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Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Enigmatic History of Lakshadweep

The Partition and the Pakistani Ship

The year was 1947, just after the partition of British India. All the focus was on the mainland, on places like Punjab and Bengal where major riots had broken out. There was confusion about where the new border was. Around this time, Sardar Patel received a message: a Pakistani ship was sailing south. Its destination was the island of Lakshadweep, a prime target for Pakistan due to its strategic location on the Arabian Sea and its 93% Muslim population. But Patel wasn’t about to let it go. Lakshadweep was just 500 km from the coast of Kerala, so taking it was important. Patel reached out to the Mudaliar brothers, Ramaswami Mudaliar, the Diwan of Mysore, and his brother Lakshman Swami, a physician. Together, they sailed to Lakshadweep and unfurled the Indian tricolor. Mission accomplished. The Pakistani ship was forced to return home. That’s how Lakshadweep became Indian Territory.History of Lakshadweep

The Mainland and Lakshadweep: A Complicated Relationship

It’s been seven decades since those events. India has changed a lot in this time, but the relationship between the mainland and Lakshadweep remains complicated. We think of the island as a far-off paradise, untouched by life or modernity, but there’s more to Lakshadweep. A history that is built on oral traditions and legends.

The Early Settlements and Arrival of Islam

Lakshadweep is a pretty small place, just 32 square kilometers of land. It is made up of 36 different islands like Agatti, Kavaratti, and Minicoy. Around 65,000 people live in these islands, most of them are Muslims. But how did they get here? Mentions of Lakshadweep date back to the first century when a Greek sailor wrote about it during his travels. You could get excellent tortoise shells there. But what about the people? This is where history gets a bit hazy. There is no written account of what really happened, so we turn to local legends. History of Lakshadweep

They say the first settlements date back to the Cheraman Perumal, the kings who ruled over Kerala. One of them plays a key role here. Around the fifth century, he converted to Islam and fled his capital. He was heading to Mecca. Of course, the palace guards were spooked. They sent out search missions to find the king. One such mission was hit by a storm. The sailors were shipwrecked on Lakshadweep’s Bangaram Island. They returned when the weather improved and on the way back they found more islands like Agatti and Amini. Some of the sailors decided to stay there, thus the first settlements were built. But like I said, this is part of local legend. I’m afraid there’s no way to confirm this.

Around the 7th Century, there is more clarity. That’s when Islam actually emerged in world after all. The Arabs had a flourishing trade with India’s Malabar Coast. Soon they discovered Lakshadweep. The local population was gradually converted to Islam. One man played a key role in that, Sheikh Ubaidullah. While praying in Mecca, he had a dream. The prophet asked him to sail around the world to spread Islam to far-off places. Ubaidullah did exactly that, but months into the voyage, his ship was hit by a storm. Ubaidullah was swept ashore on a plank and guess where he was? The island of Amini. Once there, Ubaidullah started his work, but the locals were enraged. How dare this foreign man preach to them? So they drove him out. Ubaidullah went from Amini to Andrott and there he had more success. He managed to convert the local population to Islam. He then went to Kavaratti, Agatti, and then back to Amini. Ubaidullah never really returned home. He stayed in Lakshadweep until his death. A mosque was later built over his burial spot. It’s one of the top tourist attractions today. So that’s how Lakshadweep became Muslim.

The Rule of Mainland India

But what about its rulers? Well, that’s the interesting part. Lakshadweep never had its own rulers. It was always ruled from Mainland India. Around the year 1100, a Hindu Kingdom in Kerala annexed it. The rulers belonged to the Kulashekara Dynasty. When they collapsed, another dynasty took over, the Cheras. It was during this period that the Europeans found Lakshadweep. In the 13th century, Marco Polo talked about a female island. Chances are he was talking about Minicoy. Then came the Portuguese in 1498. Vasco da Gama landed in Lakshadweep and he found that the island had a lot of coir. So the Portuguese built forts in Lakshadweep. They tried to control the trade, but the locals disapproved. They revolted against the Portuguese in 1545. So once again, rulers changed. This time the Arakkal Royal House took over. It was a dynasty based in Kannur. It was led by Bibis or women rulers. But even they did not last. By the late 18th century, Tipu Sultan entered the picture.

How he came is again a matter of confusion. One account says the Bibis were oppressive rulers, so locals in Lakshadweep went to Tipu Sultan and they asked him to take over. Now the Sultan had good ties with the Bibis, so they held talks. In the end, they split the territory. Tipu Sultan got the Amini group of islands, around five of them. The rest remained under the Arakkal Bibis. That’s one account. The other version is more violent. Tipu Sultan had attacked the Malabar kingdoms, so once he beat them, he got Lakshadweep. Either way, his rule would not last. The British defeated Tipu Sultan in 1799, so now his territory passed on to them. Not the whole of Lakshadweep, just parts of it. And the rest would follow soon. In 1847, a major cyclone hit the island of Andrott. The damage was extensive. The Indian rulers alone could not cover the aid. It was a situation tailor-made for the British. They offered Lakshadweep a loan and when they could not repay, the British took over the islands. So in 1854, the whole of Lakshadweep became theirs.

The British Rule and Independence

Some major changes would follow. In 1907, Lakshadweep became part of the Madras Presidency. In 1912, the British introduced the Lakshadweep Regulation. It gave limited powers to local officials, but overall, the British strategy was clear: take everything that you can, give nothing back. Much like their strategy elsewhere. At the time of Independence, Lakshadweep was part of the Malabar District, basically present-day Kerala. Most of the people also spoke Malayalam. So why was it declared a Union Territory? Why not give it to Kerala? Again, there is a story. Apparently, communist leader A.K. Gopalan reached out to Jawaharlal Nehru. Gopalan was a tall leader in Kerala. He was a member of India’s first Lok Sabha. He told Nehru, “Declare Lakshadweep a Union Territory.” And that’s what happened. In 1956, Kerala was declared a state. On the same day, Lakshadweep became a Union Territory. Back then, it was not called Lakshadweep though. It was a set of three island groups: Laccadive, Minicoy, and Amini. But in 1973, the islands were renamed. They became collectively known as Lakshadweep. It’s got the same meaning in Sanskrit and Malayalam: 100,000 islands. That’s what Lakshadweep means.

The Present and Future of LakshadweepHistory of Lakshadweep

Today, Lakshadweep aims to be a tourist hotspot, but for that, much more needs to be done. Some 18,000 tourists visited Lakshadweep between 2021 and 2022. Out of these, just 2 were foreign tourists. So awareness is a key problem. So is infrastructure. Lakshadweep has less than 150 hotel rooms, not enough for a tourist hotspot. But the good news is there is money coming. Lakshadweep is expecting investments worth 20,000 crore rupees. 2 Tata-backed resorts are set to open in 2026. There’s a lot happening there. As for the Lakshadweep versus Maldives debate, I’m not sure the people of Lakshadweep will approve, especially in Minicoy Islands. It’s just 53 nautical miles from the Maldives. People there speak Divehi, the same language spoken in the Maldives. So there’s a lot of cultural exchange and shared history. And in the future, maybe competition. It’s important to keep that competition healthy and friendly. And the Maldives needs to understand that it doesn’t have to be Lakshadweep or the Maldives. It can be Lakshadweep and the Maldives. Let’s hope the leaders in Male realize that.

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