The Indian archipelago of Lakshadweep is in ferment.
The collection of 36 islands – of which only 10 are inhabited – lies about 200 miles off the south-western coast of India in the Arabian Sea and depends on the southern state of Kerala for all its supplies.
Famous for its sandy beaches, crystal-blue waters and stunning coral reefs, Lakshadweep is described as “paradise islands” or “emerald islands” in tourist brochures and is rarely ever in the news.
But in recent weeks, angry islanders have made headlines with their protests against what they say is “an attack on our identity, culture, religion and land”.
At the centre of the row is the region’s newly-appointed government administrator Praful Khoda Patel, a number of controversial proposals he plans to implement, a surge in Covid-19 cases – and a sedition case against a popular model, actress and filmmaker.
On Monday residents held a “black day” – they flew black flags from rooftops and poles and wore black clothes and face masks. And last week, reports said “the entire population” had participated in a day-long fast.
“The protests are unprecedented in the history of Lakshadweep,” said Dr Mohammed Sadique, coordinator of Save Lakshadweep Forum (SLF), a group of six political parties that has been at the forefront of the protests.
The protesters have also won support from Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi who has accused “the ignorant bigots in power” of “destroying India’s jewel in the ocean”.
He’s written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw the orders, describing them as “a deliberate assault on the cultural and religious fabric of the local community”.
So what are these controversial proposals?
The “biggest concern” for the people is the draft land acquisition policy that will allow the government to take over any land for infrastructure projects.
Mr Patel says he has big plans that will turn the sleepy islands into something like the tourist paradise of Maldives.
He says these changes will improve the safety and wellbeing of the residents, but Dr Sadique of the SLF calls it “an attempt to grab land”.
The forum says the policy could result in eviction and displacement of locals and is demanding Mr Patel’s removal and withdrawal of the draft law.
“We are not against development, but it should protect the local people, their culture and their land,” Dr Sadique says. “We are not anti-national, we are citizens of India, just fighting for our rights and our land.”
Beef ban and alcohol
Since taking over in December, Mr Patel has ordered a ban on slaughter of cow, calf, bull and buffalo and removed the near-total ban on sale and consumption of alcohol that has been in place since 1979.
The measures have riled critics who say they are attempts by India’s Hindu nationalist government to impose its ideologies on the archipelago’s 70,000 people – 96% of whom are Muslim.
“Why ban beef in a Muslim-dominated area? Why’s Mr Patel trying to interfere in what we eat?” asked Althaf Hussain, a Congress politician and former panchayat president in Lakshadweep.
Mr Muhammed Noushad, one of the editors of dweepdiary.com an independent news website from Lakshadweep, says people overwhelmingly support prohibition because Islam does not approve of drinking.
“The islands are extremely safe for women and children and there are concerns that easy availability could fuel alcoholism and that could impact the social fabric of the community.”
Mr Patel, he says, has no idea about the history or culture of Lakshadweep.
“Never before have rules been imposed here in such an undemocratic and autocratic manner. People weren’t consulted about any of the changes. They are citizens, not slaves. This is unacceptable in any civilised society,” he added.
Mr Husain said Mr Patel “can develop some of the uninhabited islands for tourists instead of trying to disturb the peace of our islands”.
Crackdown on dissent
Another contentious issue is the proposed new “anti-social law” that would allow the police to detain people for up to a year without any legal representation.
“What is the justification for this act in a place where not a single serious crime has been recorded in the past 45 years?” asked Mr Hussain.
Dr Sadique said the government would use the law to silence critics.
“They know there will be protests against their proposals, so they will arrest the dissenters and put them in jail.”
The draft law is yet to be passed, but the crackdown against the government’s critics has started.
A case of sedition
Last week, police charged Aisha Sulthana, a popular model, actress and filmmaker, with sedition after the 26-year-old described Mr Patel as a “bio-weapon” in a debate on a Malayalam-language news channel.
She said his decision to relax quarantine measures had resulted in thousands of Covid-19 cases in the islands. Lakshadweep, which had no cases until mid-January, has now reported 9,297 infections and 45 deaths.
Mr Patel has rejected the charge and blamed the cases on “the virulent new strain and movement of people as economic activity resumed”.
Ms Sulthana is not the only one to criticise Mr Patel. Many others, including local MP Mohammed Faizal, have also blamed him for the Covid surge on the islands, but a local BJP leader lodged a complaint against the filmmaker for her choice of words.
The police have started an investigation and called her for questioning on Sunday.
Fearing that she could be arrested, she petitioned the Kerala High Court for bail. On Thursday, the court granted her a week’s reprieve.
Ms Sulthana did not want to go into the details of the case as it’s in court, but she told me that “my fight is only for my motherland”.
Her friend, lawyer Faseela Ibrahim said the police case was just “intimidation”.
“The message they are trying to give is that if you speak, there will be repercussions.” — Courtesy BBC