Summary: Modi attacks the tiny Maldives nation, in a quest for profit, while stoking Islamophobia and the crassest nationalism — Editors.
India and Maldives have shared a long history. Not only does India provide military, medical, and strategic support to the Maldives, but it also used to be the destination of the first State Visit of any new Maldivian President – until the current Maldivian President, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, whose state visits until now have been to Turkey, the UAE, and China. The Maldivian President’s visit to China ahead of India exhibited the kind of deteriorating foreign relations that India under Narendra Modi has with one of its key maritime neighbors. Things deteriorated further when Maldivian ministers Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna, and Abdulla Mahzoom posted certain remarks on the Indian Prime Minister’s picture on X on January 4 that showed him snorkeling in Lakshadweep and urging people to visit India’s smallest union territory. The Maldivian ministers’ tweets sparked a wave of social media posts from Indian celebrities, sports persons, and politicians, urging Indian citizens – the highest contributor to the tourists that had come into Maldives in 2022 – to boycott Maldives and travel to Lakshadweep instead.
Integrated into the Indian state in 1947 and designated as a Union Territory in 1956, the Lakshadweep archipelago has 10 inhabited and 26 uninhabited islands. They are one of the largest coral reef islands in the country, having a shore length of 82 miles, 2609 square mile lagoon area, territorial waters of 12,427 square miles, and 2.5 Million square miles of economic zone. The online travel company, MakeMyTrip reported that it had seen a 3400 percent increase in searches related to Lakshadweep. At the same time, another travel company, EaseMyTrip announced that it would suspend its flight bookings to Maldives. Both these companies – like the Indian State and the Indian Prime Minister – completely ignored the fact that Lakshadweep is an eco-sensitive zone, and large-scale tourism can have devastating impacts on the population and the environment there. The Government of India’s desire to pitch Lakshadweep as a tourist hub, however, is not a recent phenomenon. In 2003, the then Government of India had drawn up a 20-year plan to develop the tourism potential of Lakshadweep. The plan included details of how various establishments could be set up in the islands including hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, etc. However, the then government paid a good amount of attention to the environment and the low carrying capacity of the islands. Entry to the islands continues to require tourists to follow the Laccadive, Minicoy, and Amindivi Islands (Restriction on Entry and Residence) Rules, 1967, and gain an entry document that often takes weeks to obtain. The cost associated with the process is also a major deterrent for people traveling to the islands, as is the low number of flights to the islands.
The 2003 report did not advocate liquidating the restrictions that were in place in Lakshadweep to protect its critical environmental balance and its people. However, that is not the case with the current government, which has been known for its indulgence of corporate development over environmental concerns. The Indian government’s bid to compete with the Maldives through Lakshadweep would mean doing away with most of the environmental and travel regulations in place. Considering the ways in which the Modi government functions, it is difficult to believe that the Prime Minister’s visit to Lakshadweep and his promotion of Indian beaches in India, and the Islamophobic outburst against Maldives – a country with mostly Muslim populace – are all coincidences. The discourse against the Maldives benefits the Hindu nationalist narrative in light of the tensions surrounding the construction of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. The Maldivian government urging China to send more tourists also plays in the BJP’s favor as it allows the BJP to further its agenda of polarisation in the 2024 elections by focusing on China and a Muslim-majority nation-state, while India continues to grapple with economic and social issues. It allows the BJP to further consolidate its narrative of the dual threat of China and Islamic countries – a narrative that it has been propagating for a long time. The reaction of the Indian government, however, has not come out of a vacuum. The Maldivian government’s repeated claims about China being its strongest diplomatic and trade ally – especially after the election of the pro-China government in Maldives and the signing of the China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement in 2017 – along with the increasing trade between China and Maldives as opposed to the decreasing trade between India and Maldives have also helped the BJP. The India-Maldives row is not only about the two countries but is rather deeply rooted in the neo-fascist nature of the BJP and the growing Islamophobia that the BJP has been propagating. However, the major victim amidst all of these would be the eco-sensitive island of Lakshadweep – an island that is potentially en route towards becoming a victim of the BJP’s electoral desperation.