NEW DELHI: Locals in India’s Muslim-majority archipelago of Lakshadweep, near the southern state of Kerala, on Wednesday decried a move to ban meat items from midday meals in schools, terming the measure and other controversial reforms as “anti-culture.”
On Tuesday, the administration in the usually tranquil group of islands urged the Kerala High Court (KHC) to lift a June 22 stay on two orders introduced in Lakshadweep by the Union Territory’s (UT) new administrator, Praful Khoda Patel.
These include removing beef and other meat items from midday meals served at public schools and the closure of dairy farms.
Locals are complaining that the latest policies initiated by Patel are blatantly anti-Muslim and threaten the peace of the archipelago, accusing the government of “playing politics.”
“Children have been given high-protein, non-vegetarian food for years, which comes under the budget. Then why ban them?” Dr. P. Koya, former provincial commissioner and a leader of the “Save Lakshadweep Campaign,” told Arab News.
“There is some motivation behind the move. Why were no local stakeholders taken into confidence? This is a disrespect to democracy,” Dr. Koya said, adding that the administration “does not have a scientific mind.”
Local officials were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Wednesday.
However, on Tuesday, the administration justified the meat ban by saying that islanders needed more fruit and dry fruits.
“As meat and chicken are normally part of the regular menu in almost all Lakshadweep families, the UT administration decided to omit them and instead provide fruit and dry fruit, which are consumed less by the islanders,” the government told the KHC.
Dr. Koya rejected the reasoning, arguing: “How can you replace high-protein meat dishes with fruits? I feel the administrator is implementing the agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by banning beef and provoking the local population.”
Lakshadweep is a UT run by an administrator appointed by the central government.
Only 10 of its 36 islands, which are spread across a 32-square-km area in the Arabian Sea, are inhabited.
Muslims account for over 95 percent of the islands’ 70,000-strong population. Kerala, the closest Indian state, is 240 km away.
Since India’s independence in 1947, the archipelago administration was overseen by a bureaucrat until December last year, when the ruling BJP government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appointed 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.
These include a proposed ban on the slaughter of cows and the consumption of beef across the archipelago; a 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, 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.
The proposals led to widespread discontent, with experts saying the latest reforms are a “cultural attack” on the Muslim majority region.
“Lakshadweep residents are 100 percent meat-eaters. Their eating habits have evolved over generations. It is a cultural attack. Forced vegetarianism is part of the right-wing Hindu majoritarian agenda,” K. A. Shaji, a political analyst in Kerala, told Arab News.
Several also questioned the closure of dairy farms.
“The only plausible reason for this closure is that the administrator wants to promote dairy products at the cost of locals,” former chief of the local administration, Hassan Bodumukka, from the Minicoy island, told Arab News.
In its counter-affidavit submitted to the KHC, the administration said it wanted to close the two government-run dairy farms because they were “suffering losses and catered to only a few people.”
Bodumukka rejected the argument, claiming that poor economic returns were an issue across all sectors.
“Tell me which government enterprise is running in profit — be it railways or airways or any other ventures — they are meant to serve people, not to earn a profit,” the former provincial councillor said.
He accused authorities of a “hidden agenda” for pushing through with the reforms.
“Since it’s a Muslim majority area and we all know the anti-minority agenda of the BJP. They just want to consolidate majoritarian politics at the cost of the people of the island,” Bodumukka added.
Dr. Koya agreed, adding that “people would challenge these changes,” which “threaten” the islands’ identity.
“We will go up to the Supreme Court to defend the identity of the islands. We will fight with all our strength to save it,” he said.