Discontent in Lakshadweep

Photo Source: The Guardian

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

As a slew of legal changes swept the Indian archipelago of Lakshadweep in May 2021, it led to a simmering disgruntlement among its locals. They believe that these regulations do not reflect its social, political and environmental realities. 

The locals feel bitter about the new draft statute for the Lakshadweep Development Authority (LDA), which they think might have been issued at the behest of ‘real estate interests’, seeking to oust the small holdings of property owned by the islanders, a majority of them (94.8% as per the 2011 census) belonging to the Scheduled Tribes.

Hundreds of islanders had written to the new administrator, demanding that the nominated ruling, which gives 'provision for the orderly and progressive development of land in both urban and rural areas and to preserve and improve the amenities thereof; for the grant of permission to develop land and for other powers of control over the use of land; to confer additional powers in respect of the acquisition and development of land for planning; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid' be withdrawn, even though the government has been wanting new developments to take place. According to an Op-ed, by S Anandan, in The Hindu: ‘The regulation empowers the government, identified as the administrator, to constitute Planning and Development Authorities under it to plan the development of any area identified as having bad layout or obsolete development. Only cantonment areas are exempted from this. An authority thus created would be a body corporate with a government-appointed chairman, a town planning officer, and three expert government nominees besides two local authority representatives.’

A construction boom, it seems, would be futile when there is ocean warming in the archipelago. Since 1998, its reefs have experienced at least two additional coral mass mortalities. As per an article by Rohan Arthur in Scroll: 'Unseasonal storms of ferocious intensity are also increasing in their frequency. Since 2014, a highly lucrative commercial reef fishing has taken hold on the islands, and it is emptying the reef of all its predatory fish and some large herbivores.'

That’s why, the islanders have opposed this move, as the ecologically fragile islands are also thickly populated and tiny. The largest of its inhabited islands is Androth, with a landmass of 4.9 sq km area, where the density of population is 2,312 per sq km. 

As the proposals bring ‘transferable development rights’, such as real estate development concepts, locals fear that they might be forced to immigrate en masse.

There have been other laws enacted such as the removal of restrictions for the use of alcohol, deputing government servants on fishing boats for intelligence, intensifying checking of passenger boats reaching the islands, mandating scientific disposal of the tender coconut shell, tree leaves, coconut husk, coconut shell, and trunk, instead of burial.

The new administrator of the union territory, Praful Khoda Patel, a BJP leader, who formerly served as a home minister under Narendra Modi, during his term as Gujarat chief minister, has had a controversial track record. In his past, there were allegations pitted against him, which include unduly influencing Kannan Gopinathan, collector for Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and other election officials, during previous elections, forcibly taking over of seafront owned by adivasi fishing communities, and instigation of suicide of tribal rights advocate and Lok Sabha MP Mohanbhai Sanjibhai Delkar, in February 2021.

Since his appointment in the archipelago in December 2020, he has led a full scale assault on the local Muslim population, that reflects his image as a kind of a colonial leader. In an unpardonable way, he has banned meat consumption, made local dairy products unlawful, shut anganwadis, ordered razing of infrastructure, and invoked draconian laws and curfews to gag, bully the opposition. 

The new law, which also includes a clause known as Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, prohibits slaughter of cattle and beef, and allows the authorities to confiscate beef, or beef products, with violators culpable to get prison terms of up to 10 years, and monetary fines of up to 5 lakh rupees. Even slaughter of other animals will require prior permission, and non-vegetarian food has been removed from school menus too. It has heightened anger among the local Muslims, who constitute ninety percent of the population. Furthermore, the new draft of Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation 2021 prevents those who have more than two children from contesting panchayat elections. The administration also dismissed hundreds of contractual and casual workers, employed by government offices, that included termination of mid-day meal workers, physical education teachers, marine wildlife protection watchers etc.

After ordering closure of local dairy farms, and instructing livestock to be auctioned, the new administrator, allowed Amul, one of the largest dairy cooperatives, known to be closely affiliated with Sangh Parivar, to open up shop in the islands, starting with its headquarters in Kavaratti. The move has directly affected local residents, for whom livestock-dairy are the second biggest source of income after fishing. On Twitter, they had launched a campaign #BoycottAmul to protest the move, and also initiated a twelve day mass hunger strike.

In its high-handedness and anti-democratic moves, the administration also invoked the Coast Guard Act, to demolish temporary sheds built by fishermen to store their equipment on the shore, which had been built with official permission. During cyclone Tauktae in May 2021, the fishing gear including boat engine and nets were set on fire by the authorities as well, resulting in fishermen losing their livelihood.

Many homes and public amenities are slated to be demolished for road widening, synced with ‘National Highway standards’, in a place where traffic is minimal, as low number of vehicles ply on the roads.

The administration, in its brazenness, has even used the Goonda Act to quell opposition to its policies, including people who had erected banners protesting the Centre’s CAA/NRC laws earlier. But, as the archipelago has the lowest rate of crime in India, and perhaps in the world, it is apparent that the real intent is to put brakes on the dissent stemming from the locals. All this scenario reflects a Hindutva enterprise plaguing the corridors of a Muslim majority region. The regime has also ordered to stop all freight transit to Lakshadweep from Beypore and Kochi port in Kerala, severing traditional ties of the Malayalam-speaking archipelago with Kerela, thereby threatening the cultural ethos and social mores. 

The troubles of the archipelago have been spelled out, although the people have been scared of these absurd laws, and they feel victimised by an onslaught. According to Elamaram Kareem, a parliamentarian from Kerala, the real disguised plan is for disentangling the island’s historical connection to Kerala, and divert all island-related traffic to Mangalore, an RSS stronghold in BJP-ruled Karnataka. As a reaction, the state assembly of Kerala, passed a unanimous resolution for the administrator to be recalled from his post.

In the past, Lakshadweep had flourished under the protected conditions, as per capita income is higher the Indian average, the literacy rate is 92%, which is much higher than India’s average of 74%. 

Neighbouring Maldives, in its media, like the overseas peers, described the developments as an attempt at ‘ethnic cleansing’, and a ‘land grab’, to clear the way for tourism corporates, from the Indian mainland. To Maldives, Lakshadweep is not only an expansion of the Maldivian North, but also a place with which they share real historic linkages. For instance, the people of Lakshadweep  continue to identify the ‘National Day’ back when the Thakurufaanu brothers from the north of Maldives liberated the nation from the Portuguese, in the second half of the 16th century. 

The Times of Addu, a Maldivian portal, even described the latest developments as an attempt ‘for an autocratic rule in Minicoy’. According to Maldivians, the present population of Minicoy, an island in Lakshadweep, is descended from two Maldivan princesses named Kambo Ranin and Kohorathu Kamana. It shows a sympathetic perspective from the neighbour, which had even called a recent proposal of a consulate opening in Maldives, as akin to Indian occupation, claiming it to be part of an Indian military facility.


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