The residents of Lakshadweep, a group of 36 islands at India’s southern tip in the Arabian Sea, are continuing their agitation against the reforms proposed by administrator and BJP leader Praful Khoda Patel.
While the protests have intensified, the administration’s crackdown has also similarly toughened up, with the police authorities charging filmmaker and actor Aisha Sultana for sedition. The actor is accused of referring to Patel as a “bioweapon” unleashed by the Centre, who diluted the COVID-19 protocols in the islands, leading to a worsening of the COVID-19 situation.
The case against Aisha Sultana was registered at the Kavaratti Police Station following a complaint by a local politician belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP complaint cited a Malayalam TV channel show as grounds for their complaint.
The charge against Sultana has elicited criticism from the people protesting against the reforms, who have called the move unconstitutional and a bid to suppress the resistance movement which is now gaining global attention.
The charges against Sultana come in the backdrop of an intensive week of protests in the region, which included an underwater protest and a 12-hour hunger strike from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., on June 7. While the residents participated in the hunger strike, all shops and establishments remained closed.
Speaking with NewsClick, Yaseen Nisad, an activist associated with the Save Lakshadweep campaign, explained, “Charges against her are a complete deviation from the ongoing narrative in the region. It has come at a time when the administrator and the BJP are facing scrutiny across the board. Protests have been on a loop and the government is now creating narratives showing us as rebels.”
She added, “However, the truth is that she is not alone in the fight to save our islands. We are blaming the administrative reforms for the damages. It is because of the increasing support we are getting that there is an increase in the cases. Those who are giving statements are being intimidated and their profiles are being monitored. Despite all of this, people are standing up against the misuse of power and violation of fundamental rights.”
The island group’s residents believe that the relaxation of the standard operation procedure pertaining to quarantine in the island provided an impetus to the increasing cases of COVID-19 in the UT. Till then, the Health Department was testing every person returning to Lakshadweep from Kochi in Kerala, and Mangaluru in Karnataka, which are connected to the islands by ferries. Even those who tested negative had to compulsorily home quarantine for 14 days – a rule that Patel ignored and then removed.
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Moreover, a circular was later issued in May by the Department of Health mandating that patients requiring an ambulance from the outlying islands to Kavaratti island, the capital, Agatti Island, and Kochi will have to submit their documents for scrutiny by a four-member committee. The committee will then recommend whether or not the case is fit for evacuation. But the order does not provide a time period within which each request should be processed. Residents had also moved court seeking clarity on COVID-19 procedure on evacuation from the islands.
Froz Nediyath, an activist and a filmmaker from the islands, said, “There are people who are trying to distort the problems of Lakshadweep in many ways. We need to live here rather than resist the lies that have little to do with the island's problems. This is our country.”
“For the first time in the history of Lakshadweep, a region of India (Lakshadweep) is on a 12-hour hunger strike. The world sees the fact that 70,000 people have to protest against their own government for their survival, for their land and it is a sign of weakness of the country. Look, this is happening in secular democratic India. Where is the freedom that our forefathers achieved today after suffering so much from the British dictators? That also comes up as a question,” he added.
Meanwhile, after backlash from the public and media attention, the director of Port, Shipping and Navigation in Lakshadweep administration has withdrawn their previous order for the deployment of government staff on fishing boats. Another order which directed authorities to enhance security around ports, ships, and other vessels to 'Level 2' was also revoked, as per reports.
The reforms have been introduced in the midst of a raging pandemic, with poor COVID-19 management leading to soaring anxieties of islanders. Among the major reforms are: Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation, Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation and amendment to the Lakshadweep Panchayat Staff Rules.
The most crucial among these are the extensive changes to the land ownership and regulation in the island, with the administrator taking complete charge over the grant of permission to develop land and for other powers of control over the use of land. Further, “these rules will also confer additional powers to the administrator with respect to the acquisition and development of land for planning”.
It is the smallest among India’s eight “Union Territories” (UTs), with a population of 65,000 people – 97% of them Muslims – who are now in fear of losing their land, livelihoods and other rights as the government backs plans to develop the remote archipelago as a tourist hub.
The draft policies have defined “development” as “the carrying out of building, engineering, mining, quarrying or other operations in, on, over or under land.” It also empowers the UT’s authorities to imprison anyone for obstructing the development plan’s work.