NEW DELHI: In a rare show of discontent on the Lakshadweep islands, off the coast of the southern Indian state of Kerala, locals are complaining about a string of policies initiated by a new administrator appointed five months ago.
They warn that the changes, seen by some as blatantly anti-Muslim, threaten the peace and “COVID-free status” of the Muslim-majority archipelago.
Lakshadweep is a union territory run by an administrator appointed by the central government. Only 10 of its 36 islands, which are spread across a 32-square-kilometer area in the Arabian Sea, are inhabited. Muslims account for 93 percent of the islands’ 70,000-strong population. Kerala, the closest Indian state, is 240 kilometers away.
Since India’s independence in 1947 the administration of the archipelago was always overseen by a bureaucrat, until December last year when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appointed former politician Praful Khoda Patel as its administrator. Patel was Modi’s home minister in the western Indian state of Gujarat before Modi became prime minister in 2014.
In the five months since taking up his position, Patel has announced a series of decisions that have sparked controversy, such as a proposed ban on the slaughter of cows and the consumption of beef; draft legislation that would disqualify people with more than two children from contesting local elections; and the introduction in January of the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act (PASA), a draconian law under which individuals can be detained, without any public disclosure, for up to a year.
Another contentious proposal from his office is the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021, a draft law that gives the administrator the power to remove or relocate islanders from their properties if required by planning or development activities.
Locals are outraged by what they see as the “majoritarian mindset” behind the policies, and Patel is facing opposition from islanders and politicians in Lakshadweep and neighboring Kerala.
“There is a lot of anger among locals over decisions taken by the administrator,” Dr. Ayshabi Kalpeni, chief medical officer at the Life Care Hospital in Malappuram, Kerala, told Arab News.
“Our existence has come to be questioned with these decisions and we feel that the government is working with the same majoritarian mindset here as it is working elsewhere in the country.”
She also questioned Patel’s decision to open up the islands to tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic that is raging across the country.
“(Lakshadweep) did not have a single coronavirus case in the past year but since Patel allowed tourists to visit … it has over 7,000 cases and scores of deaths,” Kalpeni said.
It is imperative that the number of infections is reduced, she said, because Lakshadweep does not have critical healthcare facilities; patients who require ventilators or other advanced forms of treatment have to be flown to Kerala.
“By the time you airlift the patient and take them to a hospital on the mainland, crucial time is lost; that’s why many people have lost their lives,” she added.
According to media reports, nearly 2,000 local residents have been removed from public roles in the past few months. Kalpeni said this has added to the increasing mood of discontent on the islands.
“The way the government is trying to settle outsiders in Kashmir, I feel a similar design is at work on the islands,” she added.
Some have also questioned the need for the PASA legislation. Authorities argue that it is designed to control antisocial and anti-national activities, but Anees Nasir, president of the Lakshadweep Student Association, said that the territory has a very low crime rate and its jail is nearly empty.
“The act has injected a great sense of fear in us, and we fear we might be detained if we speak against the policies,” he told Arab News. “What is the need for an act like PASA in Lakshadweep where the crime rate is negligible?
“Some of the proposed regulations are a challenge to our way of life on the islands.”
Lakshadweep’s only Muslim parliamentarian, Mohammed Faizal, agreed and told Arab News: “The administrator wants to create fear among people so that they cannot protest against the new land laws.
“What is the need for PASA in a peaceful region like Lakshadweep, and why does the government want to ban beef in a Muslim-majority area?”
Similar sentiments are echoed by politicians and activists in Kerala who, along with islanders, have launched a “Save Lakshadweep” campaign.
“The whole idea of the BJP is to change the demography of Lakshadweep and create another Kashmir in southern India,” Tasleem Rehmani, a member of the Kerala-based Muslim Political Council of India, told Arab News.
The BJP denied the allegations.
“This is a hate campaign by Kerala-based parties and there is nothing wrong in the administrative reforms because the locals themselves were demanding development for the past 10 years,” K. Surendran, the BJP’s president in Kerala, told Arab News.
“There is no beef ban in Lakshadweep; the meat is only banned in the noon meal for school students on the advice of experts.”
However, opponents and analysts have described the recent proposals as “unilateral, authoritarian, undemocratic and anti-Muslim.”
“The (proposed) cow-slaughter ban is a clear expression of Patel’s vindictive agenda targeting Muslims,” K. A. Shaji, a political analyst in Kerala, told Arab News. “The local community is angry but helpless.
“I do believe this is a move to weaken the Muslim demography on the islands and to open up the islands to private corporations from the mainland.”