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SOURCE: South China Morning Post

Tourists from India will once again be able to visit the Maldives from Thursday, some 10 weeks after the tropical island nation temporarily banned all South Asian tourists in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19. Many may not want to, however, given the virulent anti-India campaign that has sprang up on the archipelago recently, amid noisy calls on social media for the government to boycott Indian tourists altogether.

Sunjay Sudhir, New Delhi’s de facto ambassador to the Maldives, was so shaken by the “India Out” campaign that he wrote to Male’s foreign ministry requesting extra security for his diplomatic staff and urging the authorities to take action. Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

He said in his letter dated June 24 that the “vicious and increasingly personal” attacks were aimed at inciting hatred and violence against India and its diplomats, citing provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that oblige host governments to protect foreign envoys.

“Such repeated attacks can affect the efficient performance of the functions of the High Commission and can damage the time-tested and mutually beneficial bilateral relations,” Sudhir said.

The government of Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih subsequently laid on extra security. Whether this had anything to do with a phone call he had with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 14 is unclear.

Officially, the call was to review ties, with Delhi saying in a statement issued afterwards that the conversation offered the two leaders an “opportunity to take stock of the overall state of bilateral relations and provide further momentum and guidance to the ongoing substantive cooperation between the two countries”. Modi described the Maldives as a “central pillar in India’s Neighbourhood First policy and its maritime vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region,” India’s foreign ministry said.

The Maldives’ India Out campaign began last year but its origins date to 2013 when Abdulla Yameen, leader of the opposition Progressive Party, became president. The pro-China policy he adopted after decades of close bilateral relations with India soured feelings in Delhi, which has sought to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region through its membership of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – alongside the US, Japan and Australia – among other tactics.

N. Sathiya Moorthy, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in Delhi, said India was a “victim of the internal political situation” in the Maldives.

Delhi provides aid to the island nation as part of Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy, but Moorthy said Yameen, who is currently in jail for corruption, had twisted this into a “nefarious plot” – claiming India wanted to increase its presence on the strategic Indian Ocean archipelago.

“Yameen is attacking India’s funding of development projects as a way to attack Solih because Solih has restored the closeness that Yameen, when he was president, tried to undermine,” Moorthy said. “Yameen’s target is Solih. India is just a proxy.”

An Indian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said Yameen’s government had also been offered development assistance “but he was so keen to please China that he refused it”. “Instead he approved Chinese investments which have plunged the Maldives into indebtedness,” the diplomat said.

India has long considered the Maldives to be firmly within its sphere of influence, alongside fellow Indian Ocean nations such as the Seychelles and Mauritius.

Since Solih replaced Yameen as president in 2018, Delhi has invested some US$2.4 billion in various housing, hospital, and sports projects in the Maldives, with an India-operated radar network being set up to monitor the surrounding ocean, and a police training institute established in Addu, at the far south of the archipelago.

Yameen has argued that two helicopters India earlier gifted the Maldives to use for sea rescue operations, weather surveillance and airlifting patients between islands were part of a secret attempt to set up a naval base in Addu – a claim Delhi denies.

“The agreements signed between Male and New Delhi on the stay and use of these helicopters were shown belatedly to ruling party MPs about six to eight months ago to reassure them that they are only for humanitarian purposes,” said the Observer Research Foundation’s Moorthy. “Since then, no one has raised this issue except Yameen.”Accusing India of interfering in domestic matters and setting up a military presence is a good way of targeting Solih and portraying him as a traitorDr Gulbin Sultana, research analyst

Yameen continues to claim that India has malign intentions and has repeatedly hit out at Solih for allegedly harming the Maldives’ national interest by wanting close relations. His anti-India campaign has been amplified by one Shifxan Ahmed, co-founder of Maldivian online news portal Dhiyares, who said in an interview with The Indian Express newspaper that the movement was “issue-based”.

“We are not calling for a violent clash against India or Indians in Maldives. This ‘India Out’ campaign is not about people-to-people relations,” Ahmed was cited as saying. “We want Indians to feel safe in our country. So if there are people who use violent threats using the ‘India Out’ hashtags, we condemn those posts. We are about peacefully expressing our concerns.”

Further complicating the picture is Indian’s plan to open a new consulate in Addu – a move Delhi says is aimed at making it easier for the atoll’s residents to apply for visas, but which Yameen claims is the first step on a slippery slope to an Indian military base.

Dr Gulbin Sultana, a research analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi, said the Maldives’ India Out campaign was likely to continue.

“Yameen’s party wants to mobilise people against Solih and accusing India of interfering in domestic matters and setting up a military presence is a good way of targeting Solih and portraying him as a traitor to the national interest,” she said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.