By K.M. Seethi
Lakshadweep, the Indian Archipelago in the southwest Arabian Sea—the smallest Union Territory (UTL) of India—is in the throes of an existential crisis emerging from a spate of administrative orders and regulations. The crisis also spills over into the mainland, and the south Indian state of Kerala is evidently worried about the unfolding scenario due to its historical and cultural links with the Island. The developments leading to a near breakdown manifest in the form of human security redlines compounded by multilevel threats to the Island’s fragile ecosystem. The UTL Administration’s controversial regulations and their ‘cross conditionalities’ are increasingly viewed as ‘invitation to disaster’ as analysed before (Seethi 2021).
For a native population of nearly 70,000—who live in 11 of the 36 islands—the question of survival now depends on how the Union Government negotiates with the people, their representatives and other stakeholders of the Island in the coming days. Alongside this, the internal security of Lakshadweep seems to naturally dovetail with the larger security dynamics of the mainland—from the point of view of India’s maritime security and its Indian Ocean strategy. Even as the current impasse is to be addressed within a framework of human and ecological security of the Archipelago, the threat scenario from a broader perspective of India’s maritime governance architecture is also underscored. The role of Kerala in the making of India’s Lakshadweep policy is also very crucial from different vantage points.
The continuing predicament of the Archipelago can be analysed in relation to (i) the history of the global and regional connectivity of the Islands;(ii) the postcolonial reorganisation and governance; and (iii) India’s recalibrated maritime security. Insofar as the question of ‘boundary-sovereignty’ is essentially a part of the post-Westphalian engagement of international relations, the ‘inside/outside’ problematic of small states and islands needs to be engaged from a much broader level, beyond a state-centric framework This would add some substance to the discourses already underway even as the people in the Archipelago are caught in a Catch-22 situation with the state of Kerala throwing its full weight behind the disgruntled population of the Island.
Lakshadweep (formerly Laccadive), like other islands across the world, functioned more or less as part of the colonial security aperture or corridors of the colonial expansion in southern Asia. Many islands in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific were the appendages of the imperialist metropolises in the days of the colonial expansion in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Lakshadweep also had to curl up with the vestige of this ‘global dynamics’ of the European colonial powers. Before the advent of the colonial powers, and in short intervals during the colonial period, the Islands were run and managed from the Malabar coast—which is now part of Kerala.
The Island’s early engagements with the global dynamics of Islam and the Arab trade were shrouded in cryptic events, legends and traditions. The early human settlement, according to colonial records, was about 1200 years ago when people from the Malabar coast (now part of Kerala) had reached the Islands. Writing in Logan’s Malabar Manual (vol II), V. Chappu Menon noted that the “first occupation” was related to “an accident” referred to by Robinson, Head Assistant Collector of Malabar. Menon says: “A tradition is preserved among them that their forefathers formed part of an expedition from Malaya, which set out for Mecca in search of their apostate King, Cheraman Perumal, and was wrecked on these islands. The inhabitants certainly remained Hindus long after their first settlement and were probably converted to Islam not more than 250 or 300 years back” (Logan vol. II 1887/2000: ccIxxv). Robinson, however, wrote that though the “earlier and partial occupation” was “attributed to accident”, “considerable voluntary immigration” had “also taken place, especially of the lower classes from the coast” (Robinson 1874: 9). He further noted, the traditions of the islanders indicated that “even during the early centuries their ancestors carried on an active trade with the coast of India and the more distant harbours of Cutch and Arabia.” The islanders embraced Islam “at some period subsequent to the thirteenth century” (Ibid:10). The legend of Shiekh Ubaidullah (a seventh century Arab saint) having reached the Island following a shipwreck and started preaching Islam in the islands was also very strong. But there are no authentic historical evidences to prove that Islam had arrived in the Island in the seventh century.
With the advent of the Portuguese on the Malabar coast—by the late fifteenth century—Laccadive began to gain some prominence for seafarers. That was the time when, as Menon wrote, “the islanders were probably always more or less dependent on the princess of the Kolathiri family and the admirals of their fleets, the progenitors of the Mappila house of Cannanore” now in Kerala (Logan vol. II 1887/2000: ccIxxv). With the arrival of the Portuguese, the pattern of spice trade shifted and the Europeans began to hold sway over the Arab traders. Initially, the rulers of Calicut (Zamorin) welcomed the Portuguese, but encounters with them became inevitable when the Portuguese resorted to ruthless practices by marginalising the Muslim traders. Henry Menezes who succeeded Vasco da Gama as Viceroy also took measures to stifle the trade of local communities through force, bargain and pressures (Logan vol. I 1887/2000: 325).
As Zamorin did not yield to the pressures of the Portuguese, conflicts intensified. Thus, one of India’s first native resistances against colonial forces started off here on the Malabar coast. Zamorin’s naval commander, the Kunjali Marakkar, led the naval war against the Portuguese from 1507 to 1600 and Marakkar held the credit of spearheading the first naval defence of the Indian coast.
Writing on this history of resistance against the Portuguese, Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum noted that during this period “the accursed Portuguese started out in angry mood to despoil Adhraja of his islands (Laccadives) in Malabar. The Portuguese went in their corvettes and attacked the island of Amini where they killed a large number of inhabitants, captured more than four hundred men and women, plundered almost everything of value, and burnt many houses and mosques. Before they descended upon Amini, they went to Shaytlakam (Chetlatt) where they slew some of the people and captured some.” He said: “The inhabitants in all these islands were ignorant of the use of weapons, and there was none competent to fight. Notwithstanding this, a large number of the people fought against the enemy and fell as martyrs” (Makhdum 2009: 79-80). Makhdum tried to portray this as part of the Islamic Jihad.
After the encounter in 1545, the Portuguese were “exterminated by poison owing to the intrigues of the Kolathiri princes,” Menon wrote (Logan vol. II 1887/2000: ccIxxv). The islands then came under the Arakkal family of Cannanore. Even as the Amindivi group of islands fell into the hands of Tipu Sultan, the Laccadive group of islands, such as Kavaratti, Agatti, and Andrott, was controlled by the Arakkal family. When Tipu was killed in 1799—in the battle with the British in Seringapatam—the islands came under the British East Indian Company (Logan vol. I 1887/2000: 526).
For the islanders, the British rule was not as oppressive as that of the Portuguese; yet, it exhibited all the characteristics of the colonial administration with manipulation and appropriation of resources continuing as elsewhere in the mainland. Meanwhile the administration brought in the Lacaadive Islands and Minicoy Regulation 1912 which granted restricted power of judicial and magisterial status to Amins/Karanis of the islands (Innes 1915).
Though social life in the Island was relatively peaceful (with Islam being the religion of the majority), the caste hierarchy and issues of discrimination were reported from time to time. This was primarily due to the legacy of social stratification imported from the Malabar coast where caste hierarchy was prevalent among the Hindus. Curiously, the islanders who embraced Islam did not shed ‘norms’ of social hierarchisation. Consequently, the three sections of Muslims in the Island—Koyas, Malmis, and Melacheris—carried the burden of caste rigidities with the Koyas exercising the role of upper ‘castes’((Logan vol. II 1887/2000: ccIxxiv).
Even as the nationalist movement gathered momentum in the mainland in early twentieth century, there was not much political activity heard from the Islands. Nor were there any particular issue or repercussions reported in relation to the Malabar rebellion (1921-22) against the British which eventually marred the perceptions of Hindu-Muslim relations in the state. Though the island was primarily of the Muslim population, there was hardly any sympathy for or solidarity with the idea of ‘Muslim nationalism’ (Pakistan movement. There were reports that even the painful moments of partition did not find any reflection in the Island, probably due to inaccessibility and lack of communication. However, the terms of the territorial division of the Indian subcontinent did not directly apply to the future of the two British-controlled islands—Laccadive and Andaman and the Nicobar Islands. That naturally prolonged the destiny of the islands from the point of their identity and governance.
Postcolonial Identity and Governance
Identity and governance became a persistent concern of many postcolonial states. This found a visible expression in ‘multi-cultural’ and ‘multi-territorial’ states like India and Pakistan. The Indian Independence Act, 1947 did not have any direct provisions dealing with the future of these Islands under the colonial control, except the clauses averring the lapse of British paramountcy and the destiny of princely states. Being strategically located, and having not directly appeared in the partition plan, Laccadive and Andaman and the Nicobar Islands would have given a breathing time for all stakeholders to think about their future. Laccadive having more administrative and maritime contacts with the Malabar coast (as part of the Madras Presidency) had better chances to try its destiny with Kerala. But that did not happen except for some transient administrative arrangements.
Meanwhile there were reports about a Pakistan attempt in August 1947 “to annex the Laccadive.” Though there were stories and statements in circulation after several years, no authentic records were available to verify this. A Lahore-based newspaper The Friday Times carried a story on 9 August 2019 by Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir in which the author said that “Pakistan missed an opportunity in the Laccadives in 1947.” He said that had Pakistan captured the Island, it “would have had an oceanic outpost close to the equator. The geostrategic and defence benefits would have been immense and Pakistan would also have tropical island destination that would rival the Maldives as a touristic haven.” Ali Nasir wrote that Lakshadweep was “the only Muslim-majority constituent unit in India”, yet it was “overlooked by the All India Muslim League and later the newly formed Government of Pakistan.” However, there were reports that Liaquat Ali Khan sought “to make this remote and tropical archipelago a southern extension of Pakistan in the Indian Ocean” and hence tried “to take control of the islands in August 1947.” According to Ali Nasir, Pakistan would have come to know about this Muslim majority Island from the “Malabari Muslim community in Karachi” who were involved in the spice trade at that time. Then the Royal Pakistan Navy had apparently sent a frigate from Karachi. However, by that time, Sardar Patel, India’s deputy prime minister and home minister, had acted swiftly to ensure the Island’s integration with India (Nasir 2019).
After two months of the Friday Times story, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his fifth episode of the radio programme—Mann Ki Baat 2.0—on 27 October 2019 acknowledged that Sardar Patel “played a far more significant role” in the integration of Lakshadweep with India. He said that Pakistan “had cast an eye on Lakshadweep; a ship bearing their flag was sent there.” As soon as Patel came to know about it, “he wasted no time in initiating stern action.” Modi said Patel had immediately “urged the Mudaliar brothers—Arcot Ramaswamy Mudaliar and Arcot Laxman Swamy Mudaliar—to immediately undertake a mission with people of Travancore to Lakshadweep and take the lead in unfurling the Tricolour there.” Following his orders, they promptly hoisted the Indian flag in the islands and the aim of Pakistan was thus “decimated within no time.” Modi also said that Patel then sought to ensure all assistance for the development of Lakshadweep (India, Press Information Bureau 2019).
In the post-independence period, Lakshadweep, however, witnessed several changes at the administrative, legal and other levels. S.Y. Krishnaswamy Report (1955) recorded a comprehensive profile of these changes. The Report underlined the fact that in spite of the geographical distance from, and inaccessibility to, the mainland, the islanders were, by no means, backward and their human relations were much better than that of the mainland. While the inhabitants were ethnically coherent (all speak Malayalam except in Minicoy), their intra-island contacts remained minimum, compared to their contacts with the mainland. This had resulted in different local customs and cultural practices—some of them had even entwined with the caste hierarchy leading to discrimination. The Krishnaswamy Report indicated that inter-island variances could be seen in the laws of inheritance, landlord-tenant relations and marriage customs. Insofar as Krishnaswamy suggested many measures for the Island’s progress and well-being, the Report was considered as the harbinger of modernisation. It also recommended measures like improving linkages and interaction with the mainland, such as regular ship service etc (shipping on a regular basis began during 1958-59).
However, the Island’s constitutional linkage with the mainland was still undecided, notwithstanding the enactment of the Indian Constitution in 1950. The uncertainly continued, at least, until the states’ reorganisation process began. Meanwhile, the union government exercised enormous powers through the bureaucracy and its delegated powers, particularly in the absence of a legislature. The Nehru Government had appointed a ‘States Reorganisation Commission’ in December 1953 (with Fazal Ali, K. M. Panikkar and H. N. Kunzru as members). The Commission submitted its Report in 1955. It may be noted that the Report of the States Reorganisation Commission, having considered the claims and opinion of all stakeholders, recommended that insofar as the Laccadive Islands already form part of the Malabar district, “the Amindive group should also formed part of the prospective Kerala State.” The Report also noted, “It was an accident that the Amindives ever came to be attached to South Kanara. It would be desirable and convenient, if the future Kerala State were administratively in charge of all the islands, including the Amindive group” (India, Ministry of Home Affairs 1955: 86).
Though the Commissionwas very clear on its approach on the future of the islands, The States Reorganisation Act, 1956—to the dismay of Kerala and the people of the islands—rejected the recommendation and proclaimed: “there shall be formed a [Union territory] to be known as the Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands comprising the Laccadive and Minicoy Islands in the Malabar district and the Amindivi Islands in the South Kanara district; and thereupon the said Islands shall cease to form part of the existing State of Madras (India, Legislative Department 1956: 6). The new UT was placed under an Administrator whose Headquarters at the beginning were located at Kozhikode (Calicut) which were later moved to Kavaratti island in 1964. Even after that, the UT administration has offices at Calicut, Kochi and Mangalore for procurement of stores, co-ordination of transport including reservation of ship passage. Following this, the High Court of Kerala, located at Kochi was also designated as the High Court for the entire Union Territory.
Plausibly, the status of the Island as a Union Territory was determined by India’s maritime interests in the Arabian Sea, and the reports of the fear of a ‘communist upsurge’ in the island were more of an exaggerated hype. Though the first communist government got elected to power in Kerala in 1957, there was hardly any significant political activity in the Island for several years even after independence. And whatever political sympathy and ideological orientation that existed in the Island was ostensibly towards the Indian National Congress. The first general election for the lone Parliament seat was held in 1967 and it was won by the Congress candidate P.M. Sayeed, and he continued to get elected to Parliament for three decades. Since 1956, the UT of Lakshadweep has been under the rule of a centrally appointed Administrator and all of them were senior bureaucrats till December 2020, when the present Administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, took charge. Patel is a full-time politician who had earlier served as home minister of Gujarat. Murkoth Ramunny (1961-65), Omesh Saigal (1982-85), Wajahat Habibullah (1987-90) et al. were some of the efficient administrators in Lakshadweep. However, there were feelings of disillusionment among the people that the UT did not have a legislature of its own. This was also reflected in a report of a Parliamentary committee way back in 1990-91 (India, Ministry of Home Affairs 1990).
With the enactment of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 the Lakshadweep Panchayats Regulation, 1994 was promulgated by the President of India on 23 April 1994 and the provisions of the Regulation became applicable in Lakshadweep on 23 May 1995. As per the first schedule of the Regulation there were 10 village (Dweep) Panchayats, one in each of the inhabited ten islands and a District Panchayat for the whole of Lakshadweep.
The first Village (Dweep) Panchayats were set up in December 2002 and the District Panchayat in January 2003 (Lakshadweep, Directorate of Census Operations 2011). The PRIs were functioning without much problem all these years and it was with the draft notification of The Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021 in February this year that much of the popular resentment and resistance swelled. They fear that whatever autonomy and power that existed before are being taken away for a new dispensation of governance and development in the Island. The agitating people argue that this pattern change has been necessitated by the centrally sponsored agenda of transforming Lakshadweep into a tourist hub of big corporates, a complete mismatch for the ecologically sensitive Archipelago.
Securitisation of Lakshadweep
Admittedly, Lakshadweep’s location in the Arabian Sea makes it strategically important for India. Historically, this has been understood by the Arab traders, European colonial powers and many countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Ambassador K.M. Panikkar—who was also an Indian historian—wrote that the Indian Ocean was a “vital sea” for India and its “life lines are concentrated in that area” (Panikkar 1951: 85). Panikkar had foreseen that the “Laccadives in the Arabian Sea and the Andamans and the Nicobars in the Bay of Bengal (among others) have a great bearing on maritime history” (Ibid: 20). Panikkar further reminded that the “possession of the Andamans and the Nicobars gives to India strategic bases which if fully utilised in coordination with air power can convert the Bay of Bengal into a secure area. The position in respect of the Arabian sea is however different. The Laccadives provide a protective barrier and some of the islets in the group be converted into “heligolands,” impregnable from the point of view of defence but hardly useful as naval bases” (Ibid: 96).
Ambassador Panikkar’s thoughtful analysis and suggestions did not find any significant policy reception at the highest level even after the wars with China in 1962, and with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. However, the 1971 war—particularly after the deployment of the US Seventh Fleet USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal—was a reminder to New Delhi that the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal could be vital for the country’s maritime security. Yet, it took another decade for India to realise that India’s Navy, Airforce and Coast Guard should have a coordinated strategy in protecting the interests of the country along the coast as well as across Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar. Meanwhile India defined its maritime zones with the Presidential proclamations and Maritime Zones of India Act of 1976 (Singh and Seethi 2010: 22-23). The developments in the 1980s and 1990s—particularly in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives—were further reminders to New Delhi that a well planned maritime policy could not be delayed further. Scholars and policy analysts also alerted that India must “come out of the traditional ‘continental’ (land-oriented) mindset and evolve a maritime mindset” (Ibid: 33).
However, the Mumbai terror attacks on 26 November 2008 came like a wake-up call for India. B.K. Loshali of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), Kochi wrote: “the islands and sandbars, which dot the coast, provide perfect hideaways for infiltrators and contraband.” He warned that the “adjoining uninhabited islands in Lakshadweep pose real danger to the coast of Kerala (Loshali 2010: 153). After 2008, the Government of India began to pay greater attention to the developments across India’s coastal areas, including in Lakshadweep. While Navy set out its operations from Kochi and other areas, the Indian Coast Guard began to look after Lakshadweep with its District Headquarters at Kavaratti.
In another few years’ time, the Indian Navy had commissioned a new naval base at Kavaratti with a view to augmenting security infrastructure at Lakshadweep. The Navy has already been operating a detachment at Kavaratti since early eighties. With the commissioning of INS Dweeprakshak, the Archipelago would find “calibrated strengthening of assets” in line with their growing relevance to the security architecture of India. Since then Lakshadweep and Minicoy islands were seen as strategically important and the Southern Naval Command headquartered at Kochi has been ensuring security in and around the area. With the increase in piracy activities at sea, the Indian Navy also undertook many steps to increase surveillance and improve the security around the area through capacity building and enhanced naval presence in and around the island territories. With the setting up of a Naval Detachment at Androth Island in 2016, the Navy’s reach and surveillance were further enhanced, and thereby contributed significantly to strengthen India’s maritime security and stability.
Though there were no instances of Lakshadweep islands being used by non-state actors or illegal peddlers, the ICG and Navy used to handle instances of Somali pirates activities in the western Indian Ocean which pointed to the threat to the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) in general and to the Lakshadweep Islands in particular. The rising incidents of piracy in and around the Islands added a new dimension to threat perceptions regarding the Eight Degree Channel that separates the islands of Minicoy and Maldives as well as the Nine Degree Channel that separates the island of Minicoy from the main Lakshadweep Archipelago.
After some the incidents in 2015, the ICG also began to educate the fishermen as “eyes and ears in Community Interaction Programme” and, according to the ICG, intelligence inputs from Police agencies for coastal security construct had paid rich dividend, and resulted in apprehension of several boats involved in such activities. This was seen as an example of how coordinated efforts by all stakeholders associated in coastal security mechanism helped prevent illegal activities in India’s maritime zones.
It was in the background of these incidents in the past few years that the ICG confiscated 300 kg heroin and five AK 47 rifles from a Sri Lankan fishing boat that was, according to the Collector of Lakshadweep on 27 May, passing through the sea “along one of the Islands.” While the Collector obviously sought to securitise the whole issue in the context of the rising tide of opposition to the Administration’s recent orders, the ICG had made no indication of the connection with Lakshadweep, as is clear from the official press release of 31 March (India, Press Information Bureau 2021).
Meanwhile, the reports about the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the Indian Ocean region on 7 April, with its warship venturing into India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near Lakshadweep (evidently without India’s permission) caused irritants in New Delhi. What infuriated India was the US Navy’s claim that the operation was conducted in accordance with international law and thereby questioned India’s ‘excessive’ maritime claims. Though scholars and experts began to interpret the event in the background of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and India’s recalibrated ties with Washington, questions of sovereignty and territorial as well as maritime boundary continued to have a bearing on, what K.M. Panikkar called, India’s “lifelines” in the region. While such questions remain pertinent in the context of India’s new maritime strategy, Lakshadweep cannot be made a scapegoat of misguided notions of ‘security’ and ‘development,’ according to many experts.
The controversial regulations and administrative orders foisted on the people will only complicate the larger security architecture of the Archipelago. The new surveillance measures insisted on by the administration (in fishing boats and passenger and cargo ships) can only alienate the people from the administration. In fact, the ICG and the Navy have much more comprehensive and sophisticated mechanisms of security and surveillance in the region and there is hardly any need for additional augmentation of security. This is particularly important when the ICG itself sees the local communities as “eyes and ears” of the Island’s security. The people of Lakshadweep are now much more worried about their livelihood security and its broader milieu of ecosystem security. They know that this cannot be ensured by additional mechanisms of control and coercion through administrative hegemony. The concerns raised in Kerala are equally legitimate given its historical connectivity with the Archipelago and the role that the state’s geopolitics has played, over decades, in sustaining the Island’s security and welfare.
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