The Indian archipelago’s indigenous population fear eviction after the BJP-led administration pushed a series of draconian laws critics say threaten the cultural identity of the island and its fragile ecology.
On the night of April 26, the week India’s daily coronavirus caseload crossed the 400,000 tally, at least 90 makeshift fishermen sheds were demolished in Kavaratti, the capital of Lakshadweep, an island group in the Arabian Sea.
45-year-old Alikkoya, a fisherman from India’s protected indigenous community, was heartbroken to watch his livelihood razed. Although his petition to stop the demolition is being heard in the Kerala High Court, the sheds were levelled overnight to meet the orders of the new administrator.
“We are the owners of this land, not the administration,” says Alikkoya, who appeared on a widely shared video where he laments the apathy of the officials that could push them into exile from their homeland.
Lakshadweep is an archipelago of 36 islands with about 64,000 people living in ten islands. Dweep is the smallest of the Union Territories (UT), an area controlled from New Delhi, with an overwhelming 97 percent Muslim population.
Unrest is brewing in the islands after a new political administrator was appointed by the Indian president, striking the precedent of filling the position with civil servants.
Praful Khoda Patel, who took additional charge of Lakshadweep last December, is a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and close aide of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Patel is accused of imposing a slew of laws that threaten the existence of the islanders.
People are living on the edge after the new policy draft called Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR) allows unchecked power to the administrator to alter, modify, remove, relocate, any islander, citing development projects. Critics of India’s Hindu nationalist government says it is yet another attempt to ‘occupy’ a Muslim-majority territory.
On the condition of anonymity, a government employee told TRT World that the proposed bill will turn natives into tenants.
“If we fail to pull down a building marked by the government for development by the prescribed date, they will penalise us with Rs 2 lakhs ($2,750) and Rs 20,000 ($275) will be charged each day if we delay paying the fine,” he said.
“LDAR is the worst. It means they want our land without us,” says Dr Muneer Manikfan, Vice-chairperson of Minicoy Panchayat, a local governing body. “It is a declaration of occupation”.
Administrator with a sinister past
Six months into his office, a number of Patel’s policies will abruptly change the character of the island.
He has terminated hundreds of temporary government staffers, banned animal slaughter, closed schools, disqualified candidates with two children from contesting elections, lifted a decades-long liquor ban, and imposed a draconian detention law.
Modi’s rival Rahul Gandhi joined scores of politicians, activists, artists and influential figures demanding Patel step down and revoke all laws that threaten Lakshadweep’s “rich heritage” and “peaceful lives”.
“We flagged the administrator's appointment early on but people never expected fascism would reach the island,” recalls Manikfan, amid growing resentment among the islanders.
The former Home Minister of Gujarat in Modi’s cabinet is also the administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, another Union Territory since 2016. He oversaw mass eviction of indigenous communities in the Daman and Diu coast to allegedly hand over the beaches to private resorts, a record that worries Manikfan.
Patel is also investigated for being named in the suicide note of Mohanbhai Sanjhibhai Delkar, the Member of Parliament from Dadra and Nagar Haveli. The tribal leader left a note that holds Patel responsible for “injustice” meted out to him.
Calls to three contact numbers of the Administrator went unanswered. Local politicians allege that the administrator rarely visits the island.
Abdul Kader, President of Kavaratti panchayat, told TRT World that the moment Patel set foot on the island, he was an agent of the BJP.
“In his first tour, he was offended by anti-CAA (India’s anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act) graffiti and directed police to arrest the people behind it”.
What has followed since is a series of draconian laws that has led to widespread resentment among people, including BJP leaders.
Gutting the public sector
Lakshadweep was one of the last human habitats unaffected by the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020. But two weeks after being appointed administrator, Patel dropped strict quarantine measures amid public opposition.
Kader and 30 others were arrested and kept under judicial custody for fourteen days for protesting against the reversed guidelines. By the time they got released, the virus had reached the island. According to the Covid bulletin released by the administration, the island now has about 7,364 positive cases with a total of 28 deaths.
A health department staff, on the condition of anonymity, said that “the administration is under-reporting the cases”.
“They are not doing contact tracing and conducting additional tests. Almost all houses in Kavaratti have a corona patient. Many people are under home quarantine”.
Mohammed Faisal, the only elected member of Parliament from Lakshadweep, told TRT World that the administration is also planning to lay off doctors, among all other government staff, who are hired on a contractual basis amid the pandemic. Nurses that protested for basic wages have been threatened with arrest under the Disaster Management Act.
“After the new administrator took charge, more than 500 contracts got terminated,” said a government employee who wished to remain anonymous.
There are about 9,600 government staff employed in various sectors in Lakshadweep. Of this, at least 5,500 are permanent staff and 4,100 are casual employees and contractual appointments.
“The majority of the residents of the island are depending on government jobs for survival. If there is a government employee in a house, he takes care of the financial responsibility of that house,” Faisal told TRT World.
Targeting culture, fear of expulsion
Lakshadweep lies in the centuries-old trade route that connected South India to West Asia and Europe. M Noushad, an editorial member of the online portal DweepDiary, says the ethnic diversity of Lakshadweep is unique and needs protection.
“The ethnic features and physical features of Minicoy residents are similar to Maldivians and Sri Lankans. The ethnicity of other islanders are similar to Mappilas in Malabar”.
About 94 percent of the population in the region are ‘Scheduled Tribes’ — communities in India with special rights to protect their culture and habitat. Noushad observes that the new development plan violates their constitutional rights.
Noushad is worried that the indiscriminate development plan neglects the ethnographic importance of Lakshadweep. “None of the reforms is with the consent of the people in Lakshadweep. This is an internal colonisation”.
The draft also ignores that the region is ecologically fragile with protected coral reefs. The previous administrator for Lakshadweep, Omesh Saigal, in a letter to the Home Minister, ripped the development plan stating it is “laughable” and called it unfit for the island.
“They should not be allowed to remain even for a moment even at the draft stage,” Saigal demanded in the letter.
“The draft talks about highways, tramways, railways, airports and canals. It should be known that the largest island in Lakshadweep has less than 5 square km area,” says Faseela Ibrahim, a lawyer. The 32-year-old, who hails from Minicoy, is worried the draft poses dangers to the life and liberty of natives and may cause forced migrations.
As many islanders are preparing to protest the law, another draconian bill, commonly called the ‘goonda act’, was introduced in January. It would allow a person to be detained for up to one year without trial to “maintain public order”.
“He is prepared to silence any resistance from people against these undemocratic policies,” claims Ibrahim. “These kinds of regulations have been used by fascist regimes to scuttle dissent and suppress any protest against the administration”.
Lakshadweep has the lowest crime rate in India with no heinous crimes registered in years. Ibrahim is among many who fear that empty jails will see occupancy rise as new laws criminalise the islanders.
The administrator has introduced Draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021 which bans beef, a customary dish in Lakshadweep’s rich cuisine, while lifting the liquor ban.
Under the act, no person can directly or indirectly sell, transport, offer for sale or buy beef or beef products in any form, with violators facing up to ten years in jail. According to a report, Dweep receives 10-12 vessels of cattle from the mainland each week, with each vessel carrying 20 cattle.
The beef ban is in alignment with the Hindu nationalist movement but BJP-led states like Goa or North Eastern states have no such restrictions. Manikfan finds it a refusal to respect the local cuisine.
The administrator also altered the menu prepared for school canteens, with chicken, beef and mutton dropped from the list. He replaced it with fish, egg and fruits.
“Beef is our traditional food. It is cheap and nutritious,” says Faisal. “Why can’t our children eat it?”
Growing call for self-governance
After an online campaign launched by the Lakshadweep Students Association, ‘Save Lakshadweep’ gained momentum, Lakshadweep collector Askar Ali flew to Kochi, 396 km away in a helicopter to conduct a press meet.
He was met by protesters who shared the islander’s sentiments, and he attempted to defend the administration’s so-called development policies.
“There is no tension on the Islands. It is also not representing the sentiments of the people. The administration is proactively considering the larger public interest,” he told the media.
He also justified the goonda act, saying there is reportedly presence of terrorist elements that justified the campaign.
The claims were immediately slammed by islanders. Fareedh Khan, a film producer from Lakshadweep, called Ali “the most hated person in Lakshadweep”.
Protesting the right-wing hate campaign, at least eight leaders of Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the ruling BJP’s youth wing, resigned from the party. Former general secretary of Yuva Morcha called the remarks of the collector “blatant lies”.
On one of the islands, Kiltan, at least 23 activists of Indian national congress party’s youth wing workers were arrested for burning the effigy of the collector for “maligning Lakshadweep”.
“Even 73 years after independence, people of Lakshadweep are still under the autocratic rule of administrators,” says C T Najmuddin, secretary of the Communist Party of India in Lakshadweep and deputy coordinator of the Save Lakshadweep Forum.
“Self-governance is the only solution for the Lakshadweep problem”.
Elected representatives are now decrying another controversial law that would prevent anyone who has more than two children from contesting elections.
Draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation will also roll back the limited powers of local bodies achieved in 2012 in matters of healthcare, agriculture, education, animal husbandry and fisheries.
Bodumukkagothi Hassan, District Panchayat president-cum-counsellor, unofficially called Lakshadweep Chief Minister, says the regulation will wipe out senior leaders from Dweep’s governance.
”Most of the elected members have more than two children and this will hurt Lakshadweep’s democracy,” Hassan told TRT World.
Islanders vow resistance
On May 23, the Department of Telecommunications banned at least two news reports by Dweep Diary.
First was a revolutionary song that asked the people of Lakshadweep to stand united and demand self-governance. The other was on an order to shut down government dairy farms and auction off the cattle, allegedly in a move to promote the sale of dairy products by Gujarat’s Amul India.
“We don’t want development that evicts our people,” says Faisal who is accused of leading the misinformation campaign by the collector. “We don’t want new roads without our consultation. There should be a democratic way, guided by orders of the supreme court”.
No islanders registered for the cattle auction, instead, they launched a boycott Amul campaign to discourage India’s largest dairy company from profiting off the people.
Political parties in Kerala are in queue to protest in front of the Lakshadweep Administrative Office in the state, which has intimate trade and cultural ties with the island. Lawmakers from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu have raised concerns about the discontent faced by islanders.
Save Lakshadweep Forum, formed last Saturday by all parties including the BJP’s Lakshadweep chapter, vow strong opposition against the administration to revoke the bills that would amount to “ethnic cleansing”.
For islanders like Alikkoya, their existence is resistance.
“The government is claiming that we encroached their land. We were here for generations. We were here even before India got independence.”
“We own this land.”