The Muizzu administration has come under intense criticism for crude and derogatory comments made against the Indian Prime Minister and Indians by three high-ranking public officials.

The comments came when Modi’s recent trip to Lakshadweep – part of his government’s ‘Vocal for Local’ campaign, aimed at promoting domestic tourism –  was depicted by Indian media as a counter-strategy to the Maldives’ increasing prominence as a tourist destination and its alignment with China.

The photos posted by Modi on X during his trip were, as expected, received with a flurry of comments from netizens, especially the army of social media activists aligned with the current government. However, it was the engagements for the posts from some high-ranking government officials that ignited a firestorm on social media platforms, escalating into a full-blown diplomatic row between the two Indian Ocean neighbours.

In one post, Mariyam Shiuna, Deputy Minister of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts, in a now deleted post on X, made insulting remarks against the Indian prime minister, referring to him as a ‘clown’ and a ‘puppet of Israel’ after he posted pictures from his visit to Lakshadweep Islands.

Escalation of Backlash

The Maldivian Xsphere (formerly Twittersphere) is accustomed to heated political discourse, often bordering on offensive and derogatory. It is usually restricted to back-and-forth between activists and “Xbots” used by political rivals, but tensions escalated when the controversial post caught the attention of X users in India. 

X users from both India and the Maldives jumped on the conversation, each advancing their position, but some local activists resorted to racially insensitive comments. One user, Zahid Rameez, a council member of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) wrote  “The move is great. However, the idea of competing with us is delusional. How can they provide the service we offer? How can they be so clean? The permanent smell in the rooms will be the biggest downfall.” He has since deleted the provocative tweet.

The exchanges from microbloggers on both sides of the pond escalated quickly, with local activists to be joined by public officials. This led to intervention by opposition activists, along with senior politicians attempting to rectify a potential diplomatic and economic fallout.

Diverse Range of Reactions

The damaging actions by public officials were not only discouraged by senior diplomats and politicians, but with India being the current top market for inbound tourists, concern over these detrimental actions was highlighted by industry leaders. 

Former President Mohamed Nasheed, whose foreign policy was central to the India-Maldives relationship, wrote, “What appalling language by Maldives Government official @shiuna_m towards the leader of a key ally, that is instrumental for Maldives’ security and prosperity. @MMuizzu gov[ernment] must distance itself from these comments and give clear assurance to India they do not reflect gov[ernment] policy”.

Ahmed Faris Maumoon, former MP and son of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, cautioned on the situation, saying “The government must reprimand public officials who are disrespectful towards heads of state and high officials of friendly countries. If such punitive action is not taken, there is room to interpret that the disrespectful comments are condoned by the Maldives government.”

This sentiment was echoed by former Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, who reposted Faris’ comment, adding, “This is very good advice. Surely there must already be a code of conduct that all ministerial officials must uphold!”

Former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih also weighed in on the conversation, saying “I condemn the use of hateful language against #India by Maldivian government officials on social media. India has always been a good friend to Maldives and we must not allow such callous remarks to negatively impact the age old friendship between our two countries”.

But, the damage was already done. Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar, with over 46 million followers on X, expressed dismay over the derogatory comments. He remarked, “Came across comments from prominent public figures from Maldives passing hateful and racist comments on Indians. Surprised that they are doing this to a country that sends them the maximum number of tourists.  We are good to our neighbors but why should we tolerate such unprovoked hate? I’ve visited the Maldives many times and always praised it, but dignity first. Let us decide to #ExploreIndianIslands and support our own tourism,” he said.

Mohamed Firaq, Tourism industry leader, and CEO of one of the biggest tour operators in the Maldives, posted, “When individuals represent their country, whether in an official capacity or not, they bear a responsibility to exercise caution and mindfulness in their expressions. While personal opinions are valued, they must weigh the potential repercussions of their statements, considering the impact on diplomatic relations and the country’s image on the global stage. It’s vital to strike a balance between personal perspectives and the broader diplomatic responsibilities inherent in representing a nation.”

Subdued Response from the Government

Following the escalation of tension in cyberspace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Sunday, saying that the “The Government of Maldives is aware of derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals. These opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the Government of Maldives.” 

It said, “The Government believes that the freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, negativity, and hinder close relationships between the Maldives and its international partners”.

The statement also cautioned that “relevant authorities of the Government will not hesitate to take action against those who make such derogatory remarks”. Since then, three deputy ministers including Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid have been suspended. 

The weight of the statement and the promptness of action have been met with criticism, particularly as the government had recently blocked blogs critical of the government, citing “national harmony” as a cornerstone of society.

Responding to the comments, Faris commented saying “This statement by @MoFAmv is not nearly sufficient. There is no acknowledgment of responsibility, but rather a defense that government officials have the right to contravene official policy. Maldives’ international standing has been harmed – political loyalty to individuals absolutely cannot have priority over the interests of the country. Our citizens deserve a government that is big enough to accept responsibility for mistakes and take appropriate corrective action”. 

Timing and Lessons for the Future

Neutral observers on social media have cautioned that the timing of the avoidable rift could not have come at a better time, cautioning voters of the adverse impact of electing unqualified activists to public office. 

Rewarding activists for their contributions during campaigns with positions in higher office has been a continuing culture since the enactment of the 2008 constitution, which paved way for multi-party competition. 

Each government since then has faced massive backlash for increased political positions within their respective governments, ranging all the way from top cabinet positions to made-up directorate positions as a reward for their role in campaigns. 

Critics have cautioned that with the parliamentary elections just around the corner, this most recent incident is a stark reminder for voters not to elect party activists to parliament but, instead, to choose qualified lawmakers.