Lakshadweep, which has great security and strategic significance for India, is in the news for the wrong reasons. The recent draft rules proposed by the Union Territory’s administrator are being touted as “anti-locals”. Certain vested interests based in Kerala see these new rules as a rallying point against the island administration.
Many of the allegations against the UT administrator Praful Khoda Patel do not hold water when seen in the context of realities. The campaign of calumny is based on falsehood and misinformation.
New rules have a development agenda
The draft Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation 2021 uploaded by the island administration in January this year invited comments and suggestions from the public. Ironically, the proposed rule does not mention the words “Goonda Act” anywhere, though this term has been used by many state governments (like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala) in Acts with similar provisions, some even more stringent than the one proposed for Lakshadweep. The draft seeks to empower the administration to order preventive detention of a “bootlegger”, a “depredator of environment”, a “drug offender”, a “property grabber”, a “cruel person”, among others. All these terms are probably taken from the Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act 2007 passed by then Left Front government in the state.
The accusation made by Kerala-based groups that the Lakshadweep administration has relaxed the prohibition rules exposes the double standards of the agitators — a fit case of the pot calling the kettle black. It was the Left Front government in Kerala that reversed the prohibition rules framed by the previous Congress-led government.
Another travesty of truth is the hoax of “beef ban” and the ‘State interference in the eating habits of citizens’. Nothing can be farther from truth. The draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation 2021 is similar to the rules that are in place in almost all other states. There are laws in many states banning illegal slaughter houses and utterly unhygienic illicit trade carried out by anti-social elements. The Maharashtra government came up with a similar law that was upheld by the Bombay High Court and an appeal is pending before the Supreme Court.
Again, the Draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation 2021, which seeks to introduce two-child rule, is being projected as imposition of “Hindutva agenda” on a predominantly Muslim population of Lakshadweep. This accusation is laughable. Several states, including Assam, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, already have some form of the two-child rule in place for those running for elected government posts or government jobs.
Other objections against the proposed rules such as ‘overlooking the development of Beypore port’ or ‘seeking to destroy the unique culture of Lakshadweep’ merit no serious attention and need to be dismissed as mere political ploys. Yet, while the government should go ahead with its plans of ensuring security and order in Lakshadweep, it should also take the local population into confidence, educate the people and frustrate the attempts by vested interests to politicise and thwart the development agenda.
Why Lakshadweep is strategic
An archipelago of twelve atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks, the small (32 sq. km) but strategically important Lakshadweep is actually part of a vast submerged Chagos-Laccadive mountain range of the Indian Ocean. The 200-km wide funnel referred to as Nine Degree Channel (named after the latitude) near the island is an important sea lane of communication, linking the Persian Gulf with East Asia. The South Western Naval Command based in Kochi keeps a hawk’s eye on not just all the Pacific-bound cargo but also acts as a bulwark against piracy.
The success of the Quad as a security architecture greatly depends on the combined strength of the naval assets and bases of its members in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-pacific. Lakshadweep becomes an important chokepoint as far as the secured sea lanes of communication are concerned. Strategic analyst Robert Kaplan writes in his article India’s Riveting Centrality, “India stands astride the Indian Ocean…the world’s energy interstate, the link for megaships carrying hydrocarbons from West Asia to the consumers in the burgeoning middle-class concentrations of East Asia. India, thus, with the help of the Indian Ocean, fuses the geopolitics of the Greater West Asia with the geopolitics of East Asia — creating an increasingly unified and organic geography of conflict and competition across the navigable southern rim of Eurasia.”
New Delhi does not harbour any intention of being an impediment to the global trade or naval supply chain mechanism. But the Indian Navy is superior to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and can counter China’s misadventures in the north with a blockade of cargo in the Indian Ocean, especially from the Nine Degree Channel near Lakshadweep.
Following the hijacking of a ship a decade ago, the security establishment had got inputs of terrorist outfits frequenting these islands and trying to use them as bases for piracy and other nefarious activities. During the 2008 Mumbai attack enquiry, it was pointed out that jihadi outfits could pose a security challenge if Lakshadweep was not secured. Subsequently, coastal security exercise (Neptune II) was conducted to plug the loopholes in coastal security; surveillance and vigilance in the uninhabited island were increased; new Coast Guard station (DHQ12) was established; and watch towers and radar sensors were set up to keep an eye on the entry and exit points. But given the increasing challenges to security and technological advancements made by India’s adversaries, it becomes all the more important to scale up the security apparatus in this part of the sea.
The surveillance network for the region includes Automatic Identification and Long Range Tracking systems, night vision cameras, 46 radar systems and16 command and control stations. Additionally, 38 radar stations and five command centres are to be set up to prevent piracy and terrorist sleeper cells from getting active. These fortifications in Lakshadweep are being coordinated with infrastructure developments in Karwar and form part of a larger coastal security framework. When completed, Karwar is all set to be the biggest naval base in the east of the Suez Canal.
Lakshadweep, thus, is a significant theatre for India’s force projection and a deterrent to China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific and India’s extended neighbourhood.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)