“There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
This quote perfectly embodies the sentiment of today’s discussion. When a king, sitting on his high throne, believes he knows what is right for the people without considering his subject’s opinion- a grave tyranny is often underway. The sentinels of ‘justice’ often misguided in their approach cause more harm than good and history is a credible witness to that.
But today we talk of no king or his disciplined subject. Today we talk about Lakshadweep and what exactly is happening to them.
Lakshadweep is a tropical archipelago of 36 atolls and coral reefs in the Laccadive Sea, off the coast of Kerala, India. It has the lowest population ranking in India, with just about 65,000 people inhabiting 10 of its 36 islands. Its decadal population growth rate of 6.23 percent is far below the same at the national level at 17.70 percent.
For the past week, Lakshadweep has been constantly on the news. Since December 2, 2020, when Praful Patel took charge of the Union Territory (UT), the one-time BJP MLA from Gujarat has issued a series of extraordinary orders. Among others, folks with more than two children are now ineligible for panchayat positions. Non-vegetarian items have been struck off school menus. Hundreds of casual workers have been laid off. Some protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens (CAA/NRC) have been arrested.
Fishermen’s sheds have been demolished. Mandatory quarantine, which kept the UT safe from COVID-19 till January, has been done away with.
That is just the start. Under Patel, the Lakshadweep administration has announced a slew of Bills that have the local community panicking about its future. The draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021, bans beef. The draft Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation, 2021, allows the administrator to unilaterally detain people for up to a year. The draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, 2021, concentrates planning powers with the administration and empowers it to take any piece of land on the island, irrespective of its ownership, for “development” purposes.
Why are netizens protesting against these acts?
Lakshadweep Animal Preservation and Regulation 2021, which is similar to anti-cow slaughtering rules implemented in BJP-ruled states. It effectively prohibits slaughtering cows, by mandating a license for killing animals, which most likely will not be given for cows. The islanders have a lifestyle of using cows for agriculture, breeding or giving milk, and for meat consumption. The new law subverts it.
Being almost entirely Muslims, the islanders abhor alcohol. So there exists a self-imposed prohibition, except on one island popular with the tourists, Bangaram.
Now Patel has announced making alcohol available in three more islands. Combined with the cow-slaughtering ban, it has raised a debate that is bound to split the island and elsewhere over religiosity.
Patel has also abolished the animal husbandry department and fired temporary staffers under it, according to the natives who spoke to this author. Some large dairy farms were ordered closure, their temporary workers were dismissed, and their animals were sold. Meanwhile, Gujarat-based Amul has been allowed to sell milk. This fuels the narrative of Patel supporting his allies in Gujrat over his own people.
Patel’s Anti-Social Activities Regulation Bill 2021, which is something of a Goondas Act, using which the State can detain anyone without disclosing it to the public for up to one year. This reeks of the usual tactics authoritarian laws use to brand as criminals and punish those who democratically protest.
This not only violates the right to freedom of expression granted by the constitution of India but is also a cruel suppression of any form of dissent.
The creation of the LDA is of the cruellest. It empowers the administration to take over any land, without consultation with the stakeholders. For islanders, this is an attempt at a corporate land grab.
All things considered, Patel claims that he is doing so to push economic activities and make it alike Maldives.
According to islanders who shared their stories on Twitter Spaces on May 24 and 25, Patel seems to be acting against his own people. The police under him are demolishing fishing harbours, labelling them as unauthorised settlements. The administration also fired some 300 casual labourers in various official departments in the last five months and shut down some 38 anganwadis. All this makes me wonder if Patel is working for the interest of the netizens at all?
The COVID-19 crisis
What broke the proverbial straw was none of these. Until December end, there was a Standard Operating Procedure to prevent COVID-19 cases in Lakshadweep. It mandated a negative RT-PCR test report for outsiders to enter the islands, followed by a week-long home quarantine.
The SOP was supported by the masses and was credited to have helped Lakshadweep stay COVID-19 free. The first covid-19 case in Lakshadweep was reported on 18 January, eight days after the SOP was changed, and a year after the pandemic ravaged the world. Now the cases have skyrocketed, and people are under severe distress. What’s problematic about a high COVID-19-positive rate in a place like Lakshadweep is that its small land area and high population density (2013 persons per sq km) could make the virus spread faster than usual.
The backlash was fueled by the fact that the Government took down the SOP that had protected the islands from Covid-19 for over a year.
Over the last few days, a slew of well-known personalities has stepped up to highlight the situation in Lakshadweep, calling for action against the administration.
“How does disrupting the way of life of a centuries-old peaceful settlement become an acceptable means of progress? How will threatening the balance of a very delicate island ecosystem with no regard for the potential consequences pave the way for sustainable development?” asked actor Prithviraj Sukumaran.
“We will fight against it both politically and legally. Our fight is not against the BJP government but the administrator’s autocratic rule. The administration releases the draft of each reform in around 100 pages in English. Many of the islanders can’t understand that. So they expect people will not object,” National Congress Party (NCP) Lakshadweep president, Bunyamin said.
People and politicians of the islands also stress the fact that it is not a fight between Hindu ideology and the Muslim community as some in the media are projecting. They said that previous administrators appointed by the BJP government were good. They stressed on the fact that their fight is against the individual Praful Patel. “There is no communal element here. These amendments are his own decisions. Not that the BJP government is acting against the Muslim community here. Patel has his own aims,” he added.
Following the protest, 8 members of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yuva Morcha resigned from the party in just the past two days while several others hinted at a similar move alleging“autocratic governance”.
All is lost in a democratic country if its government loses its vision. A king who turns a blind eye to the plight of his people is no king at all. A democracy that strips its citizens of basic rights, is no democracy at all.
By Ankita Mohanty