India: Political gale hits Lakshadweep archipelago

MPs Hibi Eden and TN Prathapan kerala lakshadweep
MPs Hibi Eden and TN Prathapan protest demanding the Indian president to urgently call back the administrator Praful Khoda Patel, in front of the Lakshadweep Administration office in Kochi, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Image Credit: PTI

Thiruvananthapuram: Visualise a peaceful archipelago of three dozen islands in the Arabian sea, only 10 of them inhabited, ensconced in crystal clear waters, to the south-west corner of India’s mainland, with one of the islands, Bangaram a popular tourist destination. Until the other day they would quickly kindle thoughts of what Macao is to China, Bali to Indonesia or Phuket to Thailand.

But for India, a disruptive gust of political gale has lashed the group of islands over the past six months, getting the 65,000-odd people on the island to rise up in protest over the union territory’s new administrator Praful Khoda Patel over a slew of ‘development’ proposals he is initiating on the island. Patel was briefly the minister of state for home in Gujarat when Narendra Modi was Gujarat chief minister.

The islands strewn in the Arabian Sea, some 200-440 km from the Malabar coast in Kerala, have several specialties – the crime rate is near zero, it is India’s smallest union territory, the population is mostly Muslim, has only one district, a single member of parliament, and for legal purposes it comes under the jurisdiction of the Kerala High Court at Kochi. Besides all that, it was one place in India that did not have a single COVID-19 patient until early this year.

That tranquil and laidback picture has been turned on its head, and this week the little-known archipelago has been the point of discussion even on mainland India, with television channels and social media actively discussing the disquiet in Lakshadweep.

Administrator blamed

Much of the trouble appears to be rooted in the choice of the new administrator, who happens to be the first full-time politician to hold that post after some three dozen administrators in the past, most of who were from India’s administrative or police forces, who had knowledge of tribal communities like the one in Lakshadweep.

Protestors say Patel is different from his predecessors, and the discontent for the islanders emanate mainly from the Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority (LDA) proposal. Residents fear it is a sly move to grab their land and hand it over to real estate interests in the name of development.

Lakshadweep thumbnail

■ An archipelago in the Arabian Sea, 200-440 km off the Malabar coast.

■ Capital: Kavaratti.

■ A union territory of India, having one district.

■ Lakshadweep means a hundred thousand islands in Malayalam. But the archipelago has only 36 islands, 10 of them inhabited. One of them is Bangaram, a tourism destination. One of the 36 islands, Parali, is being submerged in the sea.

■ Population, 2011: 64,473

■ Past rulers include the Arackal family from Kerala, Tipu Sultan and the British.

■ The union territory of Lakshadweep was formed in 1956.

■ Main occupations: Fishing, coconut farming, dairying.

■ Member of parliament: Mohammed Faizal, Nationalist Congress Party.

None less than the island’s lone MP, Mohammed Faizal of the Nationalist Congress Party is leading the protest against the administrator. Faizal says even he can’t get the administrator on the phone, saying such has been the nature of Patel’s decisions for the islands, without consultations.

“The administrator is almost always in Daman, and it is difficult even for me to contact him on telephone”, Faizal has said multiple times.

Key points

Faizal and local residents are livid over the manner in which the new administrator has run riot with decisions without consulting them, particularly over five proposals.

The LDA is what angers them most. They point out that the regulation empowers 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”. This, they say, is a way to grab private properties.

Then there is the Anti-Social Activities Regulation Bill 2021, much like the Goondas Act prevailing on the mainland, though there is hardly any crime on the islands and its lone jail is empty. Islanders fear this is a ruse to brand local people as goons and imprison them.

The third point of contention is the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation and Regulation 2021, which literally bans cow slaughter in a place where beef is widely consumed and people have an agrarian lifestyle rooted in fishing and dairying. For a start, temporary staff in the animal husbandry department have been fired.

Even more surprising is a move to make alcohol available on the islands, whose Muslim population presently has a self-imposed prohibition, except on one island, Bangaram, which is a popular tourist destination.

And finally there is a clause in the Panchayat Regulation that those with more than two children cannot contest panchayat elections.

Handle with care

Parakode Unnikrishnan, a senior journalist who has worked and lived in Lakshadweep in the 1980s feels the secret of the tranquility of the islands was “India’s careful handling of the archipelago by deputing seasoned bureaucrats who were sensitive to the culture of the islanders”.

“The islands have benefitted from significant funding from the federal government, and the help of skilled services from the mainland, from teachers to other government officials”, Unnikrishnan told Gulf News, adding that it needed special care to ensure that the delicate social and cultural history of Lakshadweep was protected.

Stormy days

For now, the islands are witnessing stormy days. Mohammed Faizal says he has met NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who has made a presentation on the matter for the federal government and is awaiting a meeting with the prime minister.

The reverberations are playing out in Kerala, with traditional and social media as well as the film fraternity in the state raising their voices for Lakshadweep’s residents. BJP leaders in Kerala have been defending the party’s choice of administrator and his actions in Lakshadweep, but ironically there has been opposition to Patel’s actions in the BJP unit in Lakshadweep.