#IndiaOut trends on social media as ties with Maldives hit new low after PM Modi hard-sells Lakshadweep  

The hashtag #IndiaOut has been trending on the micro-blogging platform X, as a diplomatic row is raging between India and the Maldives over the remarks by some ministers of the island nation. Their disparaging comments were made following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Lakshadweep, in order to promote tourism in the Union Territory, which has the potential to emerge as a rival destination.  

India and the present pro-China Maldives government are engaged in a diplomatic slugfest ever since IndiaOut has been a slogan during the electioneering of Mohamed Muizzu. Photo courtesy: PIB / FB of Maldives President’s Office

Mohamed Muizzu and ‘India Out’

While the high-profile visit of Modi to Lakshadweep and the remarks by the Maldives ministers might be a trigger for the ongoing row, things started worsening between the two South Asian nations for quite some time.

The ‘IndiaOut’ hashtag expressed the stance taken by the current pro-China Maldivian government led by President Mohamed Muizzu, who pledged to remove Indian soldiers and alter Maldives’ India-first policy after coming to power.

Taking over the reins of the country last year, Muizzu, who is generally perceived as pro-China, officially requested the withdrawal of India’s military presence from the country. Removal of foreign troops from the archipelago was one of the primary commitments made by the new president.

Indian PM Narendra Modi promotes Lakshadweep on his recent visit, triggering reactions from the Maldives that have led to worsening of the diplomatic row. Photo courtesy: PM Modi X handle

India used to maintain a small contingent of some 75 Indian military personnel in the country.

Unlike many of his predecessors, who opted to visit India immediately after being elected, Muizzu subtly followed an ‘IndiaOut’ policy by choosing Turkey as his first foreign destination.

Muizzu met Indian PM Narendra Modi in Dubai on the sidelines of the COP28 climate talks in December 2023. Both leaders had agreed to set up a core group to discuss the multidimensional relations and further deepen ties.

The deteriorating relationship between India and the Maldives was evident when the island nation chose not to renew the hydrography cooperation agreement with India. The agreement will expire on June 7, 2024.

Originally signed in 2019, this agreement permitted India to conduct hydrographic surveys in the Maldives’ territorial waters, encompassing mapping of underwater surfaces and studying reefs, lagoons, coastlines, and other physical features, according to a Hindustan Times report.

In an article published on the Observer Research Foundation website,  Abhijit Singh, Head of the Maritime Policy Initiative of the think tank, wrote: “The Muizzu administration’s refusal to renew the hydrography seems less to do with the President’s sensitivities about sovereignty than with his special relationship with Beijing. Getting Indian hydrographic ships out of Maldivian waters appears intended to aid China’s marine surveys of the surrounding seas.”

Cozying up to China

Amid the strained relationship with India, the Maldives on Wednesday upgraded its relationship with China during President Mohamed Muizzu’s first state visit to Beijing.

At the Great Hall of the People, Chinese President Xi Jinping called Muizzu “an old friend” and promised more investment in Maldives. “China and the Maldives’ relations are facing a historic opportunity to carry forward the past and forge ahead into the future,” Xi told Muizzu, as reported in Chinese state media.

“During the talks, President Dr Muizzu expressed gratitude for China’s significant role in the Maldives’ economic success… and infrastructure development,” a statement from his presidential office read following the meeting.

A total of “20 key agreements” were signed between the two countries “marking a significant step in bilateral relations”, as per an official statement released by the Maldivian President’s office.

International Yoga Day violence in the Maldives

In 2022, an International Yoga Day event in the Maldives was disrupted by a violent mob of Islamist extremists. They swarmed into the venue, waving Islamic flags, and pushing and threatening the participants, who included India’s High Commissioner Munu Mahawar, and other members of the diplomatic community.

The Maldives is a favourite of Bollywood celebrities and India’s high-end travellers. Photo courtesy: PR Team of Kuda Resort

The Maldives government, however, strongly condemned the violent disruption of the International Yoga Day event.

Lakshadweep row

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) summoned the Maldivian envoy to India Ibrahim Shaheeb on January 8, 2024, and conveyed strong concern over remarks posted on social media against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had posted his pictures from Lakshadweep.

As per reports, the Maldives High Commissioner was seen arriving at the MEA office building and leaving a short while later.

Maldives government’s reaction to ministers’ remarks

The Maldives government has distanced itself from the remarks made by its ministers. Maldivian Minister of Foreign Affairs Moosa Zameer said that these remarks against foreign leaders were “unacceptable” and did not reflect the official position of the Maldives government.