On 5 December 2020, Praful Khoda Patel, a senior politician of the Bharatiya Janata Party, took charge as the administrator of the union territory of Lakshadweep. Patel, who already oversees one other UT, was appointed to a position that has been traditionally reserved in the archipelago for retired bureaucrats. In what was to set the tone for his controversial tenure in Lakshadweep, six days later, Patel flouted the UT’s mandatory home-quarantine protocols of COVID-19 for those coming from outside, in order to inaugurate an ice plant at the Bitra island. The UT had not seen a single case of the virus till then due to the previous administration’s rigorous standard operating procedure. “People couldn’t accept that he didn’t comply with quarantine rules that they had been following for months,” Saajid Mannel, a resident of the Kalpeni Island, told me. “So, they organised a few small protests from 9 December, but mostly put up posters against him not observing the quarantine rules, which he didn’t like.”
On 22 December, the Lakshadweep administration did away with the mandatory quarantine rules for those arriving from outside. Mannel told me that many in Lakshadweep believed that Patel had removed the COVID-19 restrictions simply to divert criticism. “He did not like this [the protests], so he ordered the removal of the standard operating procedure,” Mannel said. Just over three weeks later, Lakshadweep reported its first case of the novel coronavirus and as of 10 June 2021, the UT had recorded 8,874 cases and 42 deaths in a population of just over 66,000.
The protest was the first of a series of flashpoints between Patel and the residents of the islands. In the months following his appointment, Patel has taken several executive decisions which have caused unrest and sparked massive concern among the population, a majority of whom are Muslim and categorised as belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. Local activists and journalists told me that Patel removed COVID-19 precautions allowing for the spread of the virus in the islands, and subsequently reduced the locals’ access to tertiary medical care. In January, Patel introduced the draft Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation—commonly called the Goonda Act—which residents and local politicians told me was an attempt to stifle dissent in the UT. The administration has already started cracking down on protests against Patel’s decisions.
In addition, Patel drafted the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation in April, which allows the administration to seize land for a wide range of uses with minimum protection for the landowners, among other contentious provisions. The administrations’ decisions over the months have severely impacted the livelihood of locals, while encouraging large-scale commercial tourism with policies that seem arbitrary and tipped against the locals. There have been widespread complaints that Patel’s style of functioning is unilateral, there have been no consultations with the islanders and that he is not accessible to any representatives of the locals, including the sitting member of parliament, Mohammad Faizal. Patel’s decisions have sparked widespread anger and protests in both Lakshadweep and neighbouring Kerala.
Locals told me that there had been concerns about Patel right from the beginning because his deputation was viewed as an explicitly political appointment. On 4 December 2020, Dineshwar Sharma, a former Indian Police Services officer who was serving as the administrator of Lakshadweep, passed away. The very next day Patel was given additional charge as the new administrator of Lakshadweep—he is the administrator of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli since 2014 and 2016, respectively. The two territories were fused into a single administrative unit on 26 January 2020. Patel had already cut a controversial figure in the post. He had been publicly criticised for illegally attempting to aid the BJP in the 2019 general election, and even accused of playing a role in the suicide of the seven-time member of parliament Mohan Delkar, who was a member of the Indian National Congress at the time. Patel also served as Gujarat’s minister of state for home affairs during the prime minister Narendra Modi’s third tenure as the chief minister of the state.