#SaveLakshadweep: A perennial fight for indigenous rights in paradise
By Ishu Gupta and Hemakshi Meghani
Artwork by Vasila Fathima
Recently, #SaveLakshadweep was spread across social media, with politicians, activists, journalists and citizens coming together to cast a light on a current issue. The issue, being, the relentless ongoing protest by the residents of Lakshadweep islands, against the appointment of Praful Khoda Patel as the new administrator. Unlike other Union Territories (UT) in India, the administrator in Lakshadweep is the ultimate head of the UT, in charge of development and authority, even functioning ex-officio as the Inspector General of Lakshadweep Police. Soon after the appointment, the new administrator has brought in several regulations that are being seen by the local tribes as a threat to their livelihood, land ownership, culture, and even the fragile ecology of the tropical islands.
Despite the recent traction on social media, there is still little known about what is happening in Lakshadweep. It’s a territory that is often overlooked, like that cousin that’s always hidden in the back of family photos. But as an integral part of India and the sub-continent, it’s important to understand how we got here in the first place. This explainer by The Indian School of Democracy takes us through the reasons for the recent turmoil, and what’s at stake for the indigenous community.
Where is Lakshadweep?
Lakshadweep is one of the smallest territories in India, an archipelago comprising 36 coral islands covering an area of 32 square km (20 times smaller than Lucknow). It is located in the Arabian sea between 220 to 440 km off the Kerala coast with a population of about 65,000 (census 2011) living on 10 inhabited islands, with 97 per cent of the population being Muslim. Almost 95 per cent of the population belongs to the Scheduled Tribe with the majority speaking Jeseri and Mahl - dialects of Malayalam and Dhivehi respectively. Lakshadweep is a restricted territory, with permits required even for domestic tourists to visit the islands. Available accounts of tourism suggest that the permit system was mainly introduced for ethnic and security reasons. The island is considered to be the better-developed region with a literacy rate of almost 92 per cent, but because of its own territorial limitations, almost 45 per cent of the population falls under the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category. With one of the lowest crime rates in the world, the islands are considered to be a crime-free society.
Governance in Lakshadweep
Ever since its formation as part of the UT of India, the islands had four Tehsils (subdivisions) with a district as the overall unit. In 1994, with democratically elected members, most of the governance, along with staff and funds, was transferred to these ‘Panchayats’, now responsible for planning and implementing a wide range of development schemes. The islanders also send an elected member to the Indian Parliament. Policy decisions were taken through a local self-governance structure with Village Panchayats in all the ten islands and a district Panchayat for the entire archipelago. The district is headed by the administrator, who used to be a civil servant until December 2020 when Patel, a full-time politician of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and former home minister of Gujarat, was appointed as one by the Hon’ble President of India.
New development regulations were announced seemingly unilaterally by Patel as the new administrator. Allegedly, the new laws have been brought in without consulting any elected representative. Shocker? Not so much. If you take a wander into Patel’s Previous Pursuits, you’ll find he has a history of issuing orders without caring for the indigenous population. In 2019, Patel as an administrator of Daman instructed to confiscate valuable seafront land owned by Adivasis in the area. Later, he imposed Section 144 and banned the use of loudspeakers to halt any kind of protests. This left most of the Adivasis on the streets without homes. In 2021, tribal rights advocate and Lok Sabha MP Mohanbhai Sanjibhai Delkar tragically hung himself citing injustice, insult and bias meted out to him, naming Patel specifically.
The Controversial New Laws
So with Patel’s troubling track record, it’s no surprise that the new regulations are being seen as a threat to the indigenous tribal population, who have been historically very protective of their land and culture across the country. So what are they, and why are they a concern?
The Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR)
This law proposes to change the existing land ownership on the island and provide for the development of towns in Lakshadweep, inviting private investment. By empowering the government, identified as the administrator, any area identified as having a “bad layout or obsolete development” can be put under the direction of the Planning and Development Authorities. It allows the administrators authority to forcibly remove or relocate residents from their property for any developmental activity. To further deepen the fear of local tribes, the new law prohibits questioning of any development plan(s) by anyone, be it in any legal proceedings too. It also establishes penalties such as imprisonment for obstructing the development plan’s work or workers.
Prevention of Anti Social Activities Act (PASA) or GOONDA Act 2021
PASA proposes to give the administrator the authority to order the detention of a person for a period of up to one year if the offender’s actions “adversely affect the maintenance of public order”. Though not unique, this is being seen as a surprise because Lakshadweep is considered to be a relatively “crime free” state. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, only 121 cases of crime were registered on the islands in 2017, 86 in 2018, 186 in 2019 and 89 in 2020. The law is proposed in anticipation that as tourism will increase, such laws are needed to ensure safety in the future. However, this proposed law is ambiguous in its powers, giving the potential for the administration to arrest an individual without any public disclosure. Congress leader K P Noushad Ali filed a petition against PASA, but it was dismissed by the Kerala High Court on the grounds that the alleged reform measures were at draft stage. But if passed, it risks curtailing democratic processes of law and citizens rights.
The Panchayat Regulations
The law proposes to disqualify those with more than two children from becoming gram panchayat members. Whilst this is not unique to Lakshadweep, as many other states have brought in this policy in the last two decades, the law is seen as problematic as it derives from the stereotype that Muslim families have large numbers of children. According to NFHS 2019-20, the fertility rate of Lakshadweep is 1.4, far below the national average of 2.
The Animal Preservation Regulation
This regulation proposes to ban the slaughter of cows, calves, bulls, or bullocks. Given the roots of its population in Kerala where beef eating is a common practice, the regulation is seen targeting the local culture which is a majority Muslim population. This regulation adds to existing fears of the erasure of the local culture, given that Patel had already stopped non-vegetarian items in the mid-day meals for school children and in government-run hostels. And whilst officials say this has nothing to do with targeting the Muslim community, Patel also recently removed the near-total ban on alcohol sale and consumption (in place since 1979). Coincidence is a funny thing, isn’t it?
As per a letter written by an elected representative, the administrator has also destroyed sheds where fisherfolk kept their nets and other equipment on the pretext that these violated the Coast Guard Act. These buildings had been constructed under an exemption provided to the fisherfolk, and are now being destroyed without warning.
All these incidents have added to the fear of the residents and pose a larger threat to the self-governance structure which has been in place for the last three decades. The local population believes that too much interaction with the mainland could threaten the already fragile order of things, disturbing both the local culture and posing heightening risk to the ecosystem. Not to mention, Lakshadweep remained Covid free for almost the entirety of 2020, before Patel ignored quarantine rules when arriving and then scrapped mandatory Covid quarantine for all arrivals to the islands. This took Lakshadweep from zero COVID cases to having ten per cent of its population infected, which is significant for small communities. These laws push the agenda of development and making the islands a tourist hub, which goes against the very grain of why Union Territories were created in the first place. Any change focusing only on capital gain, without keeping the best interests of the local cultural values is a severe threat to the community. Ironically, it comes from a government that has always pushed for maintaining religious and cultural order.
This arm twisting of the right(s) of the indigenous population(s) is also in violation of India’s stand in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), adopted in 2007. It recognises indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, autonomy, or self-governance, and their right against forcible displacement and relocation from their lands or territories without free, prior and informed consent. If anything, the island needs access to food security, healthcare and more livelihood opportunities rooted in their ecosystem which is sacrosanct for the population of Lakshadweep. In these hyper times of protecting national heritage and culture, we should protect our indigenous communities as they are our living heritage. We all need to protect land, history and memory that nourishes the social and political lives of the population of Lakshadweep and ensure that their geography does not make them feel distant from all of us.
About the authors
Ishu Gupta is the Research Manager and Hemakshi Meghani is the Co-Founder of the Indian School of Democracy. Indian School of Democracy has a mission to nurture principled grassroots political leaders who will work towards sarvodaya (upliftment of all). It is a non-partisan organization that conducts short term and long term programs for young people who want to work in politics, across the geographical, political and ideological spectrum.