Understanding the discontent in Lakshadweep: An explainer
The issue hit the national headlines after Congress and Communist Party of India-Marxist MPs wrote to the President urging him to recall the administrator. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin are among several leaders who have demanded Patel’s recall
Lakshadweep — an archipelago in Arabian Sea, known for its pristine beaches and natural surroundings — is in the eye of a political storm after the Union Territory’s new administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, issued a set of orders and brought in new rules and regulations, sparking a local backlash.
The issue hit the national headlines after Congress and Communist Party of India-Marxist MPs wrote to the President urging him to recall the administrator. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin are among several national leaders who have demanded Patel’s recall.
Though local residents have been protesting over new norms for last three months, it gained attention after they started receiving support from neighbouring states, especially from Kerala that shares linguistic and cultural ties with the group of islands. Besides politicians, many artists and cine actors also joined what has become a social media storm — “#save Lakshadweep campaign”.
Critics see new regulations as a threat to cultural identity of inhabitants (the UT has close to 95% Muslim population with Scheduled Tribes status) and sensitive ecology of the region. The majority of Muslims belong to Shafi School of the Sunni Sect. According to 2011 census, the population of the archipelago is 64,473. Among 37-odd islands, only ten are inhabited. Malayalam is spoken in all the islands except Minicoy where people speak Mahl which is written in Divehi script and is spoken in Maldives also.
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However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) insists that it is fundamentalist forces who are instigating trouble and many leaders from Kerala are supporting them due to their aversion towards saffron forces. They say the “reforms” — critics call it draconian orders — were introduced to develop the island and check growing drug and illicit arms trade in some of the uninhabited islands. The ruling party also defends the orders by citing the tourism potential of the area, and claim that once “developed”, it will even beat Maldives in terms of appeal.
Island collector S Askar Ali who addressed newsmen in Kochi on Thursday said there was a concerted misinformation campaign against the administration by some vested interests and people of the archipelago will support the initiative to develop the area and bring more employment opportunities. In the backdrop of the raging controversy, the HT looks at some of the key issues agitating residents:
The latest Goonda Act (prevention of anti-social activities regulation) meant to detain a person up to one year in jail without legal representation is a bone of contention. Residents allege that the new law is unnecessary and it is meant to detain people without valid reasons and it will create a fear psychosis. The archipelago has the lowest crime rate in the country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (2019) report, the island had zero cases of major crimes such as rape, murder, kidnapping and dacoity. The number of violent incidents reported in the island was 16 in 2019 and 13 cases related to liquor and drug-related cases.
Since the island has a negligible crime rate, it is natural the new act will raise suspicion. “The act is quite unwarranted and uncalled for. How can you impose such a draconian law on peace-loving people? Such a law will silence even some of the popular protests and instil fear in the minds of people. It is intended to scare people,” said Kavaratti panchayat president Abdul Khadar. But the collector says crime rate is going up steadily and some young residents are attracted to thriving drug trade. He cited seizure of ₹3,000 crore worth hasish as an instance of rising organised crime.
Lakashadweep Development Authority Regulation
Locals allege that this regulation will give sweeping powers to the administrator to take over land forcefully, relocate people and proposes harsh punishment to those who oppose it. They fear it will impinge their right to possess and retain their property. The new law also empowers the administration to pick up any land for construction activities, mining and other operations defined under development activities, critics allege.
They also add that the regulation will impede the livelihood of traditional fishermen and claimed that two weeks back, fishermen sheds on coastline were demolished, on the ground that they violated coastal laws and other provisions. Fishing is one of the main revenue earners of the archipelago. “These shed were built under the exemption provided by earlier administrators. We were not given even warning about the demolition,” said a traditional fisherman Abdulla Koya. But the collector maintained that only illegal encroachments were demolished.
Two child norm and bar on local body election
The draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation Act 2021 says that if a resident has more than two children, he can’t contest in local body elections. Islanders say it will rob many of their right to contest in elections. It also says some of the existing members will also come under the purview of the act.
“Among the rural populace, birth rate is quite high even in the mainland. It is a ploy to restrict numbers of island population. Such draconian laws won’t serve any purpose,” said KK Ashraf, a resident of Minicoy, the second biggest island after Andrott. The collector said the rule change was being proposed to provide incentive for family planning.
Surge in Covid-19 cases
Not a single case of Covid-19 was reported from the island till December 2020. Strict surveillance and quarantine facilities at Kochi were main reasons for it. But now test positivity rate is more than 10% in the island. Locals say changes in quarantine policy and relaxation of travel norms resulted in the surge in cases, and are worried because the island doesn’t have a medical college or super specialty hospital. Usually, in an emergency situation, the island administration airlifts patients to Kochi or Kozhikode but since cases are high in Kerala also, they have limited choice. Local leaders squarely blame the new administration for relaxing norms. But the collector says there were 26 medical evacuations and death rate is still very low in the island.
Ban on slaughter without certificate
The administration has proposed a new bill, Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Act, which says all animals for slaughter should be certified by a competent authority and it should be culled at places specified for it. Slaughtering animals without a certificate will be an offence punishable with one-year jail and a fine of ₹10,000 or both. Besides this, beef has been taken out of the menu of mid-day meal scheme for students.
Residents say beef and fish were there on the menu since the midday meal scheme started in schools more than a decade ago. But those who support the new regulation say usually non-vegetarian items, other than eggs, don’t figure in the menu of midday meal scheme. However, fish and chicken still remain on the menu.
The issue has assumed a strong religious-political flavour given the predominantly Muslim population of the islands, and the fact that beef is a part of everyday eating habits. Critics see the regulation as an attempt by the BJP to impose its political and ideological worldview on a culturally distinct region.
Plan to allow liquor
Except Bangaram island, which houses a big resort, liquor is not allowed anywhere on the island. In the resort also, it is only allowed to foreign tourists. But the administration is now planning liquor permits in three more islands, in order to promote tourism. Islanders say free flow of liquor will induce local people also and it will affect their culture. But people who support the move say in many areas people are brewing local liquor freely and there was no harm in licensing it.
Change in SOP in emergency situation
Since the island doesn’t have a medical college or super specialty hospitals, usually serious patients are airlifted to either Kochi or Kozhikode. Usually the chief medical officer of the island recommends such airlifts. Two choppers are used for this. But this standard operating procedure has been changed by the administration. Now a four-member committee will go through air lifting requests and take a decision. It also says uncomplicated cases can be sent by ships. Usually ships cover 450-odd kms in 14-18 hours while choppers take 30 minutes. Local residents say changes in SOP will put lives of serious patients in danger.
Termination of contract employees
Many people were working in various departments under the Union government for years together on contract basis. Locals allege that a majority of contract employees were terminated. And many of the existing employees were transferred, with new norms having been introduced to check their performance. People living with their families said new norms were a bolt from the blue and they were dislocated.
With a range of political, policy and administrative measures, Lakshadweep’s new administrator has sought to redefine the make up of the Union Territory. But as the response of local communities, local political stakeholders, neighbouring states and opposition parties show, there will be resistance. How the Centre navigates these tensions will be a real test.