“It is the most beautiful place in the world and all the people, despite religious differences, live harmoniously here,” a local resident of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep described the scenic archipelago. The Union Territory of Lakshadweep is in the grip of a major controversy in the last few weeks. Adding to it, a sedition case filed against a local filmmaker has yet again stirred peace in the idyllic Union Territory.
On Thursday, the Lakshadweep police booked filmmaker Aisha Sultana under charges of sedition. The filmmaker had allegedly referred to the Central government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Union Territory — until January 2021 the archipelago was COVID-19-free — as “deploying a bioweapon” during a TV debate. This was alleged by the UT’s BJP unit president C Abdul Khader Haji in his complaint against the filmmaker.
Sultana refuted the allegations in a Facebook post and said that while the BJP leader betrays “his native land”, she would continue to fight for it.
“I had used the word bio-weapon in the TV channel debate. I have felt Patel, as well as his policies [have acted] as a bio-weapon. It was through Patel and his entourage that COVID-19 spread in Lakshadweep. I have compared Patel as a bioweapon, not the government or the country…. You should understand. What else should I call him…,” Sultana said in a Facebook post on June 8.
However, on Friday, the controversy resulted in a crisis between BJP leaders of the archipelago. According to reports, many leaders and BJP party workers resigned from the party on Friday.
“The BJP in Lakshadweep is fully aware of how the present Administrator Patel’s actions are anti-people, anti-democracy and causing extreme suffering among people,” the statement by the 12 leaders said.
As the union territory continues to feature in the news, the situation on the ground is tense and the local community is deeply angry with the UT’s administrator.
The story so far
The controversy in Lakshadweep revolves around one central figure: administrator Praful Khoda Patel. It is because of a slew of regulations proposed by him since February this year.
However, the major bone of contention appears to be a clutch of four proposals: Anti-social Activities Regulation Bill, 2021, Animal Preservation Regulation, Panchayat Regulation and Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021.
As per the local police, the crime rate in the UT is the lowest in the country. Despite this, the administrator had proposed the implementation of the Anti-social Activities Regulation Bill, 2021, which is more commonly known as the Goonda Act. Under the Goonda Act, the police can detain anyone without a trial for up to a year.
The Animal Preservation Regulation, just like in several Indian states where it is implemented, bans the slaughter of cattle.
The Panchayat Regulation looks to ban the archipelago’s candidates, who have more than two children, from contesting in the local body polls.
The Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 empowers the administration to acquire the resident islanders’ properties for the purpose of development.
Apart from these proposals, the opening of liquor shops in a place where the majority of the population is Muslim and drinking is taboo, a ban on non-vegetarian food in mid-day meals in schools and the decision to divert cargo from Beypore port in Kerala to Mangalore port had added fuel to the fire.
The islanders were also angry about the administration’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Until mid-January 2021, the UT reported zero cases of the deadly virus. The first case was reported on January 18. From then on, cases started to spiral in the archipelago. As per the latest data, the UT has 665 active COVID-19 cases.
The opposition had attributed the spike in cases to administrator Patel’s decision to change the COVID-19 protocols. Before Patel’s decision, it was mandatory for people to quarantine themselves for 14 days if they wish to enter the archipelago. However, the new protocols require only a negative RT-PCR report to enter the island.
A clarification on draft bills was issued later by Lakshadweep’s District Collector S Asker Ali. The UT administration also said that it was “laying the foundation” to develop the archipelago “on the lines of the Maldives in the next two decades”.
The ground reality
Before the government — be the Centre or the state — takes any major decision it is a norm to discuss and take opinions from various stakeholders. For Lakshadweep, its stakeholders are its residents and their version of the ground reality is a lot different than what the administration is trying to present.
TV9 News spoke to a person from the local islanders’ community. On the condition of anonymity, he said the government-held no consultations before preparing the draft notification.
“Nearly 50 per cent of the population was not aware of what was happening in the archipelago. Many of us told them about the draft regulations and then they realised. A single draft notification was not published in the local language or in Malayalam,” the community member said.
He added that their anger was not against the BJP or any leader, but against the administrator’s decisions. “The Central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had come forward with the optical fibre cables for connectivity in the archipelago. Everyone applauded and praised the Modi government. I feel ashamed now because people’s mentality now has changed against the government.”
On the administration’s decision to develop Lakshadweep “on the lines of the Maldives”, the person said that the two archipelagoes cannot be compared.
“Maldives has more than 1,000 islands. The government is developing the uninhabited islands. They are not harming the inhabited islands. Lakshadweep has 36 islands, of which 10 are inhabited. The rest are uninhabited, which can be developed for tourism like the Maldives,” he said.
“Both the islands cannot be compared due to Lakshadweep’s fragile ecosystem. Previous IAS and IPS officers, who had served in the archipelago, had highlighted this to the government. If they want to compare Lakshadweep to the Maldives, they have to study what was done in the Maldives and what could be done in Lakshadweep.”
Preserving the heritage
Scenic beaches, crystal clear water, beautiful coral atolls. These things define the idyllic Union Territory of Lakshadweep. With a population of over 64,000, the islanders’ principal languages include Malayalam, Jeseri (a dialect of Malayalam) and Mahal. Coconut is the major crop and fishing remains the major source of income for many.
Locals say the islanders are not behind the rest of the country — the people wear jeans and t-shirts alongside lungis in the archipelago. A local resident of one of the islands of the archipelago said even though the majority of the population is Muslim, people live in harmony in the union territory.
“Everyone in the archipelago lives harmoniously. If you are a pure vegetarian and you come to visit us, we will prepare any vegetable you want. It is the most beautiful place. Anyone who has visited the archipelago will never say that Lakshadweep is a bad place,” the resident told TV9 News.
In India, preserving our tradition triumph most of the things. But is the administrator’s new proposed bills harm the culture and heritage of the archipelago? Some people think so. However, the decision remains with the government, whether or not to implement the draft bills. But on the ground, one thing is clear: people are unhappy with the way things have progressed in the blissful archipelago.