By: Abu Huda Al-Hendi*
In the Arabian Sea, Lakshwadeep is an archipelago of 36 islands, just 220 to 440 kilometers from the southern Indian state of Kerala. Its 70,000-strong population is predominantly Muslim and although the people have strong ties with Kerala. Lakshadweep is a Union Territory, which means it is administered by the federal government through an administrator.
In many more ways than one, the residents of the Lakshadweep Islands take pride in their traditional culture, while maintaining significant environmental safeguards to protect the island. The islands are protected under special provisions where liquor sales are not allowed, outsiders cannot buy land there, moreover, non-residents cannot visit the islands without special permission from the administration
The island chain of Lakshwadeep is in the boil, after a long rage protest against the citizenship amendment bill India is again in the storm as the string of regulations proposed by its administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, a politician of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Political turmoil is not something one readily associates with the Lakshadweep, habituated as it is to a calm and peaceful (if somewhat distant) existence since its formal induction as a Union territory in 1956 with 0% crimes.
All over India calls are mounting for withdrawal of the controversial rules and Patel’s recall. As the distinct identity, culture and tradition of Lakshadweep people predominately Muslims could be under threat and it is explained by a critic as the next step of Modi leaded government anti-Muslim movement to expel the population from their identity, culture and traditions. As the Modi government planning the citizenship amendment to give the nationality according to the religious consideration except for Muslims.
Patel was appointed as Lakshadweep’s administrator at the end of 2020. Soon after taking charge, he scrapped the stringent quarantine measures for travelers from the Indian mainland to the Islands. As a result, Lakshadweep, which had managed to remain COVID-free in 2020, soon became a hotbed of coronavirus infections. On May 22, the Union Territory reported a total tally of 6,611 positive cases. Its positivity rate is the highest in the country
Additionally, Patel has introduced a slew of draft legislation that could have a wide-ranging impact on the islands, and the lives and livelihoods of Lakshadweep’s residents.
A proposed land development plan gives the administrator vast powers to take over land and relocate people and provides for stringent penalties for those who resist. The plan allows for mining and exploitation of mineral resources in the islands. Under the new rules, the slaughter of cows and the transport of beef products has been made an offence. The Prevention of Anti-Social Activities (PASA) Regulation provides for the detention of a person without any public disclosure for a period of up to a year.
The Patel administration has sought to justify the new rules by claiming that they are aimed at boosting economic development and promoting the archipelago as a tourist destination on par with neighboring Maldives. Indeed, tourist infrastructure in Lakshadweep is rudimentary and unemployment is high. Providing the economy with a shot in the arm would be welcome.
However, critics point out that the law facilitates the transfer of land to corporations and would result in indigenous communities losing ownership of their land. It provides legal cover for the administration to take over land with or without people’s consent. It is the administration’s prerogative whether or not compensation needs to be paid.
Locals fear that they will not benefit much from the development plan. Already, fishermen have been evicted from the coasts; shelters for their boats have been destroyed to clean up beaches for the setting up of resorts. It has impacted the livelihood of many fishermen.
Additionally, the kind of development envisaged under Patel will “cause the delicate ecology of the island to unravel,” according to marine biologist and scientist Rohan Arthur.
Administration officials have said that PASA was necessary to crack down on the smuggling of weapons and narcotics, which is reportedly rising in the archipelago. However, PASA appears to be a sledgehammer to swat a fly given that Lakshadweep’s crime rate is the lowest in India at 0%. Locals fear that the motivation behind the preventive detention law is to choke off protests against the administration’s decisions.
Importantly, there is concern that the BJP’s Hindutva agenda is driving Patel’s reforms. Steps like the beef ban and removing meat from students’ meals are seen as communal and anti-Muslim moves. The administration has also removed restrictions on the sale of alcohol. These moves have hurt the sentiments of Lakshadweep’s predominantly Muslim population.
Patel’s non-consultative style of functioning has come under fire. Elected representatives of the people of Lakshadweep were not consulted in writing up the land development plans and proposed laws.
Protests are growing on the island and on social media. In addition to local residents, celebrities and opposition political parties are calling for the withdrawal of controversial legislations. They are demanding that Patel be recalled.
But the Indian government is moving towards amended regulations creating fear in a calm and peaceful community, by facing the protest with the sedition charges as they put on Aisha Sultana, one of the social activists from Lakshadweep appeared in media against new administration changes threat to their tradition and culture.
Lakshadweep is strategically located. It lies close to the Maldives and important Sea Lanes of Communication in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The island chain has provided New Delhi with little reason for concern so far. However, the recently introduced changes could turn a peaceful population into an angry and restive one. That is not in India’s interest and critic observes it as the anti-Muslim poison flooding after Modi government in power to far islands of the nation.
* An Indian writer
**Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of “Al-Mujtama” magazine.