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Royal Past & Islamic Matrilineal Kinship: Lakshadweep's Rich History Has Always Left Chroniclers At Sea

A fishing boat drowned in sea near Lakshadweep due to severe windstorm in view of cyclone Tauktae. (Image: News18)

A fishing boat drowned in sea near Lakshadweep due to severe windstorm in view of cyclone Tauktae. (Image: News18)

This is not the first time that Lakshwadweep has made political headlines. The archipelago's history has forever been interesting.

Opposition parties in Lakshadweep and Kerala are up in arms against various measures initiated by the Administrator of the group of islands, terming them as “anti-people" and have sought his recall. However, this is not the first time that Lakshwadweep has made it to the headlines. The archipelago’s history has forever been interesting.

Why is Lakshadweep often linked to Islam and matrilineal kinship?

According to Census 2011, the Muslim community constitutes 96.58 per cent of Lakshadweep’s population. The social structure is based on matrilineal kinship. Contrary to the prevalent societal system, matriliny adheres to a system in which ancestral descent is traced through maternal instead of paternal lines.

Most people of Lakshadweep are descendants of migrants from the Malabar Coast of southwest India and the islanders are ethnically similar to coastal Kerala’s Malayali community.

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How did Islam and matriliny set afoot in the archipelago?

According to the Journal of South Asian Studies published online by Cambridge University Press in September 2017, the acceptance of Islam by local populations took place between the 8th and 15th centuries when trade in the Indian Ocean was dominated by Muslims.

Islam represented one of the factors for the unity of the Indian Ocean, but the spread of Islam was not even or consistent; nor were Muslims - the only traders in this ocean. These sea routes linked the Red Sea coast, the Persian Gulf, South India, South Arabia, Persia, Southeast Asia, East Africa and China to each other.

Matrilineal seafarers and traders from Western Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula traversed the Indian Ocean, triggering major migrations of food culture, animals, musical instruments and maritime technology.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Muslim sailors and merchants probably stayed through monsoon periods or used the islands as respites.

What is the Royal Family connection?

The Arakkal family of Cannanore controlled the Lakshadweep islands from 1545 to 1819, which included the islands of Androth, Kavaratti, Agathi, Minicoy and Kalpeni. In 1789, the “Queen of Malabar" Junumabe II lost her fort to the British.

In 1908, Imbichi Ali Raja, the then Arakkal ruler of Lakshadweep, agreed to surrender sovereignty over the islands in return for an annual malikhana (pension) of Rs 23,000—an amount that is still paid to the family, which a few years ago petitioned for a raise.

Traditionally, female heads of the Arakkal house are known as Arakkal Beevis, while male heads are called Ali Rajas.

Where is the Royal Family now?

Eighty-five-year-old Adiraja Mariyumma, alias Cheriya Bikkunhu Beevi, became the new head of the Arakkal family in May 2019.

Beevi resides at her residence at Arakkal Kettu in Kerala’s Talassery, a town 20 km away from Kannur. She has been residing at Almar Mahal ever since she returned from Chennai 19 years ago.

She assumed charge as the new head of the family following the death of her predecessor and cousin, 86-year-old Sulthan Arakkal Adiraja Fathima Muthu Beevi.

What was the pension controversy?

In July 2013, the Arakkal family demanded a higher compensation from the government, if not the islands themselves.

In 1908, when the family signed the final deal with the British, the price of gold was Rs 3.30 per sovereign, says the current generation. “If you look at the present gold prices, we are entitled to Rs 13 crore a year as compensation. The royal family feels insulted at the pittance being paid," Adi Raja Muhammed Rafi, son of the then royal head Sainaba Aysha Beevi had told Indian Express.

Rafi had said the family of 150 was struggling to finance its royal rituals and maintain its infrastructure, which includes four mosques.

What about tourism in Lakshadweep?

Out of a total of 36, only 10 islands of Lakshadweep are inhabited by the local populace – Andrott, Amini, Agatti, Bitra, Chetlat, Kadmath, Kalpeni, Kiltan, Minicoy and Kavaratti; the latter being the headquarters of the Union Territory. The 11th island, Bangaram, holds a resort.

Kadmat is the centremost island in the Lakshadweep archipelago, the only island open to non-Indian visitors. Indians too can visit only one-third of the islands in order to protect the ecological balance and give the indigenous tribes their much need space.

According to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes list (modification orders), 1956, the inhabitants of Lakshadweep who and both of whose parents were born in these islands are treated as Scheduled Tribes. There are no Scheduled Castes in this Union Territory.

What is the current row about?

Parties have alleged that Praful Khoda Patel, the Administrator of the group of islands unilaterally lifted restrictions on the use of alcohol in the Muslim-majority islands, banned beef products, citing Animal Preservation and demolished fishermen’s sheds built on the coastal areas, saying they violated the Coast Guard Act. The BJP, defending Patel, claimed that the protests were a result of his efforts to end “corrupt practices" involving local politicians prevalent and usher in development there.

Patel, who is the Administrator of the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, was given charge of Lakshadweep following the demise of Dineshwar Sharma in December last year.

The central government is committed to the development of Lakshadweep, which could emerge as a bustling tourism hub, said Patel, rejecting criticism that steps taken by him are detrimental to the traditional life, culture and peace there. He alleges that most of those who ruled the UT played the minority card and neglected development. Patel, a former legislator from Gujarat who has worked with Narendra Modi as his minister of state for home in the western state’s cabinet, stressed that he has no “communal agenda”. On banning beef, he said most Indian states do not allow the sale of cow meat. “If this is implemented in Lakshadweep too, what’s the harm?" Patel asked.

Patel also said the Anti-Social Activities Regulation Bill 2021, or the Goonda Act, is necessary to check criminal activities, especially large-scale smuggling of cannabis and illegal liquor trade. “Those who say there is no crime in Lakshadweep are not telling the truth,” he said. In the same breath, he added allowing sale of liquor will stop the illegal trade, and help in revenue generation and tourism. Patel said those opposing the moves are “the same people who have not been able to carry out any development in the UT in last 70 years”. “They do not want development here, as they think their interest will not be served,” he said.

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first published:May 27, 2021, 14:23 IST