Our leaders have a special talent to turn peaceful landscapes into war zones. Remember how, one fine morning, Jammu & Kashmir was divided into two Union territories. As if on signal, Mukesh Ambani formed a task force and said "You'll see several steps for J&K, Ladakh soon."
We are about to see several steps for Lakshadweep soon. As per tradition, Lakshadweep's administrator was a bureaucrat from the IAS/IPS ranks. When Dineshwar Sharma, who was chief of the Intelligence Bureau before he took over as Administrator of Lakshadweep, died in December 2020, the Government of India broke tradition and appointed a friendly politico. (Friendly to the Government, that is). He lost no time in turning things upside down. Even to send a sick person to a hospital in the mainland, his approval became necessary.
That came naturally to Praful Khoda Patel because the plus point in his favour was that his father was an RSS leader. Patel served as Gujarat's Home Minister under Modi. His political career ended when he failed to get elected in 2012. Modi gave him a new life by appointing him Administrator of Dadra and Haveli.
All the psychological complexes he developed as a failed politician now came to haunt Lakshadweepians. Perhaps, the RSS soul in him could not reconcile with the fact that the entire population of Lakshadweep was Muslim. Three per cent were listed as non-Muslim, but these were not locals; they were itinerant traders from the mainland. Patel must have resented this. With his experience confined to putting administrative power to political use, Patel acted like a local dictator. Some 200 high school teachers were dismissed because they were on contract. Students who protested were disciplined with lathis. As many as 190 people were dismissed from the tourism department. Subdivisional magistrates in various islands were also dismissed. Hindi-speaking officers from North India were put in charge, knowing that locals knew only their native dialects and Malayalam.
The zilla panchayat was made virtually powerless, with the Administrator assuming all responsibilities. In the name of coastal protection laws, the fishing community's nets and sheds were taken away. Two functioning dairy farms were closed, saying that they were running at a loss. Orders were issued to sell off the cattle at the rate of Rs 250 per kilo. Milk arrived by ship from Gujarat.
Traditionally, Lakshadweep's trading activities were conducted through Beypore Port in Kozhikode district. The new dispensation put an end to the practice and ordered that Mangalore Port be used instead. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said bluntly that Lakshadweep had strong and age-old links with Kerala in education, employment, medical services and trade and that secretive attempts to break this were underway. CPM state secretary A Vijayaraghavan put it in stronger terms. The Government was interfering, he said, even in the food habits of the locals. He saw Delhi’s policies as an attempt to convert Lakshadweep into an experimental ground of Hindutva politics. Even the BJP unit in Lakshadweep joined the chorus of protestors.
The power of sentiment showed its worth in the words of Zabith, a resident of the islands. She said: "From the time of my great grandmother, we have been living in this house. If Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation comes into force, I will need their permission to live here for more than three years. Protests are not taking place because of COVID protocol."
If that was a personalised response to the situation that developed, a principle-based perspective was provided by CPM’s A Vijayaraghavan. Noting that "the Government interferes even in food traditions (read, beef consumption) of local residents", he said: "What is happening is a dastardly attempt to convert Lakshadweep into an experimental ground for Hindutva Politics."
How far Hindutva politics can go when confronted by Malayali politics is unsure. It is a state where the BJP has failed to gain a foothold. Even the best efforts of a manipulator like Praful Patel will not find it easy to break Malayali cultural barricades. That won’t bother him of course. In his home state itself, he is known as an operator who is not interested in what people think of him. He is trusted by Modi and Amit Shah, and that is all that matters to him.
This is actually a tragedy of Modi and Shah. They do not understand the grassroots feelings of people. Otherwise, they would have seen the importance of what Lakshadweep PCC president Hamdullah Sayeed said: "Those who have more than two children are disqualified from contesting panchayat elections. With this democracy has become meaningless."
So, for a great many people, has the Modi-Shah leadership.