I have never been to the Maldives.
For the longest time I didn’t want to admit to that. It made me feel like a bit of a loser every time I saw someone’s sun-kissed vacation pictures from the island nation. But now finally I can wear this particular badge with smug pride as the #BoycottMaldives tsunami gathers force.
The Maldives is not the first country that India has been in a diplomatic row with lately. Canadian and Indian relations went into deep freeze after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed fingers at India with regard to the killing of a Khalistani extremist in Canada. Before that, India and China butted heads over incursions across the Line of Actual Control and Chinese apps like TikTok were banished from Indian phones.
The Maldives affair has certainly left its government red-faced. Three deputy ministers have been suspended after they made gratuitously insulting remarks on social media about the posts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoying the beaches of Lakshadweep. It was a brazenly ridiculous act, especially coming from government officials, and India made it clear it would not take the insult lying down. The current government in the Maldives is not friendly to India. In fact, their President was visiting China when the furore erupted. But the suspension of the ministers showed that New Delhi still has plenty of clout in the region, friendly government or not. And the Maldives knows which side its bread is buttered. Tourism accounted for a full quarter of its national economy in 2019. Despite the current President’s “IndiaOut” campaign platform, neither side wants to jeopardise major infrastructure projects that are underway, according to The New York Times.
But what is fascinating about the Maldives kerfuffle are the outsize waves it’s been making on social media, as celebrities trip over each other to be seen front and centre of the #BoycottMaldives bandwagon. News channels are doing hysterical coral-by-coral comparisons between the Maldives and Lakshadweep, even as many anchors call it “Lakshwadeep”. The Maldives, as some wits put it, would soon become Smalldives, once the social media warriors were done. Travel portal EaseMyTrip did its bit by deciding to suspend bookings to the Maldives and instead asked Indians to “discover the enchanting beauty of Ayodhya and the pristine allure of Lakshadweep”. InsuranceDekho, India’s largest insurtech platform, sent out a press release saying they had decided to stop the issuance of travel insurance to the Maldives on their platform and offered sound bytes to media outlets. The talking points are the same and hashtagged. Let’s #ExploreIndianIslands and let’s #BoycottMaldives. The posts all came with tourist brochure-style pictures of pristine waters and golden beaches of those Indian islands. The only problem was that while they wanted to make the point that anything the Maldives can do, Lakshadweep can do better, many in their haste inadvertently shared pictures from the Maldives itself. Or French Polynesia. When it comes to virgin beaches and crystal-clear water, it’s obviously hard for our stars to tell one from the other. Star-crossed beaches, if you will.
Looking at the social media uproar one cannot help but think that the level of celebrity outrage must somehow be directly proportional to the number of lavish holidays that celebrity must have spent on those islands. No one boasts too much about their trips to chilly Canada, but the Maldives is an Instagrammers’ paradise. And now it’s turned into an Instagrammers’ shame and everyone is trying to out-cheerlead each other as they extol the virtues of a shuddh desi beach holiday, where they can all paraphrase Cliff Richard as they chorus, We’re goin’ where the sun shines brightly, we’re goin’ where the sea is blue, We’ve seen it in the movies (or on X), Let’s see if it’s true. (Cliff Richard is India-born and someone should approach him for that song for Lakshadweep immediately!) Actor Poonam Pandey even posted a WhatsApp chat to prove she was cancelling her forthcoming shoot in the Maldives and said she was hoping to shoot in Lakshadweep instead. What none of them mention is poor Lakshadweep has about 1/10th the landmass of the Maldives. If all the celebrities and their entourages actually landed on these islands, the “moments of bliss” the Prime Minister so enjoyed there would evaporate in a heartbeat.
The Maldivian ministers’ gaffe deservedly got them in hot water. And the Indian government has shown it is more than capable of handling the fracas. The celebrity circus is playing to a different audience. As celebrities, they understand the utmost importance of being on the right side of every issue, especially when national honour is at stake. That’s easy enough when it’s about a terrorist attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir, a town none of them have been to. It’s a little trickier when the place in the national crosshairs is your favourite backyard phoren destination. In fact, some of the celebs waxing indignant were sharing their cycling, partying and snorkelling pictures from the Maldives a week back. As Shakespeare wrote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
The celebrity tizzy is not entirely unexpected though. Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, US, has long been tracking Twitter (now X) data to understand patterns around celebrity engagement with political issues from the rise of candidate Modi to the 2020-21 farmer protests.
When singer Rihanna weighed in on the Indian farmers’ protest in 2021, it unleashed a celebrity Twitter-storm as well. In a 2021 public domain paper that analysed tweeting trends, Pal and other researchers affiliated with Microsoft Research observed that the more followers an Indian celebrity had, the lower the chance that they might speak up in support of someone like Rihanna. Only one celebrity with over one million Twitter followers, Swara Bhaskar, immediately endorsed her. They also saw “strong suggestion of collusive tweeting from the key Indian celebrities, based on the timestamps of their tweeting, and the contents of the text.” They noted that after a tweet from the Union ministry of external affairs, a flood of tweets followed from film stars, most of them diligently using the same hashtags like #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether. Looking at the trending topics and hashtags, they found that while at first there was “momentum on the side batting for the protesting farmers”, the tide turned towards the side opposing Rihanna after the celebrities entered the fray and their hashtags all started to trend.
While it’s a win-win for the celebrities who find they are rewarded with instant retweeting and new followers, sadly Indian islands and their fragile ecosystems might well be the losers here. As the clamour to develop India’s answer to the Maldives grows, genuine debates about what is sustainable development and its ecological impact could easily be dubbed as “anti-national”, the work of some nefarious Maldives lobby. As of now, only one daily flight connects Kochi in Kerala with Lakshadweep’s Agatti. Other than that, there are six somewhat erratic passenger ships. Lakshadweep is actually not easy to get to even though many celebs have put it on top of their travel bucket list.
One actor said, she’s on the “verge” of booking an “impulse holiday” there. Until the infrastructure ramps up though, the celebrity brigade is unlikely to head en masse to Lakshadweep. They will have to make do with the likes of Bali and Phuket, but they must be nervously hoping no foolhardy ministers in those countries decide to shoot their mouth off.
As for me, I am just hugely relieved that there is no danger of being caught trying to pass off my Maldives snorkelling pictures as a home-grown Lakshadweep holiday.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against.
Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr