After Kashmir, Delhi Sets Sights On Another Muslim-Majority Region

Kozhikode (Kerala): Less than two years since the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), India’s only other Muslim-majority region, located 2,500 km to the southwest in the Arabian Sea, is witnessing the imposition of a series of unpopular measures by an unelected, New Delhi-appointed administration.

Since August 2019, J&K, now a union territory (UT), has been governed by an administration appointed by the Union government. Lakshadweep, an archipelago in the Arabian Sea, has always been governed directly by the Government of India through an administrator.

Praful Khoda Patel (in pink), seen here with Mohammed Faizal of the Nationalist Congress Party (in white), took charge as the administrator in December 2020.

Muslims comprise 96.58% of Lakshadweep’s population. In the six months since Praful Khoda Patel took charge as the administrator in December 2020, Lakshadweep’s administration has introduced draft bills and orders that local leaders call “unprecedented”, “shocking” and “mysterious” on account of their anticipated impact on the Constitutional rights, culture, customary food and livelihood practices of the islands’ people.

 

These decisions include:

  • A proposed new cow-protection law, which could significantly restrict the consumption of beef, with the objective of “animal preservation”, was introduced in February.

  • A proposed regulation to confer on the administrator extraordinary powers to acquire and develop land.

  • In February, mutton and chicken were removed from schools’ midday meal menus.

  • Three resorts were given liquor licences, reversing a 42-year-old liquor ban on the islands.

  • A proposed new law will prevent those having more than two children from contesting local body elections.

  • A proposed “goonda Act” can keep people in jail without trial, even when if no crime has been committed.

  • On 21 May, dairy farms run by the local government were ordered shut; all animals are to be auctioned by 31 May.

These measures have been widely deplored, the latest criticism coming from Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on 24 May. Calling the measures a challenge to the life and culture of the people of the islands, Vijayan said, “This is part of narrow interest, It is condemnable.”

Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) from Lakshadweep Mohammed Faizal of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and MPs from neighbouring Kerala wrote to President of India Ramnath Kovind seeking a rollback of the unilateral measures. Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP from Kerala Elamaram Kareem wrote, “All of the regulations were promulgated without an iota of consideration for the people or their food and livelihood.” Former Lakshadweep administrator Wajahat Habibullah told Article 14 some of the proposed measures were “absurd”.

The islanders were never consulted about any of the series of moves.

While the Lakshadweep Panchayats Regulation, 1994 says the UT administration “may” consult with the district panchayat on matters that fall under the state list or the concurrent list as per the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, the administrator did not seek their opinion, panchayat president Hassan Bodumukagothi told Article 14.

Bodumukagothi said that the administration’s proposed laws are “very strange”, and that in his three decades as a politician, this is the first time he has seen an administrator take such “unilateral” decisions.

Located 287 km west of the Indian mainland and home to 64,000 people (or more than 260 times smaller than Delhi’s population) living on a total land area of 33 sq km (not even a quarter the size of Chandigarh city), Lakshadweep does not have a legislature or chief minister.

The 36 tropical islands elect local government bodies including district and village panchayats that possess limited powers, their jurisdiction covering matters such as sanitation, public health, agriculture and drinking water.

Opposition leaders said the new laws would change the fundamental character of life in Lakshadweep.

 

‘Political’ Administrator Focuses On Cow Protection

A long tradition of appointing senior bureaucrats to the position of administrator of the UT ended recently. In December 2020, the Union government appointed Patel, known for his closeness to Modi, as administrator of the Lakshadweep islands.

Only 10 islands are inhabited, and a resort stands on the 11th. The islands sprawl across a 381-km stretch from Chetlat Island in the north to Minicoy in the south, the latter just 130 km from the northernmost island of the Maldives.

In February 2021, the administration proposed to significantly alter customary home cuisine in the region through the ‘Draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021’. Beef is a key element in Lakshadweep cuisine—the five major islands including Kavaratti and Minicoy receive 10-12 vessels of cattle from the mainland each week, each vessel carrying 20 cattle, according to Abdul Salaam, a businessman and a general secretary of the Congress party in Lakshadweep.

The draft law proposes a blanket ban on the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks. The draft regulation says that the objective of the ban is “the preservation of animals suitable for milch, breeding or for agricultural purposes”.

It also says a certificate from “the competent authority” will be mandatory before slaughtering any other animal.

Political leaders and residents of the islands believe the administrator is following the lead of similar legislation by BJP-led state governments in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, where a religious and political narrative and violence around ‘cow protection’ preceded the legislation.

With a BJP leader as administrator, the islands’ administration is trying to upend or alter, critics said, constitutional rights, food habits and cultural tradition in a province that follows a unique seafaring Muslim-tribal tradition, which, while following Islam, reflects in its social structure matrilineal kinship and a caste system borrowed from Kerala Hindu customs.

With a literacy rate of 92%, bettered only by its neighbour Kerala, and a per capita expenditure that is 1.6 times the Indian average, the islands have a negligible crime rate—in 2019, for which the latest official data is available, Lakshadweep was reported as the only state/UT where no murder was committed. The main crimes in the UT were “attempt to commit culpable homicide” (section 308 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860) and “to cause grievous hurt” (sections 325, 326, 326A & 326B of the IPC).

In contrast, the proposed law will criminalise various activities and livelihoods, including slaughtering of certain animals for food.

Faizal, the Lok Sabha MP, told Article 14 that other species on the islands are actually in dire need of protection. “The administration’s target is not the “preservation” of any animal, but those who eat beef,” he said.

Cows, bulls and bullocks are brought to the islands from outside, rendering their “protection” in Lakshadweep meaningless.

The octopus, sea cucumber, turtles and tortoise are original animals of the islands that need to be preserved, the Parliamentarian said, through existing, well-defined laws, including the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

At best, he said, the administration can regulate the transportation of these animals, also based on existing rules such as the Transport of Animals Rules, 1978.

Once implemented, the law would impact the sale and consumption of almost all types of red meat on the islands. It could also make certain cultural/religious practices, such slaughtering cattle for a meat distribution ritual during the Bakri Eid festival, difficult for the islanders to follow, as the draft bill says that a certificate from the “competent authority” will be required for slaughtering an animal for “bonafide religious purposes”.

The one-month period given for the public to register their suggestions and objections to the draft bill ended on 28 March.

No major protest has been organised against the draft bill yet, but Lakshadweep’s leaders say people will resist the law if it is implemented.

In yet another controversial move, in February, the administration revised the menu prepared for school canteens, with chicken and mutton dropped from the list.

Mutton and chicken were served in the schools twice a week. The administration replaced the items with fruits, eggs and fish, which is the most common food on the islands.

Abrupt Order: No Animal Farms

The most recent attack on livelihoods related to animal husbandry came on 21 May, when the Patel administration abruptly ordered all dairy farms run by the department of animal husbandry to be closed down, and all the animals in them to be auctioned.

The instructions from the director of animal husbandry were sent to the veterinary assistant surgeons and all animal husbandry units, giving no explanation or reasoning for the order.

All animals in these farms, including bulls, calves, heifers and bucks, should be auctioned before 31 May, the letter said.

According to a senior journalist from the islands, almost every island in Lakshadweep houses animal farms operated under the animal husbandry department with local employees.

According to the 2015 Lakshadweep Key Indicators report published by the UT’s director for planning and statistics, Lakshadweep produced 25,18,400 litres of milk in 2014-15, and the islands were home to 4,373 cattle.

According to locals, the move is aimed at weakening local dairying in order to promote brands from outside. A local politician said a new milk products outlet is soon to be established on Kavaratti island.

Simultaneously, during the current curbs on movement of people in order to slow down the spread of Covid-19 infections, the police demolished sheds of local fisherfolk standing on seafront land on several islands including Kavaratti, ostensibly because they occupied public land. Locals said the sheds had been in existence for several years and were used to store fishing equipment.

The Politics Of The Administrator

In 2010, when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he selected Praful Patel to replace Amit Shah as Minister of State for Home. Modi made the change after Shah was arrested by the CBI in an encounter killing case.

Modi used to visit Patel’s father, an RSS leader, “often”, The Print reported in March 2021.

Patel was administrator of another UT, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, when he took additional charge of Lakshadweep in December 2020. The proposed new laws were introduced weeks after he took charge.

Patel was recently in the news after Mohan Delkar, 58, the Lok Sabha member from Dadra and Nagar Haveli, mentioned Patel’s name in his suicide note in February 2021.

After the MP’s suicide in Mumbai, the Maharashtra police initiated a probe against Patel and some others. Since the MP’s death, the region has witnessed protests seeking Patel’s removal.

Faizal alleged “unprecedented efforts to challenge the fundamental characteristics of lives in Lakshadweep” since Patel took charge. He told Article 14 that the Patel administration was taking decisions “unilaterally”, without any discussion or consultation with the people or their elected representatives.

Bodumukagothi, the president-cum-chief counsellor of the Lakshadweep district panchayat, the topmost elected body in the islands, termed the proposed laws as “shocking”.

Bodumukagothi, a senior Congress leader, said the UT administration normally seeks the opinion of the district panchayat before taking important decisions. “But things suddenly changed since the current administrator took charge,” he added.

Ismat Hussain, a writer from Lakshadweep, also believes that the situation in Lakshadweep has changed since Patel took charge.

Article 14’s attempts to communicate with Patel were unsuccessful, despite repeated attempts on multiple telephone numbers listed on the official website of the administration.

On one of the official numbers of the administrator, the person who answered the phone said the administrator does not maintain an active connection with the office in Lakshadweep, and hence getting a response from the administrator would be difficult. “He has no connection with the office,” the official said.

Two emails sent to his official email address, on 10 and 12 April, remained unanswered.

Administrator From Gujarat Alters No-Liquor Policy

Another unpopular move of the administration that prompted a public outcry is the decision to grant a liquor licence to some resorts.

A 42-year-old law, the Lakshadweep Prohibition Regulation, 1979, prohibits manufacture, traffic and consumption of “liquor and other intoxicating drugs” in Lakshadweep.

Though the administrator, or any authorised officer, can issue a permit/licence to use liquor under certain special circumstances, this discretionary power was rarely used, in deference to the cultural sensitivities of the native population.

However, the new administration has now issued liquor licences to three resorts in Kadamat, Kavaratti and Minicoy islands, and also cleared the way for opening “full-fledged bars” on these three islands. The move has angered locals, with their religious and political leaders publicly challenging it.

A joint writ petition submitted before the Kerala High Court on 24 March by Abdul Khader and Mohammed Ajmeer Khan, the village panchayat chairpersons of Kavaratti island and Kadamat island respectively, said that the UT administration issued the liquor licences “unilaterally” and “without any consultation” with the elected village panchayats.

Seeking to quash the licenses, the petition stated that the administration’s move poses “an imminent threat to the peace, tranquility, as well as the cultural and religious fabric of the islands”.

The petitioners managed to secure a temporary stay order on the administration’s decision initially, but the court vacated the stay on 12 April, according to Adv Rekha Vasudevan, who is handling the case for the petitioners.

Vasudevan said she will file an affidavit in response soon.

Liquor is fully or partly prohibited in some other states/UTs too, including Gujarat, Praful Patel’s home state.

Mohammed Faizal said the liquor licence has a great potential to become a “social menace” in Lakshadweep, and could have a “negative effect” on society.

 

A Law To Alter Who Lakshadweep Elects

Another controversial draft bill introduced by the Patel administration proposes to prevent anyone who has more than two children from contesting elections.

According to Bodumukagothi, the Lakshadweep district panchayat head, this proposed law, namely the Draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021, will negatively affect electoral processes in Lakshadweep.

He said the district panchayat, the topmost elected body in the islands, has passed a resolution against the law. “We conveyed to the administration that it will be difficult to implement certain provisions of this regulation in Lakshadweep.”

Ismat Hussain said people of Lakshadweep already enjoy only “limited democracy even after several years of India’s independence”. The panchayat councils are the only elected institutions on the islands.

Abdul Khader, the chairperson of Kavaratti island village panchayat, said “many current elected members of panchayats have more than two children”.

On Kavaratti island alone, eight of the 12 village panchayat members have three or more children, according to Khader. This means that many serving members will not be qualified to contest elections if the law is enacted.

Preventive Detention In ‘Land Of Peace’

Through another proposed law, the Patel administration also seeks to detain people indefinitely, even when no offence has been committed.

Introduced in January 2021, the Draft Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation, 2021 says a person may be detained for a maximum period of one year, which is extendable, without trial, in order to “maintain public order”. The draft offers no explanation on the rationale of introducing such a law in Lakshadweep, where the crime rate is currently the lowest in the country.

According to official data as on 31 December 2019, only four residents of Lakshadweep were in prisons.

According to Faizal, the Lok Sabha MP, the intention behind the law could be to smoothen the passage of other contentious measures. “The administration might have assumed that the people would react to unpopular regulations, so, I think, this law was introduced in advance with an aim to crush people’s protests,” he said.

Recalling his experience on the islands, former administrator Habibullah said the police in Lakshadweep would use the lockup as a storage room, because the room was “always empty”. “There was no crime in Lakshadweep,” he said.

“It’s the best posting I have ever had in my career,” said Habibullah, a former chief information commissioner. Lakshadweep’s people, he said, were “entirely peaceful”.

Hussain said the administration recently denied permission for protest marches on different islands, a step he called a “bad precedent”. The protests had been planned by the Youth Congress to express solidarity with the ongoing farmers’ protest.

Kavaratti island panchayat leader Khader said more than 30 people were arrested recently, including himself and some other elected representatives, after they held a protest event on December 30 last year against the administration’s decision to remove Covid-19 quarantine for those travelling to the islands. The result was a surge in cases: From being Covid-free until mid-January to 6,847 cases on 24 May, according to the daily Covid bulletin.

 

Realty Boom Through Land Acquisition

On 28 April, the Lakshadweep administration released The Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, 2021, proposing wide-ranging changes in control over land on the islands, empowering the administrator to forcibly acquire and develop land.

The draft regulation says “additional powers” will be vested in the administrator for the “orderly and progressive development of land”. Residents and people’s representatives called the step a boost to the real estate mafia through forcible acquisition of land from the native scheduled tribes.

This proposed regulation on control of land, in the public domain for suggestions and objections until 19 May, comes on the back of previous allegations that the administration has been denying the “legitimate and historical land rights” of the islanders.

Talking about the ongoing tussle between the local population and the administration regarding the ownership of certain lands, Faizal said the administration has been intentionally delaying the handover of title deeds of land segments known as ‘Pandaram land’ to the people of Lakshadweep, who the MP said were “historical owners” of the land. Faizal said the administration was refusing to award the title deeds even after a central government decision in favour of residents.

A New Port To Cut Old Ties

Another issue is the choice of sea ports that commercial ships bound for Lakshadweep currently use.

Faizal said the new administrator wants to completely shift the commercial shipping for Lakshadweep from Beypore port in Kerala to Mangalore port in Karnataka. Faizal alleged that Patel wants Lakshadweep to end all ties with Kerala, where the BJP has only a marginal presence.

A cargo vessel from Mangalore prepares to unload at a jetty at Agatti island, Lakshadweep.

 

The MP said the people of Lakshadweep have no issue with using Mangalore port, but questioned the rationale to abandon one port for another. “We want to use both the ports,” he said.

Congress politician Salaam echoed Faizal’s words. He said the Kerala and Karnataka ports have their own advantages and demerits for the Lakshadweep business community. Many Lakshadweep traders prefer Beypore, he said, and feel a ‘special comfort’ there owing to the islands’ historical and cultural ties with the Malabar. But others also prefer the Mangalore port because of the “commercial ease”. Salaam said there is less trade unionism in Mangalore.

“The People Are Angry’

Alongside these developments, on 23 May, a leading news website in Lakshadweep, the Dweep Diary, said its content was censored without warning. The news website is run by amateur journalists and volunteers.

According to one volunteer-journalist with the site, the issue came to light when they published a report that day on a YouTube song calling for democracy in Lakshadweep. The song had gone viral, prompting the report, which was abruptly blocked. “Your requested URL has been blocked as per the directions received from Department of Telecommunications, Government of India,” the page said (see image below).

Screenshot of Dweep Diary’s web page, blocked on directions by the Centre.

According to the Dweep Diary journalist, their team would consider contesting further censorship legally, he said.

Lakshadweep leaders warned of protests if the controversial laws are implemented in their present forms.

Lok Sabha member Faizal met union home minister Amit Shah on 27 February, and also met prime minister Narendra Modi early in March. Hopeful that their grievances will be resolved, Faizal said Shah had “assured” him that all controversial decisions would be “reconsidered” by his ministry when they come for approvals. Any fresh rule introduced by the UT administration needs the approval of the home ministry.

All legislation in the union territories that don’t have a legislature falls under the union ministry of home affairs, according to Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961.

Before any draft regulation introduced by the Lakshadweep administration becomes law, the union home ministry receives inputs from the Home Ministry Advisory Committee (HMAC) for the islands. Notably, the HMAC for Lakshadweep doesn’t exist—the tenure of the last HMAC expired in September 2018 and was not constituted afresh. The HMAC comprises the administrator, the Lok Sabha member, district panchayat president and civil society members, and has a tenure of two years.

Normally, the HMAC is consulted on all legislative proposals, but according to Bodumukagothi, the district panchayat president, the body’s last meeting was held in July 2017.

According to Faizal, former administrators chosen by the Modi government “had done things positively” for Lakshadweep. “But the current administrator acts as a dictator, and doesn’t consult with the elected representatives on any issue,” he said.

According to Faizal, there will be “popular protests” on the islands if these draft laws are enacted. “We will fight them both legally and politically,” he said.

Ismat Hussain said the people of Lakshadweep are peace loving, and hence may not react “quickly”. He said, however, protests are already taking place on the islands, even though these are not currently well-coordinated. “There is anger among the public,” he said.

(Muhammed Sabith is a journalist and researcher.)

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