It started with a postcard-perfect snapshot. An image of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, lounging in a chair on a secluded white-sand beach, provoked heated words from officials in the Maldives, a tiny archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean.
Indians on social media reacted with a ferocious wave of indignation, causing ripples all the way to Beijing.
Mr. Modi had been posing for a series of pictures to highlight the beachy natural beauty of the islands called Lakshadweep, an Indian territory 150 miles from the mainland and just 100 miles north of the Maldives.
Lakshadweep is like a mini Maldives, with barely a tenth of the landmass of the more famous atolls to its south. The people on Minicoy, its southernmost island, speak the same language as they do in the Maldives, and preserve some of its oldest customs.
But in Mr. Modi’s seemingly harmless words of praise — morning walks on the beach were “moments of pure bliss” — the Maldives heard a threat. Its about a half-million people are sensitive to feeling pushed around by India, with its population of 1.4 billion.
“What a clown,” Mariyam Shiuna, a deputy minister in the Maldives’ government, wrote on the social media platform X. She accused Mr. Modi of being a “puppet of Israel” and of wearing a lifejacket while pretending to scuba dive. The post was later deleted.
In fact Mr. Modi had been snorkeling — a lifejacket-compatible activity. But he is in fact friendlier with the Israeli government than is popular in the Muslim-majority islands. Other Maldivians used their social media posts to insult Indian tourists and India generally.
The backlash was swift, and by some accounts apparently coordinated. A barrage of posts by high-profile Indians, including government officials and Bollywood stars, blasted simultaneous outrage at the Maldivians. These posts were illustrated with travel-brochure-like images of Lakshadweep, making the competition explicit. (Many of these photographs were actually shot in the Maldives, though.)
On Monday, push came to shove. An Indian travel portal, EaseMyTrip, joined the Indian celebrities in boycotting travel bookings to the Maldives. The Maldivian government finally cried uncle. Ms. Shiuna was suspended from office, along with two other ministers who had joined her in remarks seen as offending India.