On a February evening in New Delhi, Hamdullah Sayeed, a former parliamentary colleague and the current chief of the Lakshadweep Pradesh Congress Committee, called on me with a disturbing petition. Widespread distress was mounting in the idyllic and peaceful islands of Lakshadweep. An insidious attempt to invest autocratic powers in the Union Territory’s administration had begun to take root.
The growing fears of the islanders have come to a head this week, with thousands of residents — joined by their concerned fellow-citizens from the mainland, including Opposition politicians and celebrities — protesting the gross overreach of the union government through their appointee, Praful Khoda Patel, as Administrator of Lakshadweep since December 2020.
Praful Patel as an ‘Autocratic Ruler’ — and the Resentment of the Islanders
The resentment on the island is primarily directed at the new Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR), which will vest in the Administrator of the islands sweeping powers over land appropriation under the guise of ‘development’. These include, among others, the power to remove or relocate residents of the islands if they come in the way of any planned development projects, and to unilaterally take over their land for projects for which no legal challenges will be permitted following its approval by the administration. Violations to decrees stipulated within the regulation could leave residents facing either life imprisonment or a fine of Rs 5 lakhs, a brazen effort to discourage even the mildest of protests.
Environmentalists and local residents have also decried the definition of ‘development’ used in the draft, particularly the list of activities such as mining and creation of highways, that are being proposed for the ecologically fragile island.
While the regulation would effectively convert Mr Patel’s role to an autocratic ruler who can dictate and manipulate the lives of the islanders with no checks and balances, the LDAR, is only a recent addition to a growing list of questionable actions that ultimately seeks to centralise control on the island. His controversial tenure began with his own unorthodox appointment: the office of the Administrator has been traditionally held by a civil servant, whereas Patel is a former BJP functionary who served as Home Minister during PM Narendra Modi’s tenure as CM of Gujarat.
Soon, his unilateral decree changing quarantine norms resulted in a rampant rise in coronavirus cases (from 0 in 2020, to 6,611 and 24 deaths as of last Sunday) that submerged the meagre healthcare resources of an island territory that has a population of 70,000.
Praful Patel’s Questionable Actions Which Invited Flak
The Administrator’s other actions have invited universal condemnation. He has capped his trouble-making with a Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, to “stop the sale, consumption, storage and transport of beef,” with penalties commencing with a minimum jail period of seven years, in a territory that is 99 percent Muslim! He further seeks to disallow any candidate to contest panchayat elections if they have two or more children. He has endangered the livelihood of the fishing community by removing their temporary huts, sheds, boats, net-drying facilities and storage spaces—citing violation of coastal zone rules. And his Goonda Act (‘Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities’ Regulation) outlaws democratic dissent, curbs freedom of expression and allows the state to unilaterally detain a person without offering a public reason for up to a year in the name of law and order — in a territory that regularly registers the lowest crime rates in the country.
Put together, one could be forgiven for reading these laws as legislation for a war-torn region facing significant civilian strife, rather than laws meant for an idyllic archipelago filled with abundant natural beauty and peace-loving fellow citizens of India.
An Ongoing Siege on Our Democratic Foundations
To be fair, this is merely yet another reminder of the perverse and autocratic mindset of those in power in our country. The manner in which these far-reaching changes have been imposed under the cover of the pandemic, with few institutional checks and riding roughshod over federalism, is theatre we have seen before. As I said on Twitter: “You’d think the BJP would finish destroying what they won electorally first, before moving on to destroy places they have no presence in. But it seems their motto is, if it ain't broke, break it.”
A peaceful, calm territory is being torn asunder for petty political ends.
The victims of the ruling dispensation’s rampant centralisation of power and autocratic tendencies are the people of India, who have suffered untold horrors as a result of the misgovernance that has arisen from the ongoing siege on our democratic foundations. As the movie star Prithviraj Sukumaran rightly pointed out in a widely shared post, “… any law, reform, or amendment should never be for the land, but for the people of the land. It is never the geographical or political boundary that makes a country, state, or a union territory but the people who live there.”
The people of Lakshadweep have spoken clearly and in one voice. It is time for the government to wake up or for the courts to intervene. We risk destroying a peaceful part of the country where peace and communal harmony reigned undisturbed. It is time to stop the rot.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)