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India-Maldives row—tourism, politics and geopolitics

The China angle: Located in the Arabian Sea, Lakshadweep and the Maldives are of great strategic importance

India-Maldives row—tourism, politics and geopolitics

Photo for representation. iStock



Tribune Web Desk

Vibha Sharma

Chandigarh, January 8   

A couple of days back, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted photos of his sojourn in Lakshadweep, snorkeling, taking a walk and enjoying peaceful moments on the beautiful, pristine, sun-kissed beach of the island located in the Arabian Sea.

“For those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list…

“… I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands and the incredible warmth of its people,” he wrote on social media.  

The PM’s visit was also seen as a reach-out to the Muslim-dominated islands that have also been the centre of a couple of controversies since the appointment of Praful Khodabhai Patel as the Administrator. 

Some of the decisions by Patel (who is said to be close to PM Modi) have been perceived as “authoritarian and affecting fundamental rights of the inhabitants of Lakshadweep”. Locals, in fact, allege draft regulations brought by Patel are “anti-people and affront to cultural and religious beliefs of the natives”.

PM’s visit to Lakshadweep   

What followed the PM's visit to Lakshadweep, an Indian territory, was most unprecedented.

Abdulla Mahzoom Majid, a minister in the government of recently-appointed President of Maldives Mohamed Muizzu, claimed that India was trying to shift focus from the Maldives by promoting Lakshadweep as another tourist spot. 

And not just that, his colleagues Maryam Shiuna and Malsha Shareef also made some very disrespectful and undignified remarks about PM Modi, resulting in a massive furore and backlash in India.

On Monday, Maldivian envoy to India Ibrahim Shaheeb was summoned to the external affairs ministry and conveyed strong concern over remarks posted on social media against PM Modi by the Maldivian ministers, according to reports.

Experts say the Maldives government may have distanced itself from the derogatory remarks by suspending the three junior ministers but diplomatic lines have been drawn, which will be erased only if Maldives is seen making special efforts.    

Erupting a day before Muizzu's first trip to China, the backlash led to travel companies like EaseMyTrip suspending flight and hotel bookings for the Maldives and many Indian celebrities and actors joining the call to boycott the island nation. 

Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, who had urged Muizzu to distance the government from the disparaging comments, said India was “instrumental” in Maldives' security and prosperity.

Muizza and shift in policy

Muizzu, who took over as the president of the Indian Ocean nation last November, is considered “leaning towards China”.

China is backing Muizza, it is clear, observers say.

Muizza is the first Maldivian President to choose to visit China before India after being elected, according to reports. “His election pledge included removing the small Indian military personnel contingent in the country and altering the country’s ‘India-first’ policy," they add.

Muizza is on the visit to China on the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to a statement by China's foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.

India is watching the “shift” carefully, say officials given the strategic importance of the region in which China, too, is trying to exert supremacy. Reports suggest that the Maldives owes China about $1.3 billion and the actions of Muizzu (“creating a visible distance between Male and New Delhi”) is guided by many similar factors.

“His visit to China before India is a clear signal given that most of his predecessors visited India first after being elected,” they add.

Lakshadweep

A picture is worth a thousand words, it is said, and photos of PM Modi who otherwise does not believe in taking a day off, enjoying Lakshadweep’s pristine beaches, clear blue waters and snorkeling is something that goes beyond the endeavour to promote the small Indian UT as a tourism destination.

They certainly made the impact, hurting Maldives where it hurts most.

Indians make a sizeable population of the tourists who visit Maldives. 

Whether Lakshadweep, India’s smallest UT is an archipelago with 36 islands and a total area of 32 sq km, can be the answer remains to be seen but a step has been taken. 

All Islands are 220 to 440 km away from Kochi in Kerala and sources say the government's aim to make it a tourist destination is on track.

How that works out also remains to be seen as entry to Lakshadweep islands is restricted and one needs an entry permit issued by Lakshadweep Administration to visit these islands.

The Lakshadweep administration has prohibited the entry of both locals and outsiders into 17 islands due to national security and public safety concerns. 

The decision has been taken to prevent terrorist or smuggling activities on the uninhabited islands which have temporary structures as houses of labourers who harvest coconut, according to reports. 

In order to safeguard India's vital shipping lanes to the Middle East and the growing relevance of the islands in security considerations, an Indian Navy base is also commissioned on Kavaratti.

The archipelago is essential to India’s Indo-Pacific strategy.  

Local politics

Meanwhile, the Lakshadweep administration has been drawing flak from locals and environmentalists for some recent reforms and proposals. They include the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation that allows construction activities in ecologically rich and sensitive areas, as per reports.

There has also been outrage over ‘development’ plans, including inviting tenders for the construction of over 370 beach and water villas in three islands in the UT, they add.

 

About The Author

The Tribune Web Desk brings you the latest news, analysis and insights from the region, India and around the world. Follow the Tribune Wed Desk for not just breaking news stories but wide-ranging coverage of events.

#China #Lakshadweep #Maldives #Narendra Modi


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