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Over the past month, trouble has mounted for Lakshadweep’s Administrator over his decisions including the altering of the COVID SOPs leading to a surge in the number of cases, ban on the beef industry, lifting of the ban on alcohol consumption and so on. From the Left & Congress to even the BJP unit of the archipelago, political leaders have come out in support of the people of Lakshadweep against the ‘authoritarian measures’ imposed by Administrator Praful Khoda Patel since he assumed office on December 2, 2020.
The #SaveLakshadweep campaign on social media has gathered huge momentum over the past few days, with politicians and netizens criticising the administrator and many going on to point out that Praful Khoda Patel was not a civil servant – the first such to be appointed in the Lakshadweep Administrator’s post. Adding to the discontent was the fact that Lakshadweep, which had zero Covid-19 cases in all of 2020, recorded 6,611 confirmed cases on Sunday. Many believe that this drastic increase in the Covid-19 cases, which has pushed the territory’s health infrastructure to the brink, is a result of the administration’s decision to relax quarantine norms. Over the last few weeks, public anger has been simmering in the Lakshadweep islands over a number of controversial proposals floated by the Union Territory Administrator, Praful K Patel. Also the Administrator of the UT of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, Patel was given additional charge of Lakshadweep following the death of Dineshwar Sharma last December.
While the UT Administration has said Patel’s proposals are aimed at ensuring safety and well-being of residents along with promoting the islands as a tourist destination on par with the Maldives, residents view them as ripping the social and cultural fabric of the islands.
It is in this backdrop that we should see in the activities that the administration of lakshadweep
has launched for the prosperity and bright future of all citizens especially fisherman, women and youth of union territory, who are being left behind in the race of development. However the people whose vested interests are hit by the administration’s development works are propagating a misinformation campaign against the administration. This whole crisis started because of the ambitious plan of central government to make this archipelago a competitor for Maldives. The administration plans to create this island a hub for tourists from around the world. Due to this whole issue there is huge amount of anger among the local people of Lakshadweep and there was a series of protests that took place for different laws by different ways.
The assembly of Kerala along with the support of opposition is trying to pass a resolution to show a sense of solidarity with the people of Lakshadweep where the recent set of actions created a flak. Celebrities around the India also showed their support regarding this issue.
Lakshadweep : An Archipelago
Lakshadweep, the group of 36 islands is known for its exotic and sun-kissed beaches and lush green landscape. The name Lakshadweep in Malayalam and Sanskrit means ‘a hundred thousand islands. India’s smallest Union Territory Lakshadweep is an archipelago consisting of 36 islands with an area of 32 sq km.
It is a uni-district Union Territory and is comprised of 12 atolls, three reefs, five submerged banks and ten inhabited islands. The islands comprise of 32 sq km and is comprised of ten inhabited islands, 17 uninhabited islands attached islets, four newly formed islets and 5 submerged reefs. The inhabited islands are Kavaratti, Agatti, Amini, Kadmat, Kiltan, Chetlat, Bitra, Andrott, Kalpeni and Minicoy. Bitra is the smallest of all having only a population of 271 persons (Census 2011). The uninhabited island Bangaram has been enumerated during 2011 census operation and has a population of 61 persons. The capital is Kavaratti and it is also the principal town of the UT. All Islands are 220 to 440 km away from the coastal city of Kochi in Kerala, in the emerald Arabian Sea. The natural landscapes, the sandy beaches, abundance of flora and fauna and the absence of a rushed lifestyle enhance the beauty of Lakshadweep.
The islands are well connected by regular flights from Kochi. Helicopter transfer is available from Agatti to Kavaratti throughout the year. Lakshadweep has a tropical climate and it has an average temperature of 27° C – 32° C. April and May are the hottest with an average temperature of 32° C Generally the climate is humid warm and pleasant. As the climate is equitable during monsoons, ship-based tourism is closed. October to March is the ideal time to be on the islands. From June to October the South West Monsoon is active with an average rainfall of 10-40 mm. The relative humidity is 70-75%. Annual rainfall decreases from South to North. On an average, 80-90 days a year are rainy. Winds are light to moderate from October to March.
According to the 2011 Census, Lakshadweep has a population of 64429 persons.More than 93% of the population who are indigenous, are Muslims and majority of them belong to the Shafi School of the Sunni Sect. Malayalam is spoken in all the islands except Minicoy where people speak Mahl which is written in Divehi script and is spoken in Maldives also. The entire indigenous population has been classified as Scheduled Tribes because of their economic and social backwardness. According to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes list (modification orders), 1956, the inhabitants of Lakshadweep who and both of whose parents were born in these islands are treated as Scheduled Tribes. There are no Scheduled Castes in this Union Territory.The main occupation of the people is fishing, coconut cultivation and coir twisting. Tourism is an emerging industry.
Slew Of Laws By Administration
Lakshadweep’s new Administrator Praful Khoda Patel’s draft proposals have drawn huge public outcry with many criticizing them as a product of a communal agenda against the majority Muslim population in the island with an intention to tarnish their culture and tradition. A reading of the proposed laws brings out a larger picture that has multiple objectives aimed at creating polarisation in the guise of development.
Here are the laws that are proposed by the administration;
The Goonda Act
The draft law named as a The Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-social Activities Prevention 2021 which is colloquially known as ‘Goonda Act’ provides arbitrary powers to the Administrator of the island. It empowers the police to detain a person for seven days without giving him the opportunity to represent before a court of law.
Under this law, several offences under IPC which are bailable and those amounting to punishment of less than three years are included. The law empowers the police to keep any person in detention even if there is an apprehension that he may commit an offence causing harm to public interest.As per this proposed law, a “cruel person” and a “dangerous person” can be taken into custody on the grounds which appear satisfactory to the authority under the Administrator. Section 2 of the draft law defines “cruel person” as one who violates or intends to violate the ‘Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960’.
A dangerous person is defined as one who commits a range of offences such as theft, unlawful assembly, mischief, criminal intimidation, breach of trust, criminal trespass and misconduct by a drunken person in public. In addition, the proposed Goonda Act creates a new category of offence as ‘property grabber’. Section 2(O) of the draft law defines ‘property grabber’ as one who illegally takes possession of land belonging to the government or local authorities.
Several of these offences listed in the draft law are bailable; even non-cognizable which attract punishment for less than three years or six months or fine. The offences like ‘unlawful assembly’ are often used against protesters who gather for any social or political cause.
Under the proposed ‘Goonda Act’ any person can be detained even before committing any offence on the grounds that there was reasonable apprehension of his committing any of the offences. The person can be kept in custody without even being informed the reasons for his arrest for seven days.
Lakshadweep Town & Country Planning Regulation 2021
The law proposes formation of a development authority which is to be empowered to notify any area of land classifying into any of the four categories as ‘residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial’.
In the guise of development, the authority is empowered to acquire any land notified under the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. Under this law, the government is entitled to declare any land as planning area by notification.
According to Section 35 of the draft law, the people — owners of the notified land — have to seek approval of the town planning authority for any ‘change of use’ of the land. This includes even the alteration of houses in the exterior. The permission is granted only for three years which has to be renewed; failure or delay in renewal will lead to a fine of up to ₹ 2 lakh . “This literally takes away one’s right over one’s land,” says Advocate Rohit, a lawyer at the Kerala High Court who handles law suits in Lakshadweep as well.
Rohit argues that the new law is brought to overrule the land rights entitled to the tribal community in Lakshadweep by the Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulation Act of 1965 pertaining to Lakshadweep and Minicoy islands. (Only revenue land can be used for any development activity by the government according to this Act).
“Lakshadweep, a tribal majority Union Territory with a 94.8 per cent tribal population should enjoy protection under Article 244 of the Constitution as it is notified as a scheduled area under the Fifth Schedule and PESA Act of 1996,” says C.R. Bijoy, an expert on land rights.
Besides, the authority of town planning is vested in the local bodies according to 73rd Amendment of the Constitution.
Notification for the transfer of powers from the PRIs to the Administrator
Many say the notification has close links to the proposed law for creating an authority to have the powers to take over the land. The notification transfers the entire establishments of agriculture, fisheries, animal husbandry, health and education with immediate effect to the hands of the Administrator. The order explains that the transfer of powers to the PRIs in 2012 ‘had overburdened the PRIs which caused an adverse impact upon the efficiency of the execution of schemes’ which is cited as the reason for this current decision.
The proposed beef ban, omission of meat from the noon meal and the lifting of liquor ban in the name of tourism are widely criticized as provocative steps challenging their culture, tradition and religious practices.
The creation of a new category of offence as ‘property grabber’ and bringing the same under Goonda Act, the suppression of fundamental rights, the introduction of a law that empowers the authorities to acquire any land for development and the shifting of powers from the PRIs to the Administrator set the alarm bells ringing for the people of the island.
Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation Act, 2021
- The regulation empowers the government, identified as the administrator, to constitute Planning and Development Authorities under it to plan the development of any area identified as having “bad layout or obsolete development”.
- Only cantonment areas are exempted from this.
- An authority thus created would be a body corporate with a government-appointed chairman, a town planning officer and three ‘expert’ government nominees besides two local authority representatives.
- These authorities are to prepare land use maps, carry out zonation for type of land use and indicate areas for ‘proposed national highways, arterial roads, rings roads, major streets, railways, airports, theatres, museums, playgrounds etc.
Points of contentions:
- LDA regulation says that the authority can prepare comprehensive development plans for any area and relocate people regardless of their will.
- It provides for forcible eviction, puts the onus on the owner to develop his holding as per the plan prepared by the authority.
- The regulation can destroy the way of life of closely-knit group practised by these island community for generations.
- Proposals to bring real estate development concepts such as ‘transferable development rights’ to the island have raised the concerns of people who feared forced eviction.
- This regulation is neither ecologically sustainable nor socially viable and the people’s representatives were not consulted before drafting it.
- It comes alongwith the ‘Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation’, a ‘goonda act’, in the Dweep which is known for the lowest crime rate in the country, that widen up the trust deficit.
Praful Khoda Patel & Controversies Related To Him
Praful Khoda Patel is the current Administrator of Lakshadweep. A Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leader, Praful Khoda Patel kickstarted his career in electoral politics by becoming an MLA from the Himatnagar constituency in Gujarat in 2007. In 2010, Praful Patel was roped by then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi to be in the cabinet and was made the Minister of State (MoS) Home of Gujarat in 2010. However, Praful Koda Patel suffered a loss in the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections. It is pertinent to point out that Praful Khoda Patel’s father, Khodabhai Ranchhodbhai Patel, was an RSS functionary and enjoyed close ties with erstwhile Gujarat CM Modi.
In 2016, Praful Khoda Patel was appointed as the Administrator of the Union Territory of Daman & Diu. After the merger of Dadra & Haveli with the UT of Daman & Diu, Praful Khoda Patel became its first Administrator in January 2020. It is important to point out that the position of the administrator was previously held by civil services officers (generally IAS) and that Praful Khoda Patel was the first politician appointed to the Administrator position. Praful Khoda Patel took charge as Lakshadweep’s Administrator in December 2020.
Since 2019, Praful Koda Patel has been encumbered with a few controversies – beginning from the Election Commission of India (ECI) notice to the BJP leader for making a ‘coercive request’ to the collector for Dadra and Nagar Haveli Kannan Gopinathan.
Some objectionable decisions as Lakshadweep Administrator:
- Altering COVID SOPs leading to COVID case surge
- Ban on the slaughter, transportation, buying and selling of beef products
- Lifting the ban on alcohol consumption
- Demolishing the sheds where fishermen stored nets and other equipment citing violation of the Coast Guard Act
- A new Goonda Act
- Mandating the use of Mangalore port instead of the Beypore port for freight transit
- Termination of casual and contractual labourers’ jobs in govt
The Bio-Weapon Controversy
Lakshadweep’s first woman filmmaker, Aisha Sultana, has been booked for sedition over her reference to a “bio-weapon” during a TV debate.
Hairs are being split on whether she meant the Centre had deployed a Covid “bio-weapon” in Lakshadweep, which initially had no cases, or whether she was describing the archipelago’s administrator as a “bio-weapon” for his controversial decisions that are believed to have caused a Covid surge on the islands.
Amid the crossfire, senior lawyer Kaleeswaram Raj made a pertinent point. He told that there was nothing seditious about the word “bio-weapon”, and that 124A applied only when the phrase or word is accompanied with an incitement to violence as in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962), “the Supreme Court had stated that unless the speech contained an incitement to violence there cannot be sedition”.
The Supreme Court had last week cited the 1962 judgment by a constitution bench to dismiss sedition charges against veteran journalist Vinod Dua, underlining the accused had not incited people to violence against the State or created public disorder through his statements.
The FIR against Aisha has triggered protests in Lakshadweep, where administrator and former BJP politician Praful Khoda Patel faces allegations of imposing a “Sangh parivar agenda” on the Muslim-majority islands with a series of controversial decisions, including a crackdown on dissent.Aisha, 37, had used the word “bio-weapon” during a panel discussion on a Malayalam channel on Monday.
The FIR was registered on Thursday on a written complaint from Lakshadweep BJP president C. Abdul Khader Haji, who accused the filmmaker of having insulted the nation and its government. Aisha has been booked under IPC sections 124A (sedition) and 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration).
Section 124A prescribes three years’ jail to a life term for “whoever, by words… brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the government established by law”. However at the debate on MediaOne TV, Aisha had said “what they used is a bio-weapon” in an apparent allusion to the Covid spike in Lakshadweep. Her co-panellist from the BJP asks her to withdraw the word, saying it was a “baseless” allegation, but Aisha refuses.
Basically it is a two faced controversy that has been emerged so let conclude this issue with some positive and negative sides of this issue.
Arguments supporting the proposed drafts:
A few hundred miles away from Lakshadweep is Maldives. But though the two archipelagos have lot in common in terms of topography, one has emerged as a great tourism destination globally, while Lakshadweep is nowhere on the world tourism map. The reason is that it has negligible facilities for tourists.
It is in the backdrop that we should see the activities that the administration of Lakshadweep has launched for the prosperity & bright future of all its citizens especially fisherman, women, and the youth of the Union Territory, who are being left behind the race for development. The proposed development will be implemented with minimum impact on the island ecosystem which is considered as ecologically protected area.it will be in consonance with the larger vision statement of sustainable development and approved integrated island management plan (IIMP) of the various islands of Lakshadweep.
Few weeks ago, 300kg of heroin with an international value of Rs. 3000 crore, 5 Ak-47 rifles and 1000 live rounds were confiscated from the boat in the Arabian Sea near Minicoy Island. Similarly, many cases of illegal smuggling of maijuna band liquor and cases under pocso act have also been reported here. These illegal business are casting a shadow on the future of the youth here. Hence, strict laws are needed to ensure that they do not get misguided.
Many states of the country have enacted cow protection laws and the laws in Lakshadweep is on the same lines. The Patel administration also has sought to justify the new rules by claiming that they are aimed at boosting economic development and promoting the archipelago as a tourist destination on par with neighboring Maldives. Indeed, tourist infrastructure in Lakshadweep is rudimentary and unemployment is high. Providing the economy with a shot in the arm would be welcome.
Arguments against the proposed drafts:
It could be out that the law facilitates the transfer of land to corporations and would result in indigenous communities losing ownership of their land. It provides legal cover for the administration to take over land with or without people’s consent. It is the administration’s prerogative whether or not compensation needs to be paid.
Administration officials have said that PASA was necessary to crack down on the smuggling of weapons and narcotics, which is reportedly rising in the archipelago. However, PASA appears to be a sledgehammer to swat a fly given that Lakshadweep’s crime rate is the lowest in India. Locals fear that the motivation behind the preventive detention law is to choke off protests against the administration’s decisions.
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.
According to the people’s representatives in the islands, no public consultations were held before the reforms were brought by the Administrator. They expressed their fear that Patel’s motive was to destroy traditional life and cultural diversity of the people of Lakshadweep, as they have their own way of living they are very distinct from the normal Indian culture and there is sense of fear that these laws would force them to change their identity to update themselves. Hence, there is need of proper consultation their administration should explain the pros and cons of laws and should include the changes if any required.
At last I would just mention that, months of strife, misguided efforts, and the use of official muscle for policies of exclusion, resulted in this crisis. In it, this has become a flashpoint in the history of Lakshadweep, bringing out its muddled sense of itself.
Author: Hritik Raj, Chanakya National Law University
Editor: Kanishka Vaish, Senior Editor, LexLife India.