TOAccording to local people, the troubles of Lakshadweep, an archipelago of paradise islands in southern India, began the day the new government-appointed administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, landed on a charter flight.
The Lakshadweep Islands, a Union Indian Territory off the coast of Kerala, have a population of just 64,000 and are famous for their crystal clear waters, white sands, and a relatively intact way of life. Until then, they had not been affected by the pandemic either due to the strict traffic controls and the quarantine imposed.
On that day, December 2, 2020, India’s Covid-19 cases had exceeded 9.4 million, but not a single incidence was reported across the 36 islands of Lakshadweep.
However, much to the anger of the residents, Patel, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who had been appointed to lead Lakshadweep by his longtime ally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, decided to publicly ignore the quarantine rules imposed. to all. the rest.
Tensions escalated further when, while on his way to his official residence, Patel saw a banner printed with a slogan against India’s controversial new citizenship law, which has been accused of discriminating against Muslims. He ordered their removal and three people on whose land the sign was posted were arrested and released on bail.
Then, without consulting and despite strong opposition, he introduced a series of new measures and bills that the people of Lakshadweep, 96% Muslim, saw as an attack on their identity, religion, culture and land, and a devastating threat to them. their way. of life.
The mandatory Covid quarantine for all arrivals to the islands was also removed. Lakshadweep has gone from zero cases of coronavirus to being one of the most affected areas in the country, with more than It is estimated that 10% of the population is infected.
As the scope of Patel’s measures, described as “brazen,” “authoritarian,” and an imposition of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda on one of India’s only Muslim-majority regions, has become widely known, some of India’s leading politicians have voiced strong opposition.
Dozens of MPs have written to the central government and a campaign to “Save Laccadivas” has gained traction across India. On Monday, the Kerala state assembly, where Patel’s measures were greeted with outrage, passed a unanimous resolution for the administrator to be removed from office.
Priyanka Gandhi, a prominent figure in the opposition Congress party, has been a particularly vocal critic. “The people of Lakshadweep deeply understand and honor the rich natural and cultural heritage of the islands they inhabit,” he said. tweeted. “They have always protected and nurtured him. The BJP government and its administration do not have to destroy this heritage, harass the people of Lakshadweep or impose arbitrary rules and restrictions on them. “
Shashi Tharoor, a high-ranking opposition politicianHe added: “One could be forgiven for reading these laws as legislation for a war-torn region facing major civil strife, rather than laws intended for an idyllic archipelago filled with abundant natural beauty and peace-loving fellow citizens of India. “.
The most divisive laws proposed by Patel include a ban on eating beef, under the guise of conserving animals; remove a four-decade ban on alcohol consumption and allow liquor stores to open; prohibit people from running for village elections if they have more than two children; and a proposed regulation empowering the administration to acquire land on the islands, regardless of ownership, for “development” purposes.
In addition, all dairy farms were closed and a businessman from the home state of Patel, Gujarat, was allowed to enter and franchise the production and sale of milk on the islands.
Most controversially, Patel has also proposed the Antisocial Activities Prevention Act, or “goonda law” as it is known locally, a new law that grants police powers to prison suspects without trial and without full evidence, up to a anus. .
“People are scared by these absurd laws,” says Hassan Bodumukka, chief adviser and president of the panchayat in the islands. “We are Muslims and we have been eating beef in a traditional way. Banning it is an attack on our religious identity. More than that, policies are being formulated to deprive us of our land and all of this is happening under the guise of development. “
Nobody is against development, says Bodumukka, “but it can’t be done at the expense of the environment, people, their identity and their faith.”
The islands have always been strictly protected from the often corrosive impacts of tourism and development. Although hotels do exist, they are mostly small and run by the government. A special permit is required for tourists to visit the islands. Fishing in the surrounding tuna-rich waters is the main livelihood of the islanders.
Lakshadweep has flourished under these protected conditions; per capita income is taller than The Indian average, the literacy rate is 92%, much higher than the Indian average of 74%, and crime is negligible.
But Patel and the Modi government appear to have their sights set on making Lakshadweep a major tourist destination, including paving new roads and creating a “smart city“In the capital, Kavaratti. For islanders and former administrators, these plans mark the beginning of the end of Lakshadweep as they know it.
“Tourism development in Lakshadweep should focus on people, not investors,” says Wajahat Habibullah, a former administrator of the region. “The idea is to preserve ecology because they are very fragile ecological entities. The Maldives [which is adjacent] You are already facing this extinction problem because the reefs have been compromised, which fortunately has not happened in Lakshadweep to that extent. We need to preserve those reefs. “
The sheds along the promenade owned by local fishermen have already been demolished and trees have been cut down to make way for new roads. Rumors are circulating that the islands will be opened up for development by large hoteliers and corporations, making people fear that their land will be taken from them.
“We fear losing our land,” says Mohammed Faizal, the only deputy from the islands, who is from the Nationalist Congress party. “All the people who live in Lakshadweep are registered tribes and their lands are protected by the constitution. No one can come here and take our land. “
Faizal adds that the government is trying to legalize land grabbing under the guise of development.
Patel served as Gujarat’s interior minister from 2010 to 2012. He was then appointed administrator of Daman and Diu, followed by Dadra and Nagar Haveli, now merged into a union territory that includes Diu Island off the coast of Gujarat. Patel was accused of imposing laws that violated local customs by bringing great development and a tourist boost to the island, which saw heritage buildings demolished to build roads.
Many fear the same, or worse, for Lakshadweep. Abdul Salam, secretary general of the Congress party in the islands, says that people “have been living here for generations and most of us are self-sufficient. We do not want corporations to come here with the objective of dispossessing us ”.
Patel did not respond directly to requests for comment, but the BJP has denied all allegations, saying that Patel’s new measures were “aimed at the general development of the island” and that his administration in Lakshadweep had been the victim of a “campaign of politically motivated disinformation. ” ”.
This week, Faizal said that the central government had assured him that nothing would be introduced without the consent of the islanders.
Most of the new laws are awaiting final cabinet approval. But some decisions have already affected hundreds of people and elected bodies have been stripped of key powers.
While there have been protests on the island, Patel’s “goonda act” has left people scared to voice their opposition to the regime for fear of being locked up without trial.
Twenty-one people, including elected representatives who resisted the change in quarantine policy, have filed police cases against him and many others have been arrested.
“We have seen what is being done with Muslims in India,” says Mohammad Saalim, a university student from Lakshadweep. “From Kashmir to Delhi and elsewhere, the Modi regime is enacting laws to make Muslims second-class citizens, and the same is happening to us now.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism