India-Maldives row: Is social media driving foreign policy?

The recent ugly troll exchanges are an indication of a new online danger that threatens to undermine India’s real diplomatic efforts. 

Published : Jan 12, 2024 18:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the beaches of Lakshadweep. Amid escalating tensions between India and the archipelago nation, several Indian celebrities are encouraging citizens to “explore Indian islands”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the beaches of Lakshadweep. Amid escalating tensions between India and the archipelago nation, several Indian celebrities are encouraging citizens to “explore Indian islands”. | Photo Credit: ANI

On January 10, Maldivian news portal Adhadhu reported that the website of the Juvenile Court was hacked by Indian hackers. A screenshot of the message displayed on the site has an Indian flag and a very long message in English. It claimed that the hacking was carried out “backed by Team Network9” and that “We Are Bharatiya Hackers”. In a bid to remove any doubt that these were Indian hackers, there were two hashtags as well—“#ExploreIndianIslands” and “#Lakshadweep”.

The Maldives Controversy: An Explainer by R.K.Radhakrishnan | Video Credit: Presented by R.K.Radhakrishnan and Saatvika Radhakrishna, Edited by Sambavi Parthasarathy, Camera: Thamodharan B

At this point in the India-Maldives relations, it is not important if Indians had actually conducted the hacking. Indeed, it is possible that a third party is feasting off the current tension in relations. What the ineffective and Instagram-loving Indian South Block and those driving Indian foreign policy in the Prime Minister’s office need to understand is that because this hacking comes close on the heels of a series of other recent website hackings, many Maldivians believe that Indians are indeed behind it. These include Maldivians who have lived and studied in India or have looked up to India for several decades.

The spat began after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lakshadweep, an Indian archipelago north of Maldives, and posted on X (formerly Twitter) about the beauty of the islands. “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!” he wrote on January 4. He made other posts too that promoted Lakshadweep.

Also Read | Maldives power play: Muizzu consolidates control, leaving Yameen in exile

The same day, hundreds of right-wing handles and BJP supporters began trending Lakshadweep and putting down Maldives, which has long been a preferred vacation spot for India’s glitterati and the ultra-wealthy across the world. “What a great move! It’s a big setback to the new Chinese puppet government of Maldives. Also, it will boost tourism in #Lakshadweep,” posted @MrSinha_, a known extreme right-wing influencer. By January 10, the post had 3.2 million views.

Soon, many Maldivians retaliated by defending their country. Some denigrated all Indians. Unfortunately, three Maldivian officials were intemperate in their response and went one step further to mock the Indian Prime Minister. Deputy Minister of Youth Empowerment Mariyam Shiuna tweeted: “What a clown. The puppet of Israel Mr. Narendra diver with a life jacket.” It did not help that many Indian handles used pictures of islands from Maldives while promoting Lakshadweep, thus becoming the butt of jokes themselves.

What followed was a social media free-for-all, led by India’s right-wing trolls, not just against the Maldives but against the three officials too, with hashtags asking for a boycott of Maldives. As always, the BJP roped in its favourite malleable celebrities including Amitabh Bachchan, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Akshay Kumar, and others from the sports, film, and corporate world—ironically the very people who holiday in the Maldives—to back the campaign promoting Lakshadweep and holidays in India.

Not so neutral 

The fact is the initial provocation was from the Indian right-wing, which could have simply promoted Lakshadweep but chose to simultaneously disparage Maldives. Maldivians that this correspondent is routinely in touch with were taken aback by the crass and demeaning language emanating from known Indian handles—atleast a few of them followed by the Indian Prime Minister. Unfortunately, even so-called neutral observers seem to have overlooked this. 

CNN’s story began with the Prime Minister’s tweet praising Lakshadweep and then went on to the responses of the three Maldivian officials. Even a foreign relations expert such as Brahma Chellaney (@Chellaney) went on a nationalistic mode. “The three ministers in the Maldives posted derogatory comments against India, Indians and Modi, but Indian media outlets are only referring to their remarks against Modi, as if comparing India with cow dung or insulting Indian tourists and Indians generally is not newsworthy,” he posted on X on January 9.

A view of Hulhumale beach in Maldives. Maldivian Ministers triggered a controversy by making disparaging remarks about PM Modi and ridiculing his visit to Lakshadweep.

A view of Hulhumale beach in Maldives. Maldivian Ministers triggered a controversy by making disparaging remarks about PM Modi and ridiculing his visit to Lakshadweep. | Photo Credit: Afrah MOHAMED/AFP

It soon became a full-blown diplomatic row. The Indian High Commissioner in Maldives took up the issue of “denigrating” the Indian Prime Minister and the Maldivian officials were suspended, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs summoned the Maldivian High Commissioner, and the right-wing attacked anyone who posted anything good about Maldives. Worse, an Indian travel aggregator removed Male as a destination from its travel website, a largely opportunistic move because there was no impact on flights to the archipelago from India. Some commerce organisations announced they would not trade with Maldives.

The fallout

Two issues need to be examined: one, the impact of this spat on the India-Maldives relationship, and two, on Lakshadweep as a tourist destination.

The fracas could not have been timed worse. It blew up just when Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu began his second foreign trip—to China. Unlike earlier Presidents, Muizzu did not visit New Delhi for his first foreign trip; he picked Turkiye. And he picked China second. By the time Muizzu landed in China, under attack by the Maldivian opposition and fearing that the Indian boycott might become reality, one of the first things he did was request China to send more tourists to Maldives. China can literally turn on a tap and increase the flow of tourists to any destination. It had pulled back tourists from Maldives citing COVID-19, and the flow did not recover post-COVID because the then President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, pursued an “India First” policy.

On January 10, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the cue. He pulled out the stops and rolled out the red carpet for Muizzu. The Muizzu–Xi official talks were held at Beijing’s East Hall of the Great Hall of the People. Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer said, “Constructive dialogue and excited about the positive strides ahead.” The Maldivian President’s office, on January 11, announced that Maldives and China had signed 20 MoUs . Of particular interest is the decision to “elevate China-Maldives relations to comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership”. This relationship will run from 2024 to 2028. 

No details are available yet on what this means, and no outline of the 20 MoUs are available so far. It is clear that Muizzu has put his country in China’s orbit, with his country firmly affirming the ‘One China Policy,’ two days before the Presidential elections in Taiwan. In return, China has said it “firmly opposes” external interference in the internal affairs of Maldives.  

Given that Muizzu came to power on an anti-India campaign and has continued to aggressively demand that India withdraw its few troops from the island, the Lakshadweep-Maldives social media war was needless provocation. In October 2023, a similar shrill social media campaign supporting Israel and attacking Palestine had to be quietly corrected by an official External Affairs statement expressing India’s solidarity for Palestine and a Palestinian homeland. Months of diplomacy might have to go into correcting the current frost in the India-Maldives ties. It is not clear if the BJP IT cell realises the extent of harm its troll army can do. 

Second is the issue of tourism. The patriotic cheerleaders of Lakshadweep have clearly never visited the islands themselves. It is an ecologically-sensitive and remote zone that carefully contains the carbon footprint on the isles. The islands have poor infrastructure and very little connectivity with the mainland. There is just one daily flight, an Alliance Air flight from Kochi to Agatti. It is a 60-seater and is almost always fully booked since the local demand itself is high. Only two of five ferries operate between Lakshadweep and Kochi at any given time. Government officials use choppers. 

A controversy around the compensation for private land taken over by the government for creating infrastructure has ended up in a court stay order. Lakshadweep is India’s smallest Union Territory spread across 32 sq km and 36 far-flung islands, only a few of which are interconnected by an intermittent and slow ferry service.

There are barely 100 rooms across the islands. Bangaram, the island where former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi stayed, has 59 rooms. This is the largest cluster of accommodation in the archipelago. Kalpeni has transit accommodation of 30 beds, which is given on rent to tourists too. Kavaratti, the capital, has one resort, Minicoy has one, while the 10 tents in Thinnakara have not been reopened after COVID. Lakshadweep, while undeniably exquisite, is not for the average Indian tourist focussed on food and shopping. It is more for avid snorkellers or deep-sea divers, and has long been a serious diving destination.

Also Read | Is Maldives President Muizzu softening his stance on Indian troops? 

Compare this to Maldives, which hosted about 1.8 million tourists in 2023, and overflows with cruise tourists, luxury resorts, boutique hotels, spas, and more. Tourism is the focus of Maldives, and that model need not necessarily be emulated. Lakshadweep is run by a Lieutenant Governor who is deeply unpopular with the people. The introduction of alcohol sales on the islands (it was a dry region, barring for resorts and service personnel), the ban on beef, and various other new rules have led the people to speculate that the Lt Governor was sent to the almost entirely Muslim islands with a specific mission by the BJP government.

The Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for Lakshadweep is natural, but his PR and IT cells and random trolls making it a high-pitched battle with a neighbouring nation was unfortunate, with a long-term fallout for both tourism and diplomacy.

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