Waheed scrapped the deal. In February 2013, the Indian embassy in Malé issued a statement the local media for “misrepresentation and twisting of issues” pertaining to India that have “the potential to create negative public sentiment”.

But the diplomatic slug-fest and top-down hostility has not yet affected how most Maldivians treat Indians in everyday life, said Nikhil Anand*, an Indian teacher who has been in the country for the past five years.

“Everyone I know here has been friendly, like family,” he said. “In the past few years, the tourism in my island has increased and along with it, people’s standard of living. Many can finally go to India. At such times, I call up my friends back home and make arrangements for them [visitors from Maldives] to stay.”

Anand, who is employed with a public school on an island in Malé atoll, said he has not faced any problems with renewing his visa. The same goes for his Indian teaching friends in the Maldives. “We all want to continue here,” he said. “The job satisfaction and salary we get here is not the same as in other countries. Besides, for all the rumours, the Indian embassy has not issued any warnings yet.”

Like the other people this correspondent spoke to, Anand also requested that his real name be withheld. He said that his contract with the Ministry of Education forbids him from commenting on political matters. “I do not know if it is a crime to speak,” he said. “But I would rather be safe.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identity.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Maldives Independent.