A group of people that has learnt to endure any suppression because of their confinements to be able to resist it resides in the islands of Lakshadweep. Their life experiences and limitations had moulded them into fascinating beings, cultivating an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion in their hearts. Their resistance comes not from absolute power, but utter powerlessness. The momentum created by these people without a leader would have more conviction, for they are unified for a common cause – the homeland.
When the Indian media shows reluctance to sketch their stories, they are left with the only option of bringing themselves into the mainstream to scream as loud as they can to tell the world that they are not cannibals, not foreigners; but Indian. It is time the country stands with them on their call for help. This is the story of the sufferings of the coral paradise of India – the invisible land in India’s vicinity – Lakshadweep.
Many mainlanders are unaware of the islands and always throw up questions like, “Where in Lakshadweep, Andaman?”, “Do you eat human flesh?”, “Do you come by train from Lakshadweep?” Eventually comes the confession, “Sorry, but we do not know much about Lakshadweep”. It’s a confession which says a lot about how much people – self-proclaimed nationalists included – know about the length and breadth of the country.
Ever since Indian claimed the territory of Lakshadweep in 1947, it has been strategically guarding India by marking the country’s border from international waters. This article has been written to seek the nation’s attention towards the issues related to Lakshadweep and its people.
Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 35 islands in the Arabian Sea did not report a single case of COVID-19 in 2020. In December 2020, when BJP leader Praful Patel was appointed as the administrator of Lakshadweep, the administration revised the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) and did away with mandatory quarantine guidelines for those arriving from the mainland. This was the first of many such reforms that the locals have called “anti-people”.
As a result of the change in procedures, the first case of COVID-19 on the islands was reported on January 18, 2021, and the first Covid death was reported on February 24. The UT has since registered 4,986 cases and 14 deaths with the active caseload being 1,208 cases at present.
The geography of Lakshadweep increases the risk of the spread of the deadly virus – all the islands are less than 5 sq.km in area and almost everyone meets every other person over the course of a few days. Seven out of ten islands have only primary and community health centres. The medical facilities, except on Agatti and Kavaratti islands, are pathetic – even Androth, the biggest island, has only 30 beds at the hospital for a population of 11,464 people.
When the whole country is offered a choice of vaccination among the two available vaccines, Lakshadweep is forced to take the only option made available. Lately, the authority has threatened the people to cut ration and other governmental aids of those who are not vaccinated against COVID-19. Nevertheless, the vaccine is available only for the people who are above the age of 45. How is Lakshadweep meant to fight the war against the virus without any proper equipment, facilities or a healthy diet?
Islanders have faced connectivity and network related problems since its first settlement. As the islands are scattered in the Arabian Sea, the northern group of islands are mainly connected to the Mangalore port in South Karnataka while the southern group was connected to Cochin and Beypore ports in Kerala. A recent modification was made in the transportation sector by exempting Beypore port (of Calicut) from the ports connecting Lakshadweep to the mainland. What kind of a development is the administration aiming for by cutting off the connection of the islands to the outer world?
After invading the kitchens of the islanders, chicken, mutton and beef have been exempted from the menus of even school children. For an area where it is hard to distribute fruits, vegetables, pulses and cereals, the people of Lakshadweep are used to eating meat as part of their daily diet. Everywhere around the world, people build their food habits based on the availability of food products in the geographical area they live. The vegetables and fruits sent to the islands often rot before being distributed – as it is dependant on the availability of ships. The monsoon forces the people to live without fish, as the people are not allowed to go fishing so as to not risk their lives. Hence, in the coming monsoon days, the islanders may have to survive on bare minimum fare.
The decision to ban alcohol in the islands was taken by the government of India to preserve its culture. Its fragile ecosystem too would probably get affected with the ban being lifted and drinking could increase the risk of health issues. A high chance of domestic violence against women because of the open distribution of liquor should also be looked upon in a male prioritised society like Lakshadweep.
In the latest, as per the ‘Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation Act 2021’, an individual can be punished without a trial. The necessity of a law like this in a place like Lakshadweep, which has recorded the least number of criminal cases in the country, is questionable and can only be seen as yet another tool to quell any kind of dissent. As such, those who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act last year have been put behind bars. The nurses who recently went on a protest to demand a fixed minimum wage, where threatened with possible arrest.
The District Dweep Panchayat led by the ‘President cum Chief counsellor’ is the only elected local body in Lakshadweep. The regulations brought by the new administration under the Panchayat Regulation Amendment Act by curbing the powers of PCC includes strange clauses. The shutting down of schools in the islands with an excuse of ‘an attempt to reduce public expenditure’, and disengaging the youth working under different departments before the completion of their tenure cannot be justified.
The Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, 2021 draft violates Article 244 by authorising the direct interference of the government in the islanders’ right to possess and retain their property. It is a hazardous plan regarded with the fragile ecosystem of Lakshadweep, as it includes disastrous practices like quarrying, mining, building of National Highway, Railways, Tram-ways, etc. A few days ago, the authorities had also burnt the sheds in which the fishermen had kept their boats, nets, and other fishing equipment, alleging that they have encroached onto the government’s land even though the fishermen were exempt from the rules of Coastal Regulation Zone.
Through the new alterations made in the existing laws in Lakshadweep, the authority asserts sovereignty, possessing the supreme power in the islands, leaving a chance for dictatorship. Officials who hold higher positions are mostly recruited from the AGMUT cadre of the UPSC. Hence, the bureaucrats who come to the islands as the administrator, and those who are appointed in the other ‘Group A’ posts, fail to understand the emotions of the people, as a result of the linguistic barrier the locals face. The common people have always needed a middle man to reach out to the bureaucrats. The drafts of amendments are always published in English, a language that is totally foreign to a majority of the islanders.
The reforms fail the community by restraining them from their freedom of expression, violating their basic right to have the food of their choice, and by encroaching into their cultural space.
Today, the islands are under total lockdown, with a test positivity rate of 68%. Lakshadweep was agitated when in chains, and had resisted its oppressors even when it was unarmed for freedom. It has been a lone fighter so far and it shall fight this battle too in its own way.
It had endured the worst, and it will survive these hitches as well over time. It is high time India acknowledges this archipelago as a part of the nation, and stand for Lakshadweep in hard times. The well-being of the islanders should be mattered like any of its other states, for India’s coral paradise is much more than a few dots on the map.
Raseela P.A. is pursuing a masters in English at CES, JNU.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty