Why Indians suddenly love Lakshadweep

PM Modi's first visit to Lakshadweep was only the second by a serving Indian prime minister, after the late Rajiv Gandhi in December 1987

PM Modi snorkelling in Lakshadweep (photo: @narendramodi/X)
PM Modi snorkelling in Lakshadweep (photo: @narendramodi/X)

Pankaj Chaturvedi

"I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands…" began PM Narendra Modi’s social media post on 4 January. "I had the opportunity to interact with people in Agatti, Bangaram and Kavaratti… here are some glimpses, including aerial glimpses from Lakshadweep... 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! And those early morning walks along the pristine beaches were also moments of pure bliss…" concluded the gush about his two-day stay in Lakshadweep.

The scripted spiel was as much about his latest modelling assignment—do not miss the sartorial details — as his first visit to Lakshadweep; it was the second by a serving Indian prime minister. In December 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, he had attended to official work and then spent a year-end vacation on Bangaram island.

This visit had been raked up by Modi during his election campaign in 2019, alleging that Rajiv Gandhi had misused his office for a private holiday — charges that retired defence services officers and the then Lakshadweep administrator Wajahat Habibullah had refuted as disinformation.

PM Modi’s posts with photographs of him snorkelling in a life jacket also prompted tongue-wags on social media, but the context for three Maldivian deputy ministers calling him a ‘terrorist’ and mocking him as a ‘clown’ is not clear, since the posts were deleted within hours following a social media shitstorm.

All the three ministers were immediately ‘suspended’ and President Mohamed Muizzu, elected in October on an ‘India out’ plank, sought to placate ruffled feathers by condemning the comments as highly irresponsible. The Maldivian government expressed its regrets and Maldivian trade bodies apologised to their Indian partners.

Even while tamping down the diplomatic fracas with India, Muizzu, who was recently on a five-day state visit to China, met President Xi Jinping on 10 January and signed ‘20 key agreements’, including one on tourism cooperation. ‘Twenty key agreements were signed today between the government of the Maldives and the government of China this afternoon and both the Presidents witnessed the signing ceremony,’ the Maldivian president’s office said in a post on X.

Muizzu is on his third overseas trip and is yet to visit India, which was historically the first destination of Maldivian leaders. He urged China to regain the #1 slot and send more tourists to Maldives. He made no reference to India, but his appeal came soon after the ‘Boycott Maldives’ call in India, widely perceived to have an official nod.

While no formal statement was issued by the government of India, the external affairs ministry summoned the Maldivian envoy to express its displeasure. The silence of the Indian government on equally, if not more, vicious campaigns against the Maldives on social media reinforced the suspicion that it had official blessings, that it had been ‘orchestrated, organised and ordained’ even as the hashtag #BoycottMaldives began trending on X.

Media reports claimed that Indian tour operators and airlines had reported largescale cancellation of travel plans by Indians, allegedly depressing prices in hotels and resorts in Maldives. Take it with a pinch of salt, though.

The Maldivian Tourism Authority’s website claims that Indians constituted 11 per cent of tourist arrivals in Maldives in 2022, virtually neck-and-neck with Russians, with Chinese tourists comprising 10 per cent. While Indians, Russians and the Chinese accounted for approximately 3.2 million tourists, a similar number was made up by the UK, other European countries and the US, combined.

Seasoned diplomats are dismayed by the Indian response. “Restrained reaction would’ve forced an obviously non-friendly government to make amends. Instead, the social media onslaught, and calls for isolation (of Maldives) have worsened relations and given China a leg-up,” said former ambassador and commentator K.C. Singh.

In a scathing editorial, Global Times, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, commented: "Beijing has never asked Malé to reject New Delhi because of the conflicts between China and India, nor does it view cooperation between the Maldives and India as unfriendly or a threat... New Delhi should stay more open-minded as China’s cooperation with South Asian countries is not a zero-sum game."

The editorial went on to add that Muizzu’s decision to visit China before India "did not necessarily mean that he is pro-China and anti-India" — it merely demonstrated that Muizzu was treating India with a "normal mindset and steering the relationship between the Maldives and India to a normal State–State relationship".

BJP leaders and the Indian foreign policy establishment greeted the criticism with stony silence. The editorial came as a bitter pill because just days earlier, Global Times had carried a lavishly adulatory article on India, which was quoted profusely and with pride in India.

Lakshadweep administrator Praful Khoda Patel with PM Modi
Lakshadweep administrator Praful Khoda Patel with PM Modi

Authored by Zhang Jiadong, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at Fudan University, the article effusively praised India’s "great achievements" in becoming one of the fastest growing major economies. His last two visits to India in four years, Ziadong wrote, showed that the "attitude toward Chinese scholars was more relaxed and moderate" and India was strategically more confident.

The mishandling of Muizzu — who had indeed campaigned and won on a nationalist ‘India out’ plank, and demanded post-election that India withdraw its military personnel from the islands — belied any such confidence or maturity.

Muizzu had met Modi in Dubai on the sidelines of COP28 and had apparently reiterated the demand. The meeting, however, did little to break the ice. In December, Maldives decided to revoke an agreement with India for joint hydrographic surveys in Maldivian waters, signed during PM Modi’s visit to the islands in 2019. It was said to be a symbol of India–Maldives defence ties.

Also in December, Maldives skipped the latest meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave, opting to attend a meeting of a China-led forum. Whether India’s overbearing ‘Big Brother-ly’ bullying alienated the Maldivians or whether India took the Maldives for granted, thereby creating anti-India sentiment, is hard to say. The ‘Boycott Maldives’ campaign and reports that some pro-India politicians in the islands have demanded Muizzu’s resignation are not helping cool the temperature and calm bilateral relations.

Anti-India sentiments are not new in Maldives. In 2018, Abdulla Yameen, the then president, asked India to withdraw two of its helicopters and a Dornier aircraft, deployed by India for search and rescue operations in Maldives. Yameen insisted that if the helicopters and the aircraft were gifted to it, then their pilots must be from Maldives and not from India. Mutual distrust has also grown because of the BJP’s perceived anti-Muslim politics at home.

The Hindu has reported, meanwhile, that speculation abounds in New Delhi of a Chinese plan to develop a naval base in the Maldives. "In 2018, China planned an ocean observatory in Makunudhoo Atoll, north of Malé — not far from India’s Lakshadweep islands. Maldivian opposition leaders had then expressed reservations about the observatory’s potential military applications, including a provision for a submarine base," it reported. While there is no evidence yet of China having revived that proposal, the possibility cannot be discounted.

“I only hope that India-Maldives relations, which are too vital and strategic, recover lost equilibrium as soon as possible… These are not ties to be trifled with. They matter too much. To both countries. We are equal partners. And must stay that way. This is not [just] about sand and beaches,” weighed in former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao.

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