It took three months for news of Indian Independence to reach the coral islands of Lakshadweep in the Arabian Sea—then known as Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands—lying on the sea route between West Asia and North Africa on the one side, and South Asia and Sri Lanka on the other. When the message arrived at the shores of Kavaratti, no one was willing to believe the messenger.
Chekkekeel Khalid had gone with a group of fellow islanders in an odam (a traditional vessel powered by sail) to the mainland in fair weather—before the onset of the monsoon in June—to sell copra, the dried kernel of a coconut, from the islands and purchase rice and other basic commodities in return. He was harangued and taken into custody by the Amin—the administrative representative of the British in the islands—for announcing Independence when the odam returned to the island. It was only after confirmation of Independence by the Malabar Collector—this took a further couple of weeks—that the tricolour was hoisted in the islands. Since then, islanders have made numerous attempts to confer on Chekkekeel Khalid the official status of a freedom fighter. None have met with bureaucratic approval.
Now, 67 years after the British left, Achada Ahmed, president-cum-chief counsellor of the Lakshadweep district panchayat, is sceptical in his assessment of Lakshadweep’s freedom from colonialism. He is not an angry renegade, nor a poster boy for the Arundhati Roy brand of sedition. On the contrary, he is often ridiculed by islanders for being an “illiterate, uncouth representative of the people”—in the administrative structure of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep, the president-cum-chief counsellor of the district panchayat is third in order of precedence after the Administrator and the Member of Parliament—and is the preferred butt of jokes that focus on the political class’ spinelessness in stand ing up to what is popularly perceived as the “autocracy of the administration”.
Yet, even to Achada Ahmed, Lakshadweep is a colony, albeit one ruled by “bureaucrats from the mainland who do not understand our language or culture”. Far from being a singular voice of dissent, his is merely a gentle, almost resigned, assertion of an emotion that has universal resonance in the islands.
akshadweep has room for only one Member of Parliament. Before it became a Union Territory in 1956, Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi were part of Chevayoor constituency in Malabar district of erstwhile Madras. From 1957 to 1967, one member was nominated by the President to represent the islands in the Parliament.
In 1967, the Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands parliamentary constituency was formed, and the election was contested by six independent candidates. P. M. Sayeed was elected by the islanders, and joined the Congress party after the elections. He continued to represent the islands till 2004.
His great adversary was Dr K. K. Muhammed Koya who contested from various parties—Samata Party to Janata Dal United. Together they defined Lakshadweep’s political topography in a manner that had little to do with ideology. Sayeed and Koya were ideologies unto themselves, demigods from whose spell the islanders never extricated themselves. Their sway was total; it’s a popular joke in the islands that even a newborn belongs to one of the two camps; that even the coconut trees are not neutral. Unsurprisingly, Lakshadweep is among the constituencies with the highest polling percentage.
Dr Koya died in 2001 and his faction joined the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In 2004, P. M. Sayeed was defeated for the first time by Dr P. Pookkunji Koya. He died the following year. In 2009, his son Hamdullah Sayeed won the seat back for the Congress.
For the 2014 elections, there are six parties. The principal fight is between Hamdullah Sayeed and P. P. Muhammed Faizal of the NCP. Haji Sayyid Muhammed Koya Thangal of the BJP, Haji C. T. Najmudheen of the Commnist Party of India (CPI), Dr Abdul Muneer of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], and Sayid Mohammed Kasim of the Samajwadi Party are the other candidates.
It is a symbolic fight for the BJP and Samajwadi Party. But for the CPI and the CPI(M), it is primarily a battle for the title of Lakshadweep’s official Communist party— CPI was formed by a faction led by Haji C.T. Najmudheen, which was earlier a part of the CPI (M).
he oddity of a Haji as the BJP candidate is explained by the fact that every native on Lakshadweep is a Muslim. The Gazetteer of India: Union Territory of Lakshadweep (1977) marks the religious transformation brought by the conversion of the entire population to Islam—the early colonisers of the islands, according to The Gazetteer, were Hindus—as the most significant event in its history. Popular belief on the advent of Islam centres around the Arab saint Ubaidullah, who reached Amini in Hejira 41 (AD 663) on a drifting plank following a shipwreck. Ubaidullah, universally known in the islands as Munbe Mullakka, died at Androth and his grave is enshrined there in a mosque. All the Juma mosques on the islands of Amini, Kalpeni, Agatti and Kavaratti are believed to have been founded by the saint.
For Haji Najmudheen, who describes Lakshadweep as the President’s own islands where democracy is a stranger, the fight for self-governance is essentially a fight for the expression of democratic dissent.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes list (Modification) Order 1956 treats Lakshadweep inhabitants as Scheduled Tribes if both parents are born in the islands. Despite the centuries of Islam, the islands have a rigorously defined and enforced caste hierarchy which has often been the decisive factor in politics. The three-tier caste structure is made up of Koyas (the chief land owning class), the Malmis (sailor class), and the Melacheris (labour class). Some islanders claim this un-Islamic set-up was introduced by the British as part of colonial policy—the argument being that there is no one surnamed Koya in the British census of 1895. It’s a bit more relaxed now, but inter-caste marriage alliances still run into major trouble.
Despite the fierce political rivalry, all parties are in agreement on the need for self-governance for Lakshadweep. While Muhammed Faizal wants a territorial assembly, Hamdullah Sayeed feels Lakshadweep’s development crises can be solved if the district panchayat has the supreme authority. Sayeed does not think that an assembly is practical in Lakshadweep because of the scattered nature of the islands, their small size, and paltry population. For Haji Najmudheen, the only candidate who has been a political prisoner and who describes Lakshadweep as the President’s own islands where democracy is a stranger, the fight for self-governance is essentially a fight for the expression of democratic dissent.
“The most dreadful consequence of governance by the Administrator,” he says, “is that the people of Lakshadweep have forgotten they live in a democratic country. What has been surrendered without ever having been exercised is the right of the islanders to protest.”
His rage is corroborated by a judicial system in shambles, the absence of a Human Rights Commission, and by the administration’s indiscriminate use of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code—which prohibits unlawful assembly of more than five people—to quell even the slightest whisper of a discordant voice.
he Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi islands became a Union Territory on November 1, 1956, headed by an Administrator appointed by the President under Article 239(1) of the Constitution. Before that, the Amindivi group of islands—Amini, Kadmat, Kiltan, Chetlat—were under South Kanara district while Laccadive and Minicoy—Kavaratti, Agatti, Kalpeni, Androth, Minicoy—were part of Malabar district. The seat of the Administrator remained in Kozhikode, Kerala, till 1964 when it shifted to Kavaratti, the headquarters island.
Though virtually the supreme democratic body in Lakshadweep, the Lakshadweep district panchayat is in effect a mere implementing organ of the administration—a disabled panchayat.
On November 1, 1973, it was officially named Lakshadweep—one hundred thousand isles (laksha: one hundred thousand; dweep: island). Another interpretation of the name is that the loan given to the to the Raja of Cannanore by the East India Company to look after the four southern islands ran into lakhs of rupees, and so these four were known as Laccadive or Lakshadweep. However, this is not corroborated by history.
The Pradesh Council, established in 1990, with separate councils for each island, was the territory’s first self-governance body. A mini-assembly of sorts with an advisory nature, the council functioned till 1998 when a two-tier panchayat system came into existence following the Panchayat Raj Act. (According to the official website, though, the district panchayat came into existence only in January 2003.)
The system consists of a district panchayat headquartered in Kavaratti and ten dweep panchayats in each island. The district panchayat is headed by a president-cum-chief counsellor, a designation unique to Lakshadweep. The incumbent, Achada Ahmed, describes it as a “body without a head”; and his own designation as “a president-cum-chief counsellor whose power to counsel is the prerogative of the Administrator”—the man he is designated to counsel.
Though virtually the supreme democratic body in Lakshadweep, the Lakshadweep district panchayat is in effect a mere implementing organ of the administration—a disabled panchayat, in the words of L. P. Hamzakoya, joint chief executive officer of the panchayat. Its primary function is to execute schemes conceptualised and designed by the administration, made up of officials who do not belong to or speak the language of the islands, and who do not comprehend the logic of the development model the islanders demand.
The total absence of grassroots planning, the obvious consequence of such a system, is best exemplified by the eastern jetty in Kavaratti. It was built against the advice of the islanders who repeatedly warned the administration of the threat of high waves and strong currents. They were not heeded, but when completed, the jetty was unusable. It is now a favoured destination for anglers and water-gazers.
Similar is the case with the use of tetrapods as barrier material in breakwaters on the beaches. According to an official at the Department of Science and Technology—who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the administration—tetrapods are detrimental to the coral ecosystem of the islands. They cause widespread damage to the reefs, and are cited as one of the prime reasons for the disappearance of sea-turtles from the beaches.
The eastern jetty in Kavaratti was built against the advice of islanders who warned of high waves and strong currents. When completed, the jetty was unusable. It is now a favoured destination for anglers and water-gazers.
Yet another example—one the islanders often recount to illustrate the administrative insensitivity to the ground realities—is the coconut harvesting scheme. It is a scheme of vital significance, since coconut is the only cash crop of the islands. The scheme requires each climber to climb 15 trees. The plea of people from islands like Androth and Kalpeni, to take into consideration the sizeable height of coconut trees in their islands compared to the rest of the islands, was ignored, eventually leading to the scheme’s failure on these islands.
“What is the panchayat for if we don’t have the right to conceptualise our schemes?” asks Achada. “What is the point in describing the panchayat as a self-governing body if all we can do, and all that is expected of us, is to act like obedient servants of the administration?”
To drive home his point, Achada narrates the plight of the ₹125 crore Lakshadweep Special Package project. “We had gone to Delhi and discussed the project with the ministry, which promised to sanction the package. I personally met Sonia Gandhi to inform her about the significance of the package. It was sent to the Administrator for comments. But we never heard about it after that.”
In theory, six departments—medical, agriculture, education, fisheries, animal husbandry, and the panchayat—have been devolved to the district panchayat, but the administration’s control over the directorate of each of these departments ensures that funds released to the panchayat for schemes to be implemented by these departments are always tied. Not just that, the panchayat must submit the utilisation certificates for the schemes every quarter while the departments that rest with the administration need to do the same only annually.
This leads to inordinate delays in the release of funds, which in turn delays payment of salaries to panchayat employees, since salaries too are drawn from the same funds. Achada doesn’t buy the explanation that the delay is due either to the delay, or non-submission, of utilisation certificates. “Why then the double standards? Why can’t we too be allowed to submit our certificates annually? And what about those schemes for which utilisation certificates have been issued? Why should there be a delay even then?
Though everyone agrees on the nature and gravity of their predicament, campaigning is marked by a stark refusal to address these issues.
“The panchayat is answerable to its employees, but what can I do if the administration does not release funds to even pay salaries?” he asks, before terming the administration’s policies as “deliberate attempts to subvert democracy by maligning the panchayat in front of the people of Lakshadweep”.
As for the development and implementation of its own schemes, the district panchayat is allotted a mere ₹30 lakh, an amount Achada regards as an insult.
“What projects does the administration expect us to develop with this pittance? Better give us the leftovers from its budget, and we will still make Lakshadweep district panchayat a model for the whole country.”
ronically, though everyone agrees on the nature and gravity of their predicament, campaigning is marked by a stark refusal to address these issues. Instead, the defining trait of the campaigns is an affirmation of the frenzied individual-centric politics Lakshadweep has been besotted with since the days of P. M. Sayeed and Dr Koya.
While the Congress attack on NCP is centred on the corruption charges against P. P. Muhammed Faizal, the NCP’s counter-attack is along similar lines, presenting Hamdullah Sayeed as a dynast who has amassed disproportionate wealth in his tenure as a Member of Parliament. The absence of an MP’s office at Kavaratti is often cited as an example of Hamdullah’s incompetence, but the focus, rather than on the implications of such an absence, is on the few jobs the islanders would have got if the office was present.
What is drowned in this riot of slander is the possibility of meaningful debates on a host of deep-seated problems pivotal to the islands’ future.
This year, a slew of prominent Congress leaders—the most important of them being Mohammed Kasim, once the right-hand man of P. M. Sayeed and now a business mogul, and popularly referred to as Irachi Kachi (Meat Kachi) because he started his career as a butcher—have shifted their allegiance to the NCP, and their speeches, the star attractions of NCP campaigns, add spice to the personal attacks against Hamdullah Sayeed and other Congress leaders.
The Congress retorts by dishing out equally colourful diatribes against the “traitors”.
However, what is drowned in this riot of slander is the possibility of meaningful debates on a host of deep-seated problems pivotal to the islands’ future, which is not something all of the younger voters are inclined to overlook. They feel dismayed at the undercurrent of idolatry that runs even today in an election contested primarily by two young candidates.
Mohammed Yaseen P. V., a staunch Congress loyalist because he was born into a family of staunch Sayeed loyalists, and Sayed Hamid Cheriya Koya, a staunch NCP loyalist because he was born into a family of staunch NCP loyalists, both think the political ethos of Lakshadweep requires a complete overhaul.
Recently, almost one lakh tuna cans had to be destroyed because no market could be found for it.
They hope that a departure from the past is inevitable, and suggest, in spite of the flimsy evidence at their disposal, that the future has already begun.
For Jaleel Kunnam, a CPI activist and once a fierce NCP supporter, the teenage disillusionment he once went through is now a thing of the distant past. “We may not win this time, nor was victory our prime objective, but we have strongly announced ourselves. No one can ignore us, and inshallah, many more young men and women will follow us in the future. The two-party system does not have a future anymore in Lakshadweep.”
Perhaps that is true, but no one is contemplating a political solution to the administration’s autocratic ways, to the total disregard it has for local participation in governance. For instance, it retains complete control over the key departments of tourism, and shipping and transportation. It also retains the power to run Lakshadweep Development Corporation Limited (LDCL), originally conceived to create jobs for the islanders by building production units and identifying market spaces for Lakshadweep’s coconut products and dried tuna (popularly called mas).
LDCL now functions primarily as a shipping company; its website describes it as the “largest passenger vessel management company”. (Interestingly, H. Rajesh Prasad, the present Administrator, and Hamdullah Sayeed, the sitting MP, feel LDCL should hand over the responsibility of running the ships to the Shipping Corporation of India.)
As examples of LDCL’s ineptitude, Achada cites two cases: “Recently, almost one lakh tuna cans had to be destroyed because no market could be found for it. Also lakhs of rupees have been squandered as the desiccated coconut powder produced here was unsold.” Since LDCL, as well as SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports, a society formed in 1982 by the Lakshadweep administration with the avowed aim of trapping the tourism potential of the islands), is headed by the Administrator, the islanders find themselves in a situation where they are left without any appealing body to which they can voice their grievances.
“Are we expected to complain to the Administrator that the performance of the chairman of LDCL and SPORTS, who also happens to be the Administrator, has to be reviewed? Or are we supposed to go and knock at Pranab Mukherjee’s door every day? Why should and how on earth can one person take up so many responsibilities? He heads Vigilance, he is Inspector-General of Police, he heads LDCL, he heads tourism and he is also the Administrator. ”
The Lakshadweep District Panchayat, according to Achada, can be considered a self-governing body only if it has a significant say in running the devolved departments and execute its own projects, and if it has a greater say in running LDCL.
Hamdullah Sayed’s flex boards list his achievements as MP—among them that he has visited several countries as part of government delegations.
The panchayat is considering the possibility of approaching the judiciary for the realisation of these demands. Achada Ahmed is hopeful that islanders will unite in this fight for freedom. “We might belong to different parties, but all parties in Lakshadweep are effectively under the mercy of the Administrator. Unless we resist the administration with collective conviction, we stand no chance.”
ampaigning in Lakshadweep is earnest yet laid-back, in tune with the humid indolence of its sunny days which gives way to the almost deathlike torpor of its roasting afternoons, to the fervent political buzz of its breezy evenings, and finally to the languid gossip sessions—attended by men, women and children alike—of its beachside late nights. Along with the walls, the coconut trees too are pasted with posters of the candidates. On the last day of campaigning, both Congress and NCP organised road shows in Kavaratti, travelling from one end to the other in tractors and open cars, blaring out ardent odes to their candidates and song parodies of their opponents.
While Hamdullah Sayed’s flex boards list his achievements as an MP—one among them being that he has visited several countries as part of government delegations—and reiterates the significance of P. M. Sayeed’s legacy, P. P. Muhammed Faizal’s flex boards project him as an agent of change, and as the voice of the island—insinuating a popular notion in the islands that Hamdullah Sayeed, who was born and brought up in Delhi and who is married to a woman from Haryana, is incapable of comprehending the real problems of the island.
In Lakshadweep’s Islamic society both communist parties say that their version of communism is the true political practice of the Quran.
It is almost impossible to get ship or air tickets to the islands at this time, as the islanders, wherever they might be in the mainland, make it a point to be present for the election. In a weird sort of way, Parliament, for the islanders, also functions as an alibi for family reunions. In case they fail to procure a ticket, the political party to which they or their family have sworn loyalty will ensure that they get one, for every single vote matters in the smallest constituency of India with an electorate that stands at 49,821.
“The elections are like a festival for us, and there is no way we’re going to miss it,” says Maryath, a student in Kerala who managed to arrange a last minute air ticket for herself to Agatti from Kochi.
In Lakshadweep, where there are no cinema theatres and where Internet connectivity is so slow that surfing is an annoying exercise in tedium, politics is also a stage and medium for wholesome entertainment. Even the most intense political discussions are lightened up with an occasional joke or two, and after 9 p.m., the beaches are filled with men and women, young and old, who exchange the latest political gossip with unabashed mirth. Since everyone knows everyone else—an inescapable aftermath of geographical isolation—gossip, according to islanders, has over the years been fine-tuned into an art form. Song parodies on candidates and popular political figures are a particular favourite of the islanders. The people who write and sing these songs are treated as underground artists.
In Lakshadweep’s Islamic society whose political class takes care to project itself as the chosen people of Allah, both communist parties say that their version of communism, far from being a heretical advertisement for a godless world, is the true political practice of the Quran. Even the BJP takes pains to establish Narendra Modi as a saviour of Muslims.
Kavaratti, the headquarters island with an area of 4.22 sq km, maximum length of 5.8 km, and a width of 1.6 km, is laced by a network of flat, narrow cemented roads that run crisscross, and populated by houses with tiled roofs and verandas, and by 52 mosques—the most spectacular among them being the Ujra Mosque, built by Sheikh Mohammed Kasim in the 17th century with an ornate ceiling believed to have been carved out of a single log of driftwood.
Located in the centre of the archipelago, the island is two to five metres above mean sea level on the west and two to three metres on the east, graced by warm, narrow beaches with silken white sand. The emerald lagoons around Kavaratti, to the west of the island, are considered one of the most remarkable aquatic habitats in the world, inhabited by dreamlike fish and surreal corals.
To the south lies Chicken Neck point, a paradise if ever there was one, for water sports fanatics. Despite being in every sense a tropical Shangri-la, the island is not a busy tourist destination. Only a few tourist huts and guesthouses have so far popped up.
According to a DANICS (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Island Civil Services) official, the slow growth of tourism is a consequence of the “rigidity of the Islamic cultural system in the Islands which is a major deterrent for tourism”. The islanders, though, insist that they prefer to promote only such brands of tourism that do not violate the ethos of their religious and cultural worlds. They believe only high-end tourism needs to be encouraged, and that too only on uninhabited islands.
We live in an island, cut off from the mainland, and we have never known democracy the way the rest of the country has known it.
In Kavaratti, the campaign is comparatively subdued, which islanders ascribe to the presence of the Secretariat and the Administrator. It is merely a roundabout way of stating that the Secretariat is the strategic epicentre of Lakshadweep politics, for such is the clout wielded by the two prominent government unions—the Lakshadweep Government Employees Union (LGEU) backing the NCP and the Lakshadweep Employees Parishat (LEP) backing the Indian National Congress.
Ironically for, or perhaps symbolic of, a society that has bore the brunt of administrative despotism, the Secretariat remains the pinnacle of career ambitions for most of the educated youth. Even the educated youth is reluctant to go out of the islands and seek jobs elsewhere. “It is a mindset we have not been able to rid ourselves of,” Yaseen concedes.
“We live in an island, cut off from the mainland, and we have never known democracy the way the rest of the country has known it. Maybe that’s why we are hesitant to come out of our comfort zones.”
The Secretariat and its premises consist of scattered and unremarkable two- or three-storied buildings that function as various offices; an indoor stadium and a gymnasium; a tennis court by the sea; and a few abandoned government vehicles. Employees usually arrive around 10 a.m. and an hour or thereabouts later, most of them take up seats in the canteen. The offices and the canteen are constantly abuzz with political discussions, and around noon, the officials go for prayers to the mosque from where most return to their homes. They would come back by 3 p.m., and by about 4 p.m. the canteen is full again. At 4.30 p.m. most end the day’s work.
“If the islands are comfort zones for us, no place is as comfortable as the Secretariat. The islanders cannot really be blamed for their obsession with a government job,” says Yaseen, without any attempt at sarcasm.
This year, the delay in issuing the voter slips led to considerable discontent among the public, some of them even suggesting foul play. Voter slips were being issued even late into the night on the eve of the election. The administration chose to downplay the issue, citing that the voter slip is not a mandatory document.
Owing to the strategic significance of the islands, security has been considerably beefed up, with a force estimated at around 800 deployed from the Lakshadweep police, Kerala police, and the Indian Reserve Battalion.
The three-tier security system, however, is viewed with much suspicion by islanders. “Nobody has explained all this security. I have lived all my life here, and I cannot recall one violent election,” says Ahmed Hamzath, a 71-year-old who has voted since 1967. There is a growing feeling—one born of a breakdown in communication between the administration and the islanders—that this massive security arrangement is a deliberate ploy to create an impression that Lakshadweep is a disturbed area.
While the implications of the emergence of such mass paranoia are freely discussed in private, including in the Secretariat, few are willing to spell out their fears in public. Haji C. T. Najmudheen, the CPI candidate, is one of them. He has no doubt that such large-scale deployment of police force is a direct consequence of the island’s religion. “It is because the entire native population in Lakshadweep is Muslim that they have posted such a strong police force here,” he states unequivocally, before adding, “Lakshadweep will become another Kashmir if this is how the administration is going to rule us.”
In fact, the islanders do not consider such acts as part of a recent policy shift; they have been cynical for a while now. In December 2009, when then President of India, Pratibha Patil, visited the islands, people were barred by the administration from even stepping on the roads. None of them could meet the President, who was taken away to the uninhabited island of Bangaram—reserved exclusively for tourism and the only island in Lakshadweep where alcohol is permitted, an island that is also one of the preferred holiday spots of the Gandhi family.
The democracy in Lakshadweep is superior
H. Rajesh Prasad, Administrator, Union Territory of Lakshadweep
What are the challenges faced by the administrator in Lakshadweep?
The most important challenge, obviously, is the geographical isolation. We have to depend on shipping and air connectivity which is not reliable, especially during the monsoons. So connectivity issues among the islands pose special challenges. Except for coconuts and fish, we depend on the mainland for even basic commodities. In spite of this, I think we are doing a fine job. For example, we have 20-hour electricity supply at ₹1.50 a unit, one of the cheapest in the country. But production cost is one of the highest in the country—around ₹27—because the diesel has to be transported from Kozhikode and Mangalore.
Another example would be the mid day meals scheme where we spent ₹13.50 per child from pre-primary level to higher secondary whereas the national norm is only ₹3.50 per child, that too only at primary school level. Every student who wants to take up higher education is given a seat of his choice, and all his expenditure is taken care of by the administration.
How do you respond to allegations that coordination between the panchayat and the administration is almost non-existent?
I do not think there is disconnect between the administration and the people. We have a panchayat raj system here which is very dynamic. There is a day-to-day communication between the administration and the panchayat and all issues are discussed threadbare. Decisions on any major development activity involve public participation. Our job is to release the funds, put it in their account, take their audit statement, and release further funds. The kind of democracy in this territory, I would like to think, is superior to the democracy practised in states with elected governments. Nothing is hidden here; transparency is absolute.
Is the judicial system in shambles? How do you account for the absence of bodies like Human Rights Commission and Minority Commission?
I disagree that the judicial system is in shambles. The crime rate is very low, there are not many arrests. There are not many cases files, and not many cases reported. As for judges not being in the Kavaratti District and Sessions Court, and Andrott First Class Magistrate, we have already taken up the issue and the issue will be sorted out. Our territory is too small to have a full-fledged Human Rights Commission or a Minority Commission. We ensure that there are no human rights violations here. The administration provides all basic amenities. Besides, all these come directly under the control of the Central Government, and therefore under the corresponding central commissions. Most importantly, unlike in other states where the state governments have to refer cases to the CBI, here the CBI can take up suo motu investigation.
Why has LDCL moved from its original goals and become in effect a shipping company? How do you account for the failures of various LDCL projects like the tuna canning factory, the fibre extraction unit, the desiccated coconut powder factory etc?
These units have all been established in the public sector for the creation of local employment. Our wage cost is more than we realise from sale of products. Of, course we have invested a lot to modernise these institutions. As you know, any public sector venture has its own demerits, but people here are not ready for private sector. Add to that problems posed by geographical isolation. So despite losses for the last 30-odd years, these organisations are maintained just to ensure employment opportunities.
As for LDCL now functioning primarily as a shipping company, there are two opinions. One section of people says local youth would lose employment if LDCL hands over the shipping sector to Shipping Corporation of India. The counter argument is that SCI provides higher wages, and is better equipped than LDCL. My personal opinion is that it should be handed over to the Shipping Corporation. But because of the local pulls and pressures I am not in a position to do so.
Why is Section 144 so indiscriminately used in Lakshadweep?
We have used Section 144 only when we felt the situation is tense. The other aspect is that imposing Section 144 has been found effective here; people abide by that. So rather than letting a tense situation get out of control, we think it is in the best interest of the people to have 144 imposed for a short duration.
Personally, what do you think are the steps the people of Lakshadweep need to take to address issues of development?
Lakshadweep is a unique territory both geographically and culturally. They are very tradition bound and I feel people here are not aware of ground realities elsewhere in the country. The society needs to open up. Here, everyone wants a government job; that’s actually the only demand people come to me with. We need to create employment opportunities, and for that high end tourism needs to be developed here. Also, I feel the people should develop a more enthusiastic entrepreneurial spirit.
hile Lakshadweep is renowned for its low, almost non-existent crime rate, what is not known is the disarray of its judicial system. What is also not known is the rampant, and random, use of Section 144 by the administration when confronted with even peaceful protests, or the fact that public meetings can be held only after the administration’s consent has been granted two days before the scheduled meeting. There is no Human Rights Commission, Scheduled Tribes Commission, Minority Commission, Women’s Commission, or an ombudsman, though the administration denotes them as absent presences on account of the fact that since Lakshadweep is a Union Territory all these come directly under their central bodies. Delegates from these bodies too, according to a senior administrative official who requested anonymity, are seldom allowed to interact with the public. Instead they are usually taken straight to Bangaram after a customary meeting held for the record.
The only newspaper in Lakshadweep is the Lakshadweep Times, a four-page fortnightly broadsheet brought out by the administration, and which the islanders ridicule as the “private album of the administration”.
The Kavaratti District and Sessions Court has not functioned for the past 18 months because no judge has been appointed. The First Class Judicial Magistrate’s court at Androth is also dysfunctional for the same reason, leaving Amini as the only island with a functional court—a First Class Judicial Magistrate. This serves to incapacitate functional democracy by eliminating the possibility of dissent and the rights of the dissenter as granted by the Constitution.
Sheikh-ul Akbar, a CPI political activist, was taken into custody in 2011 for protesting against the administration and demanding an increase in wages for anganwadi helpers, who at that time were paid ₹500 a month. He was first kept in Kavaratti police station for seven days—in Lakshadweep, the accused can be kept in remand for seven days—before he was taken to Amini.
Since the assistant public prosecutor was not present—he was at Kavaratti, where his wife works (in Lakshadweep, the men live in the wife’s house)—Sheikh-ul-Akbar was kept in further custody in Amini.
“There was no jail there. We were kept in an old police station converted into a temporary jail. We were hardly given food, and had to fight with the duty policemen posted as jail guards for even food and water.”
Ten more days passed before he was finally sent to the prison at Kavaratti which functions primarily as the storehouse of the police.
The islanders cite the absence of media in Lakshadweep as the major reason for such brazen human rights violations. The only newspaper in Lakshadweep is the Lakshadweep Times, a four-page fortnightly broadsheet brought out by the administration, and which the islanders ridicule as the “private album of the administration”. The state guesthouse keeps a printed copy of The Times of India’s online edition.
During monsoons, a litre of petrol costs around ₹300. There are houses that store as many as 20 barrels, enough to burn down the whole island.
Though many islanders have ambitions of—some have tried and gave up—running a newspaper, logistical difficulties involved in printing and setting up a circulation network, and the prospect of the considerable economic burden that they have to bear act as deterrents: almost insurmountable, in the words of U. C. K Thangal, one of the founding members of the Congress in Lakshadweep, and who edited and published Deepaprabha, the island’s first fortnightly, from 1967 to the beginning of this millennium.
“It is not practically possible to run a newspaper in Lakshadweep. Either you have to be super rich, and willing to squander everything you have got, or you have to be mad”, he says.
While islanders have almost given up on the administration addressing their resentment, even RTI activists are perplexed by the lack of response to their queries. In Kavaratti, M. P. Cheriya Koya (80), the president of the first pradesh council and a prominent Congress leader, and E. P. Attakoya Thangal (71), who retired as the chief executive officer of the district panchayat, are the two prominent RTI users. They are both very angry men with very few friends; even the islanders, though reverential about the duo’s ethical conviction, prefer to maintain a safe distance.
E. P. Attakoya Thangal focuses mainly on issues related to bureaucratic corruption. One of his pet topics is the irregularities in the posting of DANICS and DANIPS officers. “While there are only 13 DANICS posts available here, 27 DANICS officials are posted at present. How are these posts created? How come four Dy. SPs are posted in Women and Child Department? How can an SP be posted as the Director of Ports, a job that requires specific technical expertise? And all this when even those people from Lakshadweep who are qualified are not promoted to DANICS feeder grade. It’s as if anything goes here.”
Cheriya Koya, who also practises as a Mukthiyar at the District and Sessions Court Kavaratti, is livid at the state of the judiciary in Lakshadweep. Notorious for his acid tongue and invective-laden speeches, MPC, as he is popularly known, is not one to mince words. “The administration thinks there should be no judiciary in Lakshadweep. The only judge who is now there in Amini First Class Magistrate is a crony of the administration—he has been posted there for so long now, and all he does is to reject whatever bail plea that comes to him. The standing counsel, whose maximum tenure is six years, has been handling the administration’s cases for more than 20 years now. What can we do when even our RTIs are not replied to?”
Perhaps nothing illustrates the chaos as poignantly as the rampant petrol black market. There are no petrol bunks in the island. It is sold through consumer societies who transport the fuel in ships without the necessary clearances required as per the Indian Explosives Act. To purchase petrol from these societies, one should have a “petrol card”. However, the increase in the number of vehicles has meant that the societies are unable to cater to growing demand. A black market, controlled by prominent leaders of various parties, has been the obvious consequence.
During monsoons, a litre of petrol costs around ₹300. There are houses that store as many as 20 barrels, enough to burn down the whole island.
n keeping with its tradition of high voter turnout, on April 10, 2014, polling day in Lakshadweep, the queues were long at all six booths in Kavaratti. While the polling percentage for the whole constituency stood at 86.79, in Kavaratti it was 88.73.
For old timers, the security arrangements were a stressful novelty. Polling went on peacefully, albeit at a slow pace for which islanders blame the polling officers’ inability to spell and pronounce their names properly. One polling officer was removed following complaints. Polling in one of the booths went on till almost midnight.
The administration attributes the delay to high turnout, an explanation islanders are not willing to buy since they had never experienced such delays despite similar turnouts. Along with the electorate, police too had to put up with the consequences of this delay.
The section worst affected by the three-tier security system in place, and the subsequent delay in polling, was disabled voters. In Lakshadweep, there are around 1,700 disabled people, a percentage of the population that exceeds the national average by almost five times. This is said to be a consequence of the many inter-family marriages. Since they are big in numbers, they are a major vote bank, and as such a decisive factor in elections, a fact not lost on the political parties.
In 2011, they formed the Lakshadweep Disableds Welfare Association under the leadership of Farooq K.K. Till then, they had to travel to Kochi for a medical certificate, but following rigorous campaigning by the Association for their rights, almost 1,600 disabled people in Lakshadweep got medical certificates. They also managed to get reserved seats permanently allocated in ships, a practice that till then was not in place. Though 16 posts are allotted to disabled in the administration, they were not given earlier. Following another round of campaigning, they managed to get 12 posts allotted.
On election day, they had to wait at the barricades for hours in their wheelchairs since polling was slow, and no special provisions were provided.
Now that elections are over, they are planning to campaign for their next demand: to get the office of the Directorate of Social Welfare and Tribal Affairs shifted to the first floor of the building. At present, it is on the second floor where most of them cannot even reach.
Lakshadweep is a matriarchal society
Women have a dominant say, so much so that any home without a girl child is considered a wretched home. Dowry is paid by the groom’s family, and after the marriage the husband moves into the wife’s family. It is perhaps the safest society for women in the country with only one case of domestic abuse reported in the last decade, and no cases of rape or molestation. Women stay on the beaches till late into the night; sometimes they even sleep there.
However, a drastic difference in the levels of education between men and women in the younger generation, is slowly brewing into a potential social crisis. “Most women are graduates or post-graduates, while men are less focused on education. But after marriage, these women usually stay at home while the men go out and work. It is a classic recipe for trouble”, says Sunidha Ismayil, chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board.
“Unfortunately, women are unwilling to come out and work elsewhere if they do not find a government job. Though we are trying our best there is reluctance on their part to work anywhere else other than the Secretariat. Perhaps they are apprehensive about the consequences of violating social norms. They don’t even run tuition centres.”
For Shameera Beegum who became a mother a year ago, an improvement in health facilities is the top priority. “We have no faith in hospitals here, the facilities are so poor”, she says. “If there is a gynaecologist, there will be no cardiologist, and if both are there wouldn’t be a generator operator. No pregnant woman would want to be in an operation theatre here”.
These days, most families prefer to move to Kochi and rent a house there around the fifth month of pregnancy. “It is much better than getting evacuated in a helicopter in the last minute”, she says. Ironically, according to a popular myth about Kavaratti, Sheikh Mohammed Kasim, the 17th century saint who built the Ujra mosque had blessed the women in the island to deliver children without pain.