As India battles a raging pandemic, a new political confrontation is brewing in the beautiful islands of Lakshadweep, which is an Indian union territory governed by the centre’s appointed Administrator, Praful Khoda Patel.
Patel is a senior BJP leader from Gujarat and arrived in the archipelago just a few months ago. Anger and unease have grown over the unilateral decisions taken by Patel in recent months in the Muslim majority region in the name of “development”.
Among other things, Patel has moved to ban the sale and consumption of beef, which locals see as an affront to their culture and eating habits.
The Administrator removed chicken and mutton from school mid day meals in February and a four-decade long liquor ban was reversed as well. Patel has also brought in an over arching law to control crime, ironically in an area where the crime rate is the lowest in India.
The proposed ‘goonda act’ has a preventive detention clause that can keep a person in jail for up to one year, without legal representation, to prevent him from ‘acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order’.
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Residents say the law has been brought in to crack down against those who speak up against the Administrator. This isn’t random paranoia.
In Jammu and Kashmir, preventive detention laws were used to jail all opponents of the government in 2019, including three former Chief Ministers, some for over a year.
In what has created further misgivings, Patel has also brought in a draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation which has triggered fears among locals that outsiders will occupy their land and hurt the delicate ecology of the region.
The regulation gives the Administrator arbitrary powers to acquire and develop land as he pleases, and has completely ignored the demands of locals.
There is fear that this is an attempt by Patel to overwhelm the local culture and the unease and anger is now so deep that several BJP leaders in Lakshadweep have quit the party.
The issue has become a national political flashpoint, with neighbouring Kerala showing support for Lakshadweep, and prominent opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi and Sharad Pawar, voicing their strong support for the local population. For those who have followed the politics of the BJP, this development does not come as a surprise.
On August 5, 2019, the country’s only Muslim majority state, Jammu and Kashmir was stripped off its statehood and semi-autonomous position, downgraded to two union territories with vast powers bestowed in the centre’s appointed Lt Governor.
Here too, the central government has sought to impose its will on the local population through various steps like domicile laws, which is why the erstwhile state was locked down like a giant prison for weeks after the revocation of its special status, with all phone lines cut off and mass arrests of political leaders so that no voice of opposition could speak out.
For Lakshadweep, development is not the issue. It is the manner in which the administrator, and by extension, the centre, are thrusting their views and laws on Lakshadweep without any consultation with the local population, completely disregarding their concerns.
This top down approach is a hallmark of the BJP’s style of functioning, a “we know better” approach which seeks to homogenise different cultures.
That this is being done in yet another Muslim majority region is not an accident. If all these steps are being taken to “promote tourism” as the Lakshadweep Administrator claims, then let us see the BJP stop the sale and consumption of beef in Goa or the Northeast of the country.
It may be wishful thinking, but the central government should uphold the real spirit of federalism and listen to the voices of protest.
What the Administrator is doing in Lakshadweep is unfortunate. People are angry but the Administrator has dug his heels in, refusing to listen to their concerns. He must be recalled.