A storm is brewing over the picturesque Lakshadweep islands off India’s western coast.
The islands' indigenous population is accusing a new administrator appointed by the Indian government of acting against their traditions and interests.
Since taking office in December, Praful Khoda Patel has closed dairies, demolished fishermen's huts on the shore, banned meat from school meals and reversed a nearly 50-year ban on alcohol licences on the islands, where 97 per cent of the 70,000 inhabitants are Muslim.
But it is his proposed law to enable the archipelago, with its white-sand beaches, coral atolls and 97 per cent green cover, to be turned into an international tourist destination like the Maldives that has raised the greatest concern.
The Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021, which is awaiting approval from the federal government, will give the administration sweeping powers to acquire land for infrastructure projects, even without the owner’s consent.
The inhabitants of Lakshadweep, who live on 10 of its 36 islands, fear they could be evicted from their ancestral land on the pretext of development.
One section of the legislation requires landowners to declare the use of their property every three years or else face penalties of about $3,000.
“These laws are an onslaught on our culture, food habits, land rights and employment. This is our forefathers’ land and he wants us to apply for permission to live here,” said P Pookunhi Koya, a former member of parliament for the islands and convener of the Save Lakshadweep Forum.
"Nearly 4,000 people are out of work … [Mr Patel] has closed down animal husbandry without any compensation, razed boats and shacks of fishermen, increased stamp duty charges eight-fold and snatched whatever little powers the village councillors had," Dr Koya told The National.
Residents observed a "black day" on Monday as Mr Patel arrived for a week-long visit. Dressed in all black, they held up banners demanding his dismissal.
Mr Patel said he was there to review the "status of various ongoing development projects".
More than three dozen people have been arrested in recent weeks during protests against Mr Patel. Last week, thousands of residents organised a 12-hour hunger strike and an underwater protest with divers holding placards that read "Save Lakshadweep" and "Remove Patel".
The official's decision in January to lift the quarantine rule for visitors was followed by the first Covid-19 infections on the islands since the pandemic began. There have been more than 9,000 cases and 43 deaths since then.
As one of India’s nine Union Territories, Lakshadweep is governed directly by the federal government in New Delhi, unlike the 28 states which have locally elected administrations. The territories are run either by federally appointed administrators or locally elected governments with limited powers.
Although unelected, administrators have total control of a territory and its people. They can draft new laws that require approval only from the federal government to take effect.
Lakshadweep’s previous administrators have been technocrats or bureaucrats, whereas Mr Patel is a career politician with close ties to the prime minister.
He served as home minister of Gujarat when Mr Modi led the state’s government. Two years after Mr Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, he appointed Mr Patel as the administrator of Daman and Diu, and later that year of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, another union territory.
Mr Patel was given the additional charge of Lakshadweep after the previous administrator died of an illness.
Since taking charge, Mr Patel has also proposed a law to criminalise cow slaughter and beef consumption, a policy promoted by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. According to a report by the National Statistical Office in 2012, more than 65 per cent of the islanders eat beef.
He has also drafted a law barring anyone with more than two children from holding seats on the islands’ village councils. Another law includes a jail term of up to one year without trial for “antisocial activities”, in a region that recorded just 89 cases of petty crime last year.
"These draconian, unilateral regulations are an attempt to invade our culture and commit atrocities against the indigenous inhabitants of the island," Muneer Manikfaan, vice president of the village council on Minicoy island, told The National.
“We have a history of living here since 1500 BC and they are trying to eliminate us from the islands."
Mr Patel said that developing the islands into a tourist attraction like the Maldives will improve the lives of locals.
“The draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation will usher in development and go a long way in improving the social and economic indicators on the islands, which have so far lagged behind despite having the potential,” he told an Indian media outlet in May.
“The islands are similar to the Maldives and we want to develop them on similar lines. We want to develop sustainable infrastructure and promote sustainable tourism,” he said.
“You see the Maldives ... tourists are waiting in a queue to visit there.”
But residents fear the sudden interest in the region is driven by crony capitalism and religious motives.
“We have never experienced such a situation before,” Dr Manikfaan said. “They have their business and political interests and communal agendas.”
Mr Patel's actions have also caused outrage among activists and politicians on the mainland.
Members of the ruling Communist Party alliance in Kerala’s state assembly passed a resolution last month calling for Mr Patel’s removal.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, expressed support for the islanders.
“Lakshadweep is India’s jewel in the ocean. The ignorant bigots in power are destroying it. I stand with the people of Lakshadweep,” he wrote on Twitter.
Wajahat Habibullah, a former administrator of Lakshadweep, said the new regulations were a complete contradiction of development norms determined over decades.
He is one of a group of 93 former bureaucrats who have urged Mr Modi to reject Mr Patel’s draft laws, saying they “constitute an onslaught on the very fabric of Lakshadweep society, economy and landscape.”
"With a fragile coral ecology, the island territories needed a distinct approach to the entire concept of their development," Mr Habibullah told The National.
“The current administrator only holds additional charge of this union territory and is only an occasional visitor. The regulations also demonstrate that he has little understanding of the development needs of the islands,” he said.