After abolishing the full state status of Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir and downgrading it to a Union Territory status, India’s Hindu religious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is targeting another Muslim dominated small island which draws widespread protest from all walks of life.
Lakshadweep, the smallest Union Territory situated in the emerald Arabian Sea which is also known for its exotic beaches and lush green landscape, has caught the headlines after the federal government’s move to introduce a slew of new reforms which irked the locals and sparked protests in the neighboring south Indian state of Kerala.
A draft bill called Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR), will give sweeping, arbitrary, unchecked powers to the government and all its bodies to directly interfere with an islander’s right to possess and retain their property for town planning or any developmental activity.
The new proposal brings changes in the electoral regulations that will make any person with more than two children ineligible to contest local body elections. In the name of reforms, the BJP government also gave a nod to open bars in the island, a non-alcoholic zone due to its Muslim population, to ‘promote tourism.’
The administration also proposes a ban on beef and beef products under the draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation. The draft law makes it clear that no person shall directly or indirectly sell, keep, store, transport, offer or expose for sale or buy beef or beef products in any form anywhere in Lakshadweep. The guilty can end up with prison terms which may extend from 7 to 10 years and a fine starting from Rs100,000 to Rs500,000. As part of the so-called reforms, a beef ban was already in place in the food menu of schoolchildren.
Lakshadweep is known for its low crime rate in India, but the administration has implemented the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act (PASA), in January 2021, which gives the government power to detain a person without any public disclosure for a period of up to one year. Locals fear that the bill will pave the way for the administration to make arrests without trials and feel that such harsh laws are not required.
The controversial reforms in the islands started when Praful Khoda Patel, a close aide of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also served as the interior minister of Gujarat state when Modi was the state’s chief minister, took charge as the Administrator in December 2020 after the death of former administrator Dineshwar Sharma.
During Patel’s six-month rule, the archipelago, consisting of 36 islands with an area of 32 sq km, also saw a hike in COVID-19 cases after being dubbed as a ‘COVID-free region’ for nearly a year into one with around 7,000 cases until May 29, 2021. The virus hit Lakshadweep after Patel lifted the mandatory quarantine rule for island-bound travelers.
The leader of India’s largest opposition Congress party in the parliament, Rahul Gandhi, expressed his solidarity with the people of Lakshadweep saying “the ignorant bigots in power were destroying it.” In a tweet, he said Lakshadweep is India’s jewel in the ocean and that he stands with the people of the Union Territory.
Mohammed Faizal, who represents Lakshadweep in the Indian parliament, says the Administrator had not consulted with people’s representatives before coming out with proposed regulations. He said the immediate trigger for the unrest was the draft law of the Lakshadweep Development Authority.
“It is aimed at usurping people’s land. The Authority will get huge power to take over land without protecting the interests of landowners. There is a move to develop roads as per National Highway standards. Why does Lakshadweep, which consists of small islands, require huge highways? The Indian Express quoted him as saying. Faizal alleges that the Administrator is furthering the business interests of people in the mainland.
Patel refutes allegations and said the Lakshadweep islands have not witnessed development in 70 years since Independence and his administration was only trying to develop it. He said that as part of tourism promotion, resorts in populated islands will be allowed to supply liquor. Earlier, liquor was allowed only at resorts in the uninhabited Bangaram island.
India’s Muslims, the largest minority community, have been facing systematic discrimination, prejudice, and violence, despite constitutional protection since independence in 1947.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP are pursuing a Hindu majoritarian, anti-Muslim agenda that threatens the country’s status as an officially secular republic and violates international human rights norms.
Several moves by the government seem designed to punish Muslims. In August 2019, the BJP amended the constitution to strip Muslim-majority Kashmir of its autonomy. Then, in November, the Supreme Court issued a ruling enabling the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a 16th-century mosque demolished more than two decades ago by Hindu communalist forces in the northern city of Ayodhya.
On December 12, 2019, the Modi government passed the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Under this act, for the first time in India, religion is a basis for granting citizenship. The law specifically fast-tracks asylum claims of non-Muslim irregular immigrants from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) has aggravated that fear. The NRC requires people to prove their citizenship. But the discrimination is that if a Hindu family and a Muslim family both fail to prove citizenship, the former can use CAA to claim citizenship but the latter will be stripped of their citizenship.
P. K. Niaz is the senior editor of The Peninsula Newspaper based in Doha, Qatar.