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Published on: June 14, 2021, 5:38 p.m.
Turmoil in paradise
  • Local inhabitants and environmentalists see the new regulations as a threat to the cultural identity of inhabitants and the fragile ecology of the islands

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

Lakshadweep, an idyllic archipelago of 36 islands, has been simmering with tension over a raft of controversial proposals ranging from a beef ban to the nod to liquor sale. The Union Territory (UT) largely has a Muslim population and the efforts to convert it into a popular holiday destination like the Maldives has raised the hackles of local inhabitants and environmentalists, who see the new regulations as a threat to the cultural identity of inhabitants and the fragile ecology of the islands.

This is not the first time that Lakshadweep has shot into limelight for entirely wrong reasons. As Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi had visited the archipelago along with his family and friends for a holiday. There were reports that India’s premier warship, INS Virat, was used to transport the Gandhis and deployed at their service for 10 days.

Of late, local residents have protested on beaches of Lakshwadeep and even underwater with placards. Many MPs, bureaucrats and prominent voices have spoken up against the changes. The Kerala assembly has even passed a unanimous resolution seeking the recall of the administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, who is in the eye of the storm. 

A political confidante of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Gujarat, Patel took over as the new administrator of Lakshadweep in December last year, following the death of Dineshwar Sharma, a former bureaucrat in the same month. He is also the administrator of the UT of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu.

At the centre of the row is the Anti-social Activities Regulation bill, 2021, or the goonda act in the islands’ territory, where the crime rate is already low. 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. Local residents, 95 per cent of them Muslims with Scheduled Tribes status, fear that the new law is aimed at subjugating them. 

 Developing a holiday destination

The controversial proposals also include disqualification of people with more than two children, who wish to contest the village council elections. The islanders contend that it will rob many of their right to contest in elections.

The administration has been accused of to taking over land belonging to the locals for the purpose of development. The local government says that the orders are being introduced for the development of the islands into a popular holiday destination. To attract tourists of all variety, hotels have demanded that they be allowed to serve liquor. Except Bangaram island, Lakshadweep is a non-alcoholic zone due to its Muslim-majority population. With the administration now planning liquor permits in three more islands, locals fear that it will affect their culture.

According to the 2011 census, the population of the archipelago was 64,473. Among 37-odd islands, only 10 are inhabited. On Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, locals allege that this will give sweeping powers to the administrator to take over their land forcefully. They also fear that the regulation will impede the livelihood of traditional fishermen. Fishing is one of the main revenue generators for the people of Lakshadweep.

Of late, there has been a surge in Covid-19 infections in the islands. Not a single case of Covid-19 was reported from the island till December 2020, after which the positivity rate has surged to more than 10 per cent. Locals say that the dilution in the local norms has led to a massive surge in daily cases of corona-virus disease. 

The Centre has jumped to the rescue of Patel and said that the controversy is a result of Patel’s efforts to end the ‘corrupt practices’ involving local politicians and usher in development there. However, Patel’s ham-handed practices are generating a lot of unwarranted controversy. Recently, Aisha Sultana, a budding film-maker from Lakshwadeep, was named in a case of sedition and hate speech for her comments criticising Patel’s handling of the Covid situation and alleging that the Centre had used a ‘bio-weapon’ in the islands. The FIR was filed on the complaint of the BJP’s chief in the Union Territory.

During a news debate on a regional channel, Aisha Sultana blamed Covid cases in the island on Patel’s decisions. This was the first time that the Administrator has been accused by protesters, including Lakshadweep Parliamentarian Mohammed Faizal, of doing away with quarantine protocols that were a must for people to enter Lakshadweep.

“Lakshadweep had zero cases of Covid-19. Now it is reporting a daily spike of 100 cases. What the Centre has deployed is a bio-weapon,” Sultana had said on a Malayalam TV debate earlier this week. The comment had BJP workers protesting on the streets; with the BJP’s Lakshadweep chief complaining to the police that her ‘anti-national’ comments are ‘tarnishing the patriotic image of the Central government’. The case has drawn strong reactions on the social media.

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