Free press is a casualty as Lakshadweep’s BJP administrator rips up the rulebook

Two news reports by Dweep Diary were ‘temporarily’ blocked as anger mounts against sweeping changes affected by Praful Patel.

WrittenBy:Diksha Munjal
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“This is a threat to press freedom and freedom of expression,” said Mohammad Noushad.

Noushad is a member of the editorial team of Dweep Diary, the first and essentially only news media portal in the union territory of Lakshadweep off the coast of Kerala, with an estimated population of 70,000. On May 23, some of the portal’s reports were “temporarily blocked” by the department of telecommunications.

All the blocked reports were critical of the administration.

Dweep Diary first realised that its news report was inaccessible at around 2 pm on May 23. The story in question, Noushad said, was about a song that asked “the people of Lakshadweep to unite and resist the current administration's anti-people policies”.

The portal’s employees were soon flooded with messages and calls from its readers.

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But this is yet another chapter in the disquiet that has been simmering in Lakshadweep since the beginning of this year. The anger stems from a slew of decisions taken by the union territory’s new administrator: former BJP leader and Gujarat home minister, Praful Khoda Patel.

Patel took charge of the cluster of 36 islands in December after the demise of its former administrator Dineshwar Sharma. Notably, Patel, who is also the administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, has also been named in the suicide note of Dadra and Nagar Haveli MP Mohan Delkar.

The sweeping changes and legislations proposed by Patel include a ban on beef, a Goonda Act though the union territory has fairly low crime rates, changes in panchayat rules, a contentious draft of land reforms, and a change in Covid protocol, which is believed to be the reason for a Covid crisis in the archipelago, which did not report a single infection last year.

Locals believe that Patel’s moves are “autocratic” and will change the cultural and environmental dynamic of the region. Since all 10 of Lakshadweep’s inhabited islands are under a strict lockdown owing to the Covid situation, they have taken to social media to voice their protest, even demanding that Patel be recalled.

On Monday, the hashtag #SaveLakshadweep was trending on Twitter and Facebook, with various celebrities and politicians from the south expressing solidarity with its people.

Bleak existence of local media

Lakshadweep does not have a local news channel, newspaper or digital news portal, with the exception of Dweep Diary, which has a team of around 20 people working on a voluntary basis. Additionally, YouTube channel Lak Tube is active in disseminating information alongside a fairly new media portal called Dweep Malayali.

Dweep Diary started off as a blog initiated by a group of writers from the Lakshadweep Sahithya Pravarthaka Sangam, a literary group. In 2013, the writers pooled their resources to transform it into a news website, getting a developer from Kerala to help them out. The website was designed to be accessed with low internet speeds, since there are only two network providers, often with patchy network, in the union territory.

Over time, the Diary became popular with locals and residents in Kerala. It works with a small network of part-time reporters and writers – one or two each in the inhabited islands – who gather news from their locality. This is then cross-verified by its editorial team and published by whoever has good internet connectivity on their island at the time of publishing.

On May 23, two stories by Dweep Diary were “temporarily blocked”, including a report on a new order to shut down local dairy farms and auction off cattle. An employee of Dweep Diary told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity, that they suspected the order was to introduce and promote the sale of dairy products by Gujarat’s Amul India.

Naushad said the portal did not get any formal intimation from the government about why the links were blocked.

The links worked by that evening but went down again around midnight. Noushad described it as “undemocratic and autocratic” and perhaps an “indication of the way the administration is going to handle future protests and resistance.” The links were, and still are, accessible soon after.

“People do not have their own channel or media,” he said. “They have to entirely depend on mainland media to disseminate their perspectives and information.”

News organisations outside Lakshadweep, with the exception of Kerala-based TV news channel Media One TV, only began reporting on the issues in the union territory about a week ago.

First up was the Malayalam media in Kerala. After the #SaveLakshadweep campaign was initiated on social media by the Lakshadweep Students Association, media houses like NDTV, the Hindu, the Print and others picked it up too.

Quoting P Sainath, Noushad said, “Hunger becomes news only when people die.” He added that he’s been asking the Kerala media for a long time to have at least one correspondent in Lakshadweep.

As for the mainstream media, Noushad hasn’t seen any coverage of the union territory yet. “Even if they cover our issue,” he added, “it will not be favourable to the people of Lakshadweep. The channels will speak for the administration.”

This is the first time that the portal has faced a blockage by the government. Noushad said they are wary of confronting authorities in case an internet shutdown is implemented to curb the protests.

On whether the blockage was linked to the protests, he said, “What else could it be? The administration might have realised that things are going to be tough for them.” He also pointed out that on May 23, the Twitter handle of the Kerala Students’ Union was suspended after it criticised what Patel was doing to Lakshadweep.

In its tweet, the Kerala Students’ Union had said, “Put an end to the moves by the BJP and administrator Praful K Patel to destroy the peaceful existence of the people of Lakshadweep.”

Noushad’s colleague at Dweep Diary said there have been scattered attempts in the islands to start local papers. However, none of these efforts could be sustained since advertisement money was hard to come by, since Lakshadweep doesn’t have “big companies” that would want to advertise their products.

In the absence of an established local media, Noushad said, Kerala BJP workers and the RSS-affiliated Observer magazine have been spreading the narrative that “Islamists” are “instigating” locals against the BJP.

Newslaundry has written to the department of telecommunications, seeking the grounds on which Dweep Diary’s reports were blocked. This report will be updated if we receive a response.

Fear and compounding crisis

Amid the slew of changes and draft regulations that have islanders worried for their future, the sudden Covid crisis and the consequent lockdown has exacerbated their troubles.

In December, Patel introduced an order by which Lakshadweep-bound travellers were no longer required to quarantine themselves.

At that time, Lakshadweep had reported zero Covid cases. It reported its first Covid case on January 18. This has spiked to 7,111 cases as of May 25 with 26 deaths. In the last 24 hours alone, the union territory reported 264 cases.

An official with the Lakshadweep administration told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity, that changing the quarantine rules had definitely contributed to the spike in cases. Patel’s advisor had warned of a Covid outbreak if the rules were changed, he added, but Patel did not listen.

Crucially, Lakshadweep has only three hospitals, the official said. Its public health centres are not equipped to handle the scale of the pandemic.

Opposition leaders have also joined the chorus of voices criticising Patel.

“Praful Patel is trying to destroy the democratic setup of the union territory,” said Mohammad Faizal, a Lakshadweep MP from the Nationalist Congress Party.

Patel did not consult with district panchayat officials or MPs before formulating multiple controversial draft regulations, Faizal added. “Instead of controlling the alarming Covid situation in Lakshadweep, he is busy making draft regulations, 12 more of which are currently in queue.”

On February 25, Patel introduced a draft regulation of an anti-cow slaughter law, which criminalises the trade and slaughter of cattle. The consumption and trade of beef is common in the archipelago, whose population constitutes more than 90 percent scheduled tribes. Patel also permitted the sale of alcohol in some islands of Lakshadweep, which has historically been under prohibition.

On January 28, Patel introduced a draft law called the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities – or the Goonda Act – which, if approved, allows any person to be detained without public disclosure for up to a year.

As Faizal argued, why would a region with one of the lowest crime rates need such a law?

The most contentious of Patel’s initiatives is the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021, a draft of which was made public on April 28. The draft gives wide powers to the administration to start development projects on essentially any piece of land it deems fit. The fallout of this is the probable eviction and displacement of locals.

This has people worried that, according to a Dweep Diary writer, the islands will turn into “another Kashmir”.

“The administration is trying to usurp the land of the scheduled tribe communities in Lakshadweep by way of this draft,” Faizal said.

Another draft pertains to panchayat staff rules. It prohibits individuals with more than two children from contesting panchayat elections. The writer from Dweep Diary said the rules will also take away special powers granted in 2012 to district panchayats – the only elected bodies in Lakshadweep that work at a grassroot level.

The administration official, who is a native of the islands, told Newslaundry that in addition to these new schemes, hundreds of casual labourers and contractual workers – including teachers, anganwadi workers, and midday meal workers – in various government departments have been laid off in the middle of the pandemic.

He added that Patel has also cited the Coast Guard Act to order the demolition of local fisherfolk’s temporary sheds and the retrenchment of marine watchers. These watchers work on the preservation of marine life and ensure that illegal practices like commercial sand mining do not take place.

“The people of Lakshadweep are helpless and scared,” the official said. “They cannot even show their resistance during lockdown, while these regulations are being rushed through.”

Rajya Sabha MP and Kerala CPIM leader Elamaram Kareem recently wrote to president Ramnath Kovind, stating that these decisions did not take into consideration the cultural practises and livelihoods of the people of Lakshadweep.

“In the name of reforms and schemes,” he wrote, “the new administrator is trying to completely destroy the traditional life of the people of Lakshadweep.”

Even a BJP representative has spoken up against his party’s official stand. HK Mohammad Kasim, the secretary of the BJP in Lakshadweep, wrote to prime minister Modi asking that people of Lakshadweep are in a “very pathetic condition” and urging Modi to look into Patel’s decisions.

Kasim told Newslaundry that while the BJP government at the centre is supportive of development and investment in Lakshadweep, the issues he raised pertain to administrator Patel, whose decisions have the people of Lakshadweep worried. Meanwhile, eight leaders of the BJP’s youth wing in the union territory resigned on May 24, citing the “unilateral” decisions taken by Patel were “detrimental” to the peace of Lakshadweep.

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