Lakshadweep MP's Conviction Should Serve as a Stark Reminder to Democratise Governance in UTs

The conviction of P.P. Mohammed Faisal is the culmination of the tussle he had with Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel. The case is an example of how administrators in Union territories – who are unelected – misuse the power they wield.

Lakshadweep MP, P.P. Mohammed Faisal, was convicted in an attempt to murder case on January 11 by the Sessions Court at Kavaratti, the administrative capital of Lakshadweep. The case dates back to 2009 when political violence took place in Androth Island in the run-up to the general election that year. Faisal, along with three others, including his brother, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

What is interesting – rather chilling – to note is that even before the court pronounced the verdict, two helicopters were kept ready to airlift Faisal to jail in Kannur, Kerala. It seemed as if the authorities were already aware of the judgment that was to be delivered, raising serious questions.

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It has been widely believed for long locally that Lakshadweep administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, was furious with Faisal because of the sense of humiliation he had faced during the inauguration event of the first Indian Oil Corporation’s petrol pump at Kavaratti in March 2022. From the inauguration stage, Faisal had slammed Patel for introducing “reforms” on the island without taking people into confidence. By then, there had been continuous protests on the island for 15 months against alleged unilateral decisions by the administration to introduce so-called reforms, which islanders were vehemently opposed to.

LJD activists burn an effigy of Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel to protest against policy changes announced by him outside Lakshadweep Administration office in Kochi, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Photo: PTI.

“We are not ready to cooperate in any way with any ruler or administration that does not take into account democratic norms and beliefs of the people. By expressing my dissatisfaction with the brutal governance of the Lakshadweep Administration, I would like to leave this platform,” Faisal had said while staging a walkout. Several joined Faisal as he left the venue. While Faisal received applause from the people at large for staging a walkout, his act also served to increase the outrage against Patel and his policies.

Since then, locals and several of those in the political circles have believed that Patel would wait for an opportunity to settle scores with Faisal soon. While Faisal did end up getting convicted in an old case (from 2009), his conviction and sentencing were ultimately suspended by Kerala high court. Faisal had to wage a long and expensive battle to prevent himself from going to jail. The MP could afford to do so given his robust financial status.

Faisal’s case prods many of us, on the island, to ask a question as to what would happen to an ordinary citizen if s/he were to protest against the administrator and his policies. Would they be able to withstand the arm-twisting that the administration was known to have resorted to with some protestors in the past?

The imprisonment of three Communist Party of India (CPI) leaders in October 2022 offers some insights into how the administration deals with dissent. They were jailed for 29 days only because they had heated arguments with the advisor to the administrator against the eviction of people from Bitra, the least populated island on Lakshadweep Union territory. Two courts in Lakshadweep – Munsiff court, Androth, and Sessions court, Kavaratti – denied them bail. The CPI leaders had to move the high court to be able to walk out of jail.

The above-mentioned cases have underlined how this Union territory in the largest democracy is far from experiencing true democracy. The people of Lakshadweep have been living under an autocratic administration, which not only brings in changes unilaterally but also muzzle the voices of those who protest against such policies.

Absence of democracy

What is democracy? If we go for the basic definition by Abraham Lincoln, democracy is the “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. On a practical level, we call the countries having elected governments as democratic countries. But, if we see from the point of view of the citizens of a country, democracy is far more personal, about individual freedoms. Within the electoral framework, are individuals getting space to submit their grievances? Are their views adequately represented during decision-making?

Also read: As Fresh Protests Emerge, Lakshadweep Admin Uses FIR, Notices Against Dissenters

This is where Mahatma Gandhi disagreed with many of his contemporaries in the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhi envisaged village republics to ensure that the last man also can be a part of the decision-making. It is this Gandhian spirit that was meant to have been the soul of the Panchayati Raj system to strengthen grassroots democracy and democratic institutions.

This is where Mahatma Gandhi disagreed with many of his contemporaries in the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhi envisaged village republics to ensure that the last man also can be a part of the decision-making. It is this Gandhian spirit that was meant to have been the soul of the Panchayati Raj system to strengthen grassroot democracy and democratic institutions.

Is Lakshadweep democratically governed?

In every sense, the answer is no. Lakshadweep is ‘ruled’ by an administrator appointed by the President of India.

This administrative system is a single-line bureaucratic institution. The administrator is more powerful than a modern-day ruler of the Middle East. The appointment of administrators to Union territories finds its roots in British India, where governor generals appointed viceroys. The institution began in the pre-1857 era under the East India Company.

Students are taught in school about the three pillars of democracy: legislature, executive, and judiciary. Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. In a place like Lakshadweep, only one pillar exists which is the executive, headed by an administrator appointed by the President of India. For the sake of an argument, we can say the judiciary does exist. But, can a judiciary effectively work in the absence of a legislature? The question is whether an autocratic system combined with a judicial system can deliver justice. How can such a system accommodate the concerns of people and find solutions through the governance process?

Flawed logic

Being the largest democratic country in the world, it is ridiculous and embarrassing for the people of the Union territories to ask for democracy. Certain reasons are cited for not providing democratic governance to Union territories.

First, a smaller population, if you Google the least populated democratic countries in the world, the smallest 10 countries have a population of less than 100,000. If a country can exist with a population of 100,000, then why not a state?

Second, they say, it is due to economic reasons. They cannot sustain themselves independently. This was one of the arguments the British had made against granting self-rule to India. They thought the Indians could not manage. Now, the Indian government in Delhi thinks the people of Union territories cannot utilise the resources for managing their own affairs as per the constitution of India.

The third and very serious reason put forward is national security. But this argument also does not make sense as border states like Punjab, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat enjoy statehood status, then why not Lakshadweep as well as Andaman and Nicobar? Even the autonomous district councils of Mizoram have elections, their population is the same as that of Lakshadweep and they are also sensitive border areas.

In my view, the term ‘Union Territories’ actually indicates that they are seen as near-colonies of the Union, as they are ‘ruled’ by the person sent by the President of India and not ‘governed’. This argument may not be palatable to many, but this is the reality. If the Indian government is not ready to democratise governance in Union territories – which nearly have a total population of 1 crore – can India truly call itself a democracy?

Salahuddin is a researcher based in Lakshadweep.