India-Maldives row escalates over social media posts calling Modi a ‘clown’

Three deputy ministers suspended amid concern that damaged relationship with India could harm the Maldivian tourist industry

One of India’s largest travel platforms suspended flight bookings to the tourism-dependent Maldives on Monday after disparaging social media posts about India’s prime minister Narendra Modi embittered relations between the South Asian neighbours.

India and Russia send the largest number of visitors to the Maldives, a chain of sun-kissed islands in the Indian Ocean that is home to many luxury resorts. Tourism accounts for almost a third of its economy, according to the World Bank.

EaseMyTrip co-founder and executive director Prashant Pitti said bookings to the Maldives were suspended “indefinitely”.

Even though New Delhi and Male have traditionally had close ties, relations have been tense since President Mohamed Muizzu came to power in November, winning the election on an “India Out” campaign.


The controversy over comments by three Maldivian now-suspended-ministers about Mr Modi comes just as Mr Muizzu leaves for China on his first state visit, from January 8th-12th, breaking from the convention of most Maldivian leaders choosing New Delhi to be their first international port of call.

Both Beijing and New Delhi vie for influence in the Indian Ocean nation.

“We decided to take this step because any self-respecting nation should do this. The statements which we heard from the representatives of the Maldives government were extremely derogatory to the country,” Mr Pitti said.

Mr Pitti said EaseMyTrip was the second largest online travel booking platform in India with a 22 per cent market share.

The Maldives government suspended deputy ministers Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid for calling Mr Modi a “clown”, “terrorist” and “puppet of Israel” on social media platform X, in response to a video of him visiting the Indian islands of Lakshadweep, north of the Maldives, to promote local tourism.

Some viewed his visit as trying to draw tourists away from the globally popular Maldives, whose 1,192 islands in the Indian Ocean are dotted with luxury resorts.

Mr Pitti said his company would promote Lakshadweep over any foreign location, even though EaseMyTrip might witness a “temporary dip in international tourism”.

Many Indians, including some celebrities, shared social media posts promoting domestic destinations over the Maldives.

New Delhi has summoned Maldivian envoy Ibrahim Shaheeb, a day after India’s mission in Male “strongly raised and expressed concerns” with the Maldivian foreign ministry on Sunday, a source aware of the matter said.

Indian high commissioner to the Maldives Munu Mahawar also held a “pre-arranged” meeting with the Maldivian foreign ministry on Monday, the Indian mission said on X.

Tourism is the largest foreign exchange earner for the Maldives, with India and Russia sending about 209,000 visitors last year. Maldives is targeting two million arrivals for 2024.

The suspended Maldives deputy ministers all worked for the archipelago’s Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts and were disciplined for their comments on social media, a senior government official said.

Some prominent Indians, including actor Akshay Kumar and cricketer Hardik Pandya, expressed dismay at the suspended trio’s comments.

In a campaign to promote local tourism, other Indians, from former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar to actor Salman Khan, have urged people to visit their own islands rather than go abroad.

#ExploreIndianIslands was the second largest trending hashtag in India on X at the weekend, and some Indians were sharing screenshots of cancelled bookings of Maldivian holidays.

Maldives’ foreign ministry said the government would not tolerate “derogatory remarks” against foreign leaders.

“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,” added former Maldives president Ibrahim Solih on X. – Reuters