01/12/2024, 15.46
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Betting on the Laccadive behind the row between Maldives and India

by Alessandra De Poli

Since President Mohamed Muizzu came to power in November, the Maldives has moved closer to China. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent posts about the Lakshadweep have been seen as a way to reduce tourism to the Maldives. Yet Delhi has been working for some time on promoting the development of its own archipelago.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's latest visit to the Lakshadweep (Laccadive) Islands, near the coast of Kerala, has sparked a political row with neighbouring Maldives, a county located just to the south of India ruled by a pro-Chinese government since last year.

“I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands and the incredible warmth of its people,” wrote the Indian prime minister on Instagram, posting a series of photos of himself walking on a beach and snorkelling underwater.

India has long been trying to promote the group of 36 atolls, a move that some Maldivian officials have read as an attempt to reduce the flow of Indian tourists to the Indian Ocean country.

According to the latest data, Indian tourists made more than 209,000 trips in 2023 to the Maldives, about 11 per cent of the local tourism market.

“What a clown. The puppet of Israel Mr. Narendra diver with life jacket,” wrote Mariyam Shiuna, deputy minister of the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts, in a now-deleted post on X (formerly Twitter).

While acknowledging the “derogatory” nature of their remarks, the Maldivian government stressed that the “opinions are personal”; however, Ms Shiuna and two other deputy ministers were suspended.

Quickly, a counter-campaign defending the Indian government unfolded on social media with the hashtags #BoycottMaldives and #ChaloLakshadweep (Let's go to the Laccadive).

Bollywood actors and cricket players also came to the defence of Prime Minister Modi, while Indian travel website EaseMyTrip announced that it has suspended flight bookings to the Maldives. In the meantime, flights to Laccadive are sold out until March.

This said, the latter’s success is the result of years of promotional work. While getting to the Laccadive used to be complex and laborious (including a 200-rupee visa fee and lots of red tape) with few air links, today travellers can get a pass online within two days and Alliance Air (the only airline that flies to the islands) is considering offering more than one daily flight.

SpiceJet has also announced that it will start flights to the archipelago while the Indian government is considering building a new airport on Minicoy Island for civil and military planes. At present, there is only one regional airstrip serving the Union Territory, Agatti Airport.

Even though India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has repeatedly attacked the country’s Muslim population, Muslims on Laccadive are seen as having a unique culture that has evolved independently of the mainland.

For scholars, the Laccadive islanders have ethnic and linguistic ties to Arab, Tamil, Malayali, and Kannada groups.

For Andrew W Forbes, a scholar of Islamic studies, “there can be little doubt that the first settlers on the Lakshadweep islands were Hindu Malabari sailors, quite possibly castaways”.

The conversion to Islam came over a long period of time thanks to contacts with Arab traders.

In the 16th century, the islands came under the control of the Arakkal kingdom of Kannur, the only Muslim dynasty to have ruled Kerala; even during British colonial rule, the archipelago continued to enjoy a certain independence thanks to its geographical isolation.

Laccadive society has the distinction of being matrilineal, a practice that probably comes from ancient Kerala traditions.

“Perhaps nowhere would a social system appear so incompatible with the ideology of Islam and demand so much adjustment and accommodation as in a matrilineal society,” wrote anthropologist Leela Dube.

In reality, the practice of matriliny is also found among Muslims elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region, including Mozambique, Indonesia, Malaysia, Tanzania, etc.

Meanwhile, Maldives has moved closer to China under President Mohamed Muizzu, who was elected in November 2023. During the election campaign, he pushed the "India Out" slogan to promote his case, promising to order the withdrawal of Indian troops stationed on the archipelago.

As the new Maldivian president, he has not yet paid an official visit to India; instead, after a five-day diplomatic tour, he signed 20 agreements with China two days ago to promote the development of the country and boost cooperation within the Belt and Road Initiative, the mega infrastructure project undertaken by China in 2013 to connect Asia to Europe.

One of the main agreements is a memorandum of understanding on tourism cooperation between China and Maldives.

Muizzu said that his government wants to diversify tourism. “China was our number one market pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position,” he explained.

Similarly, the Maldivian leader expressed “gratitude for China’s significant role in the Maldives’ economic success and for China’s generous assistance in social housing, higher education and infrastructure development of the Maldives”.

According to the World Bank, Maldives owes China US$ 1.37 billion, or about 20 per cent of its public debt. Its debt to India amounts to US$ 123 million.



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