Rising awareness of Lakshadweep’s strategic importance

New Delhi's 'development-oriented' drive appears to impose its political, cultural, legal, economic, and security interests on Lakshadweep’s predominantly Muslim population.

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Recent developments pertaining to Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 36 tiny islands 490 km off the coast of the South Indian state of Kerala, have thrown light on the strategic significance of the islands for India and the strategic content in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy on the islands.

Since the beginning of 2021, extraordinary (and hurried) steps have been taken by New Delhi, ostensibly to develop the archipelago as an equivalent of the Indian Ocean tourist paradise, the Maldives. However, the key components of the “development-oriented” drive appeared to the locals to be steps to impose New Delhi’s political, cultural, legal, economic, and security interests on the islands’ predominantly Muslim population.

Steps had been taken without any local consultations, partly because of the sensitive nature of the project, and partly because the Lakshadweep has no elected bodies other than village panchayats for consultations to take place easily.

The local population of 60,000 was incensed by the steps. Their apprehensions found resonance in Kerala, where the State legislature unanimously passed a resolution asking New Delhi to call off the measures announced and remove the Administrator Praful Khoda Patel, a political confidante of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Controversial Measures

Disregarding the protests, Patel passed an order in June enabling officials to go to sea with fishermen in their boats “to gather intelligence”. This is seen as an affront by the fishing community. There has also been a move to clear and securitize the coast by forcibly removing fishermen’s huts.

Although the security measures can be justified from one angle, the manner of their introduction, the timing of the introduction, and the background political scenario have combined to evoke all round opposition, not only in Lakshadweep, but in Kerala with which the archipelago has umbilical ties.

Administrator Patel, who assumed office in December 2020, began introducing new measures deeply disturbing the life, culture and religion of the Lakshadweep people who are 96% Muslim. He banned the slaughter of cows and the consumption of beef and made these criminal acts. He relaxed the sale of liquor in a society where consumption of alcohol is a sin. He proposed a land acquisition act under which the State could acquire any land it wanted in a place where land is extremely scarce.

Another order banned people with more than two children from contesting elections to the local bodies, the only democratic institution in the archipelago. Patel also intended to de-link the Lakshadweep from  Kerala and link it with Mangalore in Karnataka. But the people of Lakshadweep have kinship, linguistic and cultural ties with Kerala, not Karnataka.

A young Lakshadweep film maker Aisha Sultana has been subjected to a police case under the Sedition Act for saying in a TV program that Administrator Patel is a “bio-weapon”.

Patel’s portrayal of his steps as rational and progressive were rebuffed by the people who found them to be a violation of their fundamental cultural, economic and political rights. All parties including sections of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Lakshadweep and Kerala protested, and the Kerala State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution seeking Patel’s removal.

Potential Security Threats

Because human and cultural rights issues in Lakshadweep came to occupy the political center-stage, the strategic and security issues got pushed to the background, though strategic and security considerations were, in all likelihood, at the root of New Delhi’s moves.

The Mumbai terror attacks on November 26, 2008, had exposed the strategic vulnerability of Lakshadweep. The Kerala-based historian, K.M.Seethi, quotes B.K. Loshali, an official of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), as saying in 2010, that the islands and sandbars of the Lakshadweep  provide “perfect hideaways for infiltrators and contraband.” The 25 uninhabited islands in Lakshadweep would “pose a real danger to the coast of Kerala,” Loshali had warned.

Thereafter, the ICG post at Kavaratti in the Lakshadweep was activated. The Indian Navy also commissioned a new naval base, the INS Dweeprakshak. Following some maritime incidents involving smugglers in 2015, the ICG began to use Lakshadweep fishermen as its “eyes and ears”. In 2016, a Naval detachment came up on Androth Island.

Sri Lankan Angle

On March 5, 2021, the ICG apprehended a Sri Lankan boat Akarsha Duwa, but its crew had thrown 200 kg of high-grade heroin and 60 kg hashish into the sea before capture. But on March 25, a Sri Lankan boat Ravihansi with 300 kg of heroin, five AK-47s and 1000 live rounds was captured in the Lakshadweep sea. On May 27, 2021, the ICG confiscated 300 kg heroin and five AK 47 rifles from a Sri Lankan fishing boat. However, the involvement of local Lakshadweep fishermen or others  has been marginal till date. This is partly because the ICG has sensitized them to the dangers of collaborating with maritime criminals.

Last weekend, the Tamil Nadu and  Kerala police had been warned by Central Indian agencies that a boat with armed men from Sri Lanka could make a landing on their coasts. Following the warning, police began to patrol the coast lines and put up road barricades to check vehicles. No details of the “group” have been revealed.

US Navy’s Intrusion

On April 7, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said that a guided missile destroyer “USS John Paul Jones” had sailed 130 nautical miles off Lakshadweep without informing India. The US said that it did so only to “uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses” of the sea recognized in international law. The US Navy further said that it was “challenging India’s excessive maritime claims”.

New Delhi appeared to be miffed by this brazen US claim, but was mild in its reaction as the US is an ally. However the US intrusion demonstrated that Chinese or Pakistani naval craft could repeat the US exercise.

Long-standing Threat

The threat to India’s hold on the Lakshadweep had been there in the past also, writes historian K.M.Seethi. In August 1947, at the time of independence, there were reports about a Pakistan attempt to annex the Laccadives (as Lakshadweep was then known).  A Lahore-based newspaper 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.”

Nasir said that had Pakistan captured the Island, it “would have had an oceanic outpost close to the equator. The geostrategic and defense benefits would have been immense and Pakistan would also have a tropical island destination that would rival the Maldives as a touristic haven.”

Ali Nasir pointed out 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, he said that the then Pakistan Prime Minister 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.” The Pakistan Navy had apparently sent a frigate from Karachi. However, by that time, Sardar Patel, India’s Deputy Prime Minister, had quickly acted swiftly and sent a team of top Indian officials to hoist the India flag.

K.M. Seethi notes that two months after Nasir’s story appeared  in  Friday Times, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his radio program Mann Ki Baat on October 27, 2019, that Sardar Patel had “played a 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. Sardar Patel had also promised all assistance for the “development” of Lakshadweep, Modi added.

Surely. Modi had a Pakistani threat also in mind, when he sent his acolyte, Praful Khoda Patel, to the Lakshadweep as Administrator.

This article by P.K.Balachandran appeared in NewsIn.Asia on 16 June 2021. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist based in Colombo and has been writing on South Asian issues for over 20 years.

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