India’s far-flung outposts have sensitivities and histories that are different from those imagined on the Indian “Mainland”. The geographic location of the 36-island archipelago of Lakshadweep on the west and the even-more-distant 572-island chain of Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the east affords them unique popular imaginations, possibilities and vulnerabilities.

For Administrators of these outposts, who are appointed by the Union government in Delhi, the foremost responsibility is to align these areas to the national throb of development and progress. But while doing so, they must nuance the overall narrative to ensure that it is in tune with local emotions.

One constant challenge that besets all distant states and Union territories is the seeming emotional distance between them and “Delhi”. The North Eastern border states have historically exemplified that. Removing that oft-inexplicable distance through “inclusive governance” is the task of the Delhi appointees.

In these sensitive areas, history forewarns that top-down unilaterality is the principal cause of popular disaffection.

On the islands, this is reflected in the common expression “islanders versus the Mainlanders”. This sentiment is usually born out of socio-economic considerations that needs to be gently understood and healed, rather than forced or dismissed. Else, such feelings of disengagement could accelerate.

Andaman & Nicobar experience

As I realised when I was Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands between 2006 and 2013, distance can sometimes be an advantage, as the islands are spared the polarisation and political bitterness of the Mainland.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands embody the spirit of the composite, constitutional Idea of India. They are home to an unbelievable diversity of people from indigenous tribes, Tamils, Bengalis, Jharkhandis, Punjabis and others drawn from all possible religious denominations, who communicate among themselves in a unique form of Hindustani. The islands are also home to the Sentinelese, who are perhaps the last deliberately-unengaged tribe in the world.

An unprecedented 92% of the land here is protected forest. For decision makers, often-contradictory choices loom. Development projects require land but that is at the cost of afforestation and disrupting the fragile ecosystem. The desire to “open up” the islands would contradict the need to protect the vulnerable indigenous tribes. Investment from the “Mainland” is often construed as being predatory and contrary to the interest of the Islanders.

There are no easy answers to the debate about whether to take a tourism-led approach or whether to use the island’s geostrategic location at the mouth of the ultra-sensitive chokepoint of the Malacca Straits to enhance the nation’s military facilities in order to checkmate China’s belligerence.

Ultimately, development and strategic progress is not a simplistic “either-or” binary but a more robust “and” approach that ensures progress for all the islanders – and that of the nation. There is no silver bullet for administrative speed or form. It requires consistent outreach, inclusion, planned investment and loads of empathy.

The Lakshadweep conundrum

In the Arabian Sea, the Lakshadweep Islands have their own unique reactivities, which necessitate accommodation when thinking about development. The territory’s geographical proximity to Kerala, which makes it dependent on the state for sustenance, along with the fact that 94% of the inhabitants are Muslim, are the base considerations when making big decisions.

Today, Lakhadweep faces questions about the spirit of governance that is being adopted: there is overarching sense of imposition instead of a sentiment that inhabitants are being consulted and included in the development process.

While a sense of unrest following any administrative change is natural and par for course, the current discordance has gone beyond that. There is a feeling that the changes are actually an ideological project being implemented by the territory’s new Administrator.

Hardly few months into the job, the Administrator has brought in proposals that militate against the local cultural fabric and sentiment such as land acquisition powers for the government in designated “planning areas”, anti-goonda regulations in a Union territory with amongst the lowest crime rates, nationally, and a beef ban (even though there is no similar ban in Kerala, Goa or the North Eastern States).

In addition, liquor has now been allowed to be sold, ostensibly to promote tourism. However, the Administrator’s own home state record of Gujarat has successfully built tourism potential with its “Visit Gujarat” campaign without relaxing its prohibition clauses.

Importantly, Lakshadweep was the only place in India without Covid-19 cases till January this year. But administrative standard operating procedures and protocols were changed in December, leading to an unprecedented surge of nearly 7,500 cases. The islanders blame the pandemic mismanagement onto the administration which is seemingly was engrossed in its plans to make it a tourist haven like Maldives.

The silence of the administration in explaining the tearing hurry to bring in the ostensible reforms without local consultation is exacerbating the situation.

Provocative distractions

The timing, optics and handling of these initiatives are brazen and ham-handed. The claims that they were necessary to check the drug trade and possible insurgencies, with not-so-subtle suggestion that inhabitants harbour anti-India sentiments have done nothing to calm local feelings.

What is ensuing is a project of provocative distractions (wilful or inadvertent), though the primary administrative focus ought to be on pandemic management. Unlike the innuendo on social media, there is no local concern about the security apparatus being strengthened – the anger is about being treated as an imposed project of cultural assertion.

This is a convenient, often-used political strategy that may galvanise partisan opinion in the rest of the country but will inflect further wounds on the residents of the islands.

While positing this as an ideological battle excites the passions of the cadres in the rest of the country, the price will be paid paid in a specific area. The direct stakes are just one seat in the Lok Sabha. But for the people advancing this ideological project, the potential political harvest more than compensates for this notional loss.

Lakshadweep needs a honest promise that goes beyond offering to transform them in the Maldives (or Singapore, in the case of Andaman and Nicobar Islands). This is a lazy mirage that ignores the fact that the complex ground reality begs for gentle accommodation, rigorous planning and a genuine attempt to afford a life dignity to the inhabitants of India’s “shining outposts” – even if it is only 75,000 residents of Lakshadweep or just 300 Sentinelese on the Sentinel Islands.

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and of Puducherry.