Lakshadweep and the Land Question: Historicising the Present Crisis

Tracing the history of land reforms in the island group shows how the previous administrations had addressed the question of bringing change into the islands. Two important features in relation to land in Lakshadweep are tenancy and matrilineal property. It is important to take a look at the ways in which previous administrations dealt with these sensitive issues. 

 

The controversies and disputes around the new legislative changes in Lakshadweep demand a closer examination of the matter, taking into account its historical and cultural trajectories, and not merely focusing on the current developments per se. This matrilineal island group, situated south west off the coast of India in the Arabian Sea, has undergone various transformations, from administration-initiated to self-embraced features of modernity, whilst still retaining the traditional characteristics to a certain extent (Vijayakumar 2006; Mumthas 2018).

The Lakshadweep island group was constituted as a union territory in 1956, which ended the age-old seclusion of islanders, accompanied by the arrival of modern facilities in the island, like regular modes of transport vis-à-vis passenger and cargo ships connecting the island to the mainland, forms of modern governance introduced into the island, modern judicial system, educational facilities and institutional changes like the land reforms (Dube 1969, 1995; Ramunny 1999: 126–127). During the pre-British and British era, the life of the majority of the Lakshadweep population was governed by fishing and coconut farming. The sea- and coconut-related industries like boat construction, collection of tortoise and cowrie shells, coir twisting, jaggery and vinegar production and copra making and its export, etc, were the primary vocations of the islanders (Ellis 1925; Mannadiar 1977: 150). 

The distance from the mainland has been both a boon and bane to the islands, as it helped to safeguard the ecologically fragile island society from the exploitation of its resources, while on the other hand, this distance limited mobility, leading to inaccessibility of educational and medical resources, lack of communication and infrastructure facilities in almost all the islands except Kavaratti, the capital. 

Land and Matrilineal Reforms 

Tracing the history of land reforms in the island group shows how the previous administrations had addressed the question of bringing change into the islands. Two important features in relation to land in Lakshadweep are tenancy and matrilineal property. It is important to take a look at the ways in which previous administrations dealt with these sensitive issues. 

In this matrilineal community, land was not given any importance except as a place to build a house and to plant coconut trees, based on the needs of members; thus the idea of landed property was absent (Ellis 1924: 50–60). However, the shift in the mentality of people in modern times has led to repeated transactions of land amongst the islanders, as well as with the government. The commodification of land was facilitated by the modifications introduced by the British and the Indian union ruling forces, which led to the abolition of the age-old landlord–tenant relationship, which was of an exploitative nature.

Each koya (who owned the major share of properties) who came from a matrilineal household, was tied to the landlord–tenant relationship of mutual dependence. Obligatory customary services were to be fulfilled by tenants like nurturing of coconut trees and plucking of coconut trees in the land owned by the landlord; annual sails to mainland accompanying landlords was a must for tenants as they were expected to cook and to clean the boat; maintenance of boat had to be done by tenants; at the time of social functions, tenants were expected to serve at the house of landlords. These practices were abolished under Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulation, 1965, and opened a new phase of understanding of land relations and ensuring the rights of tenants (Mannadiar 1977: 231–32; Ramunny 1999: 150). Socio-economic relationships of traditional nature had changed with the arrival of land reforms (Mumthas 2018). 

Murkot Ramunny, the former administrator of Lakshadweep, writes in his book, India’s Coral Islands in the Arabian Sea: Lakshadweep, that the koyas (landowning class/ higher rank in social hierarchy) who were made aware about the exploitative nature of land tenure, were willing to give up the luxuries that they had enjoyed. A discussion was conducted between the administrator and influential leaders from various islands, in 1962, and it took nearly two years for them to fall in line. After many meticulous discussions, “in 1963, an agreement was signed by the representatives of the landlords and tenants of the islands of Amini, Kavaratti, Androth and Agatti to terminate the service tenancy” (Ramunny 1999: 114).

With this agreement, the tenant received three-fourths of the land along with the trees standing thereon, and one-fourth of the land was reverted to the landlord, and no tenant was to be evicted from this land which became transferable by the tenant (See Laccadive, Minicoy, and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulation, 1965 quoted in Ramunny 1999: 150–51). It was agreed that the consensus arrived at, through these discussions, would be followed up by a land survey of settlement in the islands. Another crucial feature of land regulation in the islands was the abolition of the tree tax and assessment of the land for revenue (Mannadiar 1977: 244).

There have been several attempts to bring out codified matrilineal property regulations/laws by the government, for which committees were formed, meetings and seminars were conducted, but due to the lack of consensus among the islanders regarding the continuation or abolition of matriliny, the government decided not to interfere in the matter further. It was in the 1970s and post 1980s that the administration became aware about the necessity of codifying customary laws of Lakshadweep. The local government appointed a judicial committee in the 1970s (Excerpts of Report of Expert Committee headed by R Sankarnarayanan Iyer, 1972 found in Saighal 1990 and Vijayakumar 2005). After interviewing 72 men, this committee proposed reconstitution of the system, suggesting the implementation of Sharia through an absolute partition of tharavad/matrilineal household and inheritance of such share to the heirs under Muslim Personal Law (Saigal 1990: 138).

The reasoning of the committee must have been influenced by similar debates in colonial India, which saw textual Islam as authentic and everyday lived experiences of Muslims as local adaptation that takes place from non-Islamic locations. This report was placed before Island Citizen Councils for their views in 1982–83 (Saighal 1990: 138). Again, seminars were conducted in 2003 in Amini and Kavaratti Islands. These endeavours for the homogenisation of Lakshadweep Islam or codification of the custom were fiercely opposed, and the desire for retention of the custom was expressed by the majority of participants on all the above occasions (Mumthas 2018: 64–68).  

Recent Legislations

Praful K Patel took charge as Lakshadweep administrator in December 2020 and proposed a series of legislations such as Prevention of Anti-social Activities Regulation, Panchayat Regulation, Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, and Animal Preservation Regulation, within a short period. As the land reform and matrilineal debates discussed above shows, local administrations have always taken into consideration the opinion of people when changes of drastic nature have been initiated, but the recent resistance put up by the people of the island group  shows that these new regulations proposed, lack any constructive discussions with the local community.

As the government is constantly reiterating the need for town planning,  urban/rural development, and the need to expand the tourism sector, the groundwork for the same had been laid earlier. Island Development Agency under NITI Aayog had deployed a research team in 2017, to look into the carrying capacity of the inhabited and uninhabited islands, measuring the accreted land, etc, to find out potential tourist hubs.1 In many islands, beach areas have expanded from previously marked spaces, and these newly added shores belong to the government. Though islanders would build small sheds and shacks to keep the boats and equipment safe in this government property, it was never questioned earlier. In Kavaratti, these sheds are now being demolished, invoking the violation of the Coast Guard Act. Islanders accuse that fisherfolk and small business persons from Lakshadweep are denied such privileges to access beaches under current administration as a part of their grand plan to construct resorts for tourists by sidelining the local business.

The draft Panchayat Regulation bars people with more than two children, from contesting in local body elections. It says, “provided that a person having more than two children on the date of commencement of this regulation shall not be disqualified under this clause so long as the number of children he  had on the date of such commencement does not increase.”2 This amounts to a serious onslaught on the fundamental rights and the self-autonomy of the islanders. The regulation has been justified by the administration by pointing to previous such efforts in different states across India and its validation by the Supreme Court. The women-friendly provisions in the new law was also emphasised. 

The draft regulation that made people of the island group panic the most is the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, which aims to change the prevailing land ownership structure, rendering the administrator as the sole authority to carry out developmental plans on behalf of islanders. The draft identifies the administrator as the government and empowered the person to plan development of any area of “bad layout or obsolete development.” It allows the forcible eviction of residents by authority and penalty of imprisonment have been laid out in the draft for obstructing developmental work. Provisions mentioned in these regulations like forcible eviction and relocation/displacement of islanders have further intensified their fear and angst. 

Then the Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation Act was implemented to imprison the dissenting voices. Though the crime rate in Lakshadweep is officially low,3 one should not forget the chances of underreporting of crime, especially related to child abuse, petty theft and illegal sand quarrying, but being a close knit community, these crimes can be tackled through the proper implementation of existing laws.        

Many former administrators, including Omesh Saigal and Wajahat Habibullah, who had served in Lakshadweep, have also expressed their concerns with respect to the ongoing rapid pace of changes and implementations. They all commonly agree that any adoption of changes into the islands must be in compliance with people living in it (Dominique 2021; Habibullah 2021). 

The Way Forward

Recently a massive online ‘‘#savelakshadweep’’ campaign emerged from the islands and southern states of India, pointing out the maladministration by union representatives without consent or consensus of people.  Many spokespersons from the islands are also taking up the matter further, for which they have formed an umbrella organisation named Save Lakshadweep Forum (SLF), constituent of people from various political parties. They are organising peaceful and democratic protests in the islands. Many islanders pointed out that all the administrators have been welcomed to Lakshadweep with utmost honour and respect, with a welcome programme consisting of folk dance and ritualist events. But the islanders decided to observe the day of the recent visit by Administrator Praful Patel as black day, by means of peaceful protests, wearing black masks and dresses, and by raising black flags from their houses (Hindu 2021). 

The assurance from the Lakshadweep unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)  also does not console the island community. The sedition case against an island film-maker, Aisha Sultana, based on the complaint by BJP head in Lakshadweep, for her alleged remarks against administrator, supported by SFL (Rajagopal 2021), brought more distrust towards the SLF leaders’ intention as a fraction of island society fears that individual fights may take away attention from the real issue at hand. The administration justified its actions by putting forward a rhetoric of development, especially about boosting tourism (Indian Express 2021). 

Meanwhile, the ground-level realities regarding infrastructure in the island have not been addressed. Most of the islands are lagging behind in communication and technical advancements even today. Inner island connectivity has to be improved and basic health facilities have to be upgraded. The government must look into the declining industries of Lakshadweep, encouraging people to expand the industries related to coconut farming and fishing.4  

So far, all the major legislative changes had been brought to the islands by consulting the local representatives and by taking into consideration the multilayered cultural and ecological aspects of the island group. The government should take efforts to generate more revenue for the citizens and provide necessary infrastructural facilities for them; tourism is no doubt a big step towards that. The administration asserts that Lakshadweep needs to follow the path of Maldives, by promoting water villa projects, construction of resorts and beachfront hotels, in order to make it a sought after international tourist destination in the coming 10 to 20 years (Gupta 2021). The ban on liquor in Lakshadweep has also been lifted to attract tourists.

Critics, including many former bureaucrats, point out that Maldives and Lakshadweep are entirely different in their size and population. Lakshadweep only has 36 islands and 11 of which are inhabited, unlike the Maldives which consists of thousands of islands (India Today 2021). Rather than praising the Maldives Model as a panacea, the administration should focus on projects that are people-friendly. And rather than mindlessly adopting tourism models of other countries, Indian administration should invest time and deploy an efficient team to come out with a plan on their own, seeking all available resources for holistic and inclusive development of the island group. 

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