The discontent among the people of the Lakshadweep islands in the last few months over a bunch of administrative and policy measures unilaterally adopted by Praful Khoda Patel, the Union Territory’s new Administrator, has become a cause for concern for the country and a point of contention between the opposition parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre.
Praful Patel, who had earlier served as Home Minister of Gujarat under Narendra Modi when he was the Chief Minister of the State, is the Administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu. He was given additional charge of Lakshadweep on December 5, 2020 following the death of the then Administrator Dineshwar Sharma.
Opposition leaders allege that ever since his first visit to the islands, Praful Patel has acted like a political appointee of the BJP-led Central government. The office of the Administrator is usually held by civil servants, a tradition which BJP governments have disregarded, they said.
According to them, Praful Patel’s very first act as Administrator was to unilaterally change the norm that travellers going to the island (from the mainland, primarily Kochi) and vice versa had to necessarily undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The change in this standard operating procedure (SOP) norms resulted in people entering the islands without taking proper COVID-related precautions. Lakshadweep was free of COVID-19 during the whole of 2020. But it witnessed a sharp rise in COVID-19 positive cases (over 6,600) in the first five months of 2021 alone, a reason for alarm in the thickly populated island territory with limited health care facilities and a total population of only around 70,000.
Other controversial measures of the Paful Khoda Patel administration since then include: (1) introduction of a draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation that gives the Administrator power to acquire any land for development and relocate people without allowing legal challenges against it and with provisions for harsh punishment to those who resist; (2) a ban on consumption, sale, storage and transport of beef products in the Muslim-majority island territory; (3) a ban on non-vegetarian food (“beef and chicken”) for noon-meal programme in schools; (4) disqualification of people with more than two children from contesting in panchayat elections; (5) introduction of an “anti-goonda Act” under which anyone could be held in jail for up to a year without a reason, with the potential for it to be misused in an island so far known for its very low crime rate; (6) allowing sale of liquor in resorts in populated islands, thus lifting the age-old restriction on the use of alcohol there; (7) demolition of a string of fishermen’s work sheds built along the coasts for alleged violation of coastal zone norms; and (8) efforts to transfer movement of freight from Lakshadweep to Mangalore port in BJP-ruled Karnataka instead of Kochi and Beypore ports in Kerala, with which the island territory has had historic trade and cultural links.
Protests are now increasing in the group of islands with an area of a mere 32 sq km that constitute India’s smallest Union Territory (U.T.), Kerala and many other southern States. The Chief Ministers of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have demanded the immediate withdrawal of the new Administrator by the President. Opposition politicians, cutting across party lines in Kerala, including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Leader of the Opposition V.D. Satheesan, several members of Parliament and the State Assembly, student and youth organisations, and prominent actors and social activists have condemned the new regulations in Lakshadweep as “damaging the cultural and political identity of the island” and “posing a threat to its fragile ecology”.
In a letter to Prime Minister Modi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the new rules seek to penalise dissent and undermine grassroot democracy in Lakshadweep and that they should be withdrawn. “The people of Lakshadweep deserve a developmental vision that respects their way of life and reflects their aspirations,” he said in the letter, requesting the Prime Minister’s intervention.
Describing the new regulations as “an insidious attempt to invest autocratic powers in the Union Territory’s administration” and the “gross overreach of the Union government through their appointee”, Congress MP Sashi Tharoor said on Twitter: “You’d think the BJP would finish destroying what they won electorally first, before moving on to destroy places they have no presence in. But it seems their motto is, if it ain’t broke, break it.”
Several other opposition leaders from Lakshadweep and Kerala, including Lakshadweep MP Mohammed Faizal (Nationalist Congress Party), and his colleagues from Kerala Elamaram Kareem of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), E.T. Mohammed Basheer (Muslim League), T.N. Prathapan, Iby Eden and K.C. Venugopal (all Congress) have sought the intervention of President Ram Nath Kovind for the recall of Administrator Praful Khoda Patel.
Pointedly referring to the Administrator’s moves as having “an ulterior motive to destroy the traditional life and cultural diversity of the island”, Rajya Sabha MP and former Industries Minister of Kerala Elamaram Kareem said in a letter to the President: “All the regulations that have been promulgated since his assuming office are without an iota of consideration towards the people or their choice of food and livelihood. The undemocratic and anti-people regulation in the name of Animal Preservation, which intends to ban slaughter, transportation, selling or buying of beef products, is one among such orders. This is a blatant onslaught on the people, who depend upon dairying and growing of bovines as a means of livelihood. Neither the island community nor the local bodies on the island ever raised such a demand and they were never consulted during such regulations being framed.”
Kareem, who had earlier represented the Beypore constituency in the Kerala Assembly, also said that “the administration has decided that the islanders should no longer rely on Beypore port for freight transport. Instead, they should depend on Mangalore port for this purpose. The decision will also adversely affect Beypore, which has been closely associated with the island since decades. It is alleged that the decision is aimed at severing Lakshadweep’s ties with Kerala.”
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan described the Administrator’s moves as a deliberate, malicious attempt to distort the links between Kerala and the Union territory. “News reports from Lakshwadeep are quite serious. Challenges imposed on their lives, livelihoods and culture cannot be accepted. Kerala has a strong relationship, a long history of cooperation with Lakshadweep. I unequivocally condemn devious efforts to thwart it,” he said.
He also said that the Kerala Assembly will pass a common resolution on the problems faced by the people of Lakshadweep because of the measures adopted by the new Administrator. “The people of Kerala have strong empathy with the sentiments of the Lakshadweep people. They are our brothers,” he said.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, NCP leader Sharad Pawar were among those who urged Prime Minister Modi to remove the Lakshadweep Administrator for his “anti-people” policies.
After a long silence, on May 27, a day when disapproval became sharp all over India and when opposition MPs such as Binoy Viswom, the Communist Party of India’s Rajya Sabha leader, were complaining that they were being denied entry into the island territory, the Lakshadweep administration finally came out with an official response, with the Collector, S. Asker Ali, holding a press conference in Kochi, amidst street protests.
The Collector said the allegations against the administration were misguided and motivated, being raised not by the people of Lakshadweep but mainly by “outsiders, vested interests and those involved in illegal businesses”. He said the steps taken were to “lay the foundation for the future development of the islands in a planned way to develop it as a tourism destination just like the nearby Maldives in two decades.” However, the rationale he presented for the introduction of many of the new administrative and policy measures was not convincing. For instance, according to him, “the two-child ban” on people contesting panchayat elections was “to encourage family planning and to empower women in the island”, and “the norm will be applicable only to those who have two children after the regulation is notified”.
Similarly, liquor sale is to be “confined only to tourists inside resorts”, the beef ban “is a policy decision” and “many States in the country have implemented cow protection laws” and “only those with illegal businesses are behind the propaganda against the decision”. Moreover, “there is no ban on non-vegetarian food for school children” and the administration chose fish and eggs, which are easily available in the island and is not costly like chicken, which must be brought from the mainland. (He refrained from mentioning the word “beef”, which is one of the preferred food of the majority in the island). The anti-goonda law was being implemented considering the future security of Lakshadweep because, he said, even recently, “300 kg heroin and five AK 47 rifles were confiscated by the Indian Coast Guard from a fishing boat that was passing by one of the islands” even though the island territory “is well known for its low crime rate.”
Most importantly, the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation aimed “to bring development” because “even after 73 years of Independence, development is negligible in Lakshadweep, while Maldives, the island country nearby, has become a tourism hub, and the administration’s aim is to develop Lakshadweep too like that.’
The Central government has so far maintained a stoic silence on the issue and on the troubles brewing in Lakshadweep. The key question raised by the opposition leaders is whether the new Administrator was taking these measures of his own volition or at the behest of the BJP government at the Centre.