According to local people, the problems for Lakshadweep, an archipelago of paradise islands in southern India, began the day the new government-appointed administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, landed on a charter flight.
The Lakshadweep islands, an Indian union territory off the coast of Kerala, have a population of just 64,000 and are renowned for their crystal-blue waters, white sands and relatively untouched way of life. They had, up to that point, also remained completely unaffected by the pandemic, due to strict controls on movement and enforced quarantine.
That day, 2 December 2020, India’s Covid-19 cases had passed 9.4 million but there was not a single incidence reported across Lakshadweep’s 36 islands.
Yet much to the anger of residents, Patel, a leader in the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) who had been appointed to run Lakshadweep by his long-term ally, prime minister Narendra Modi, decided to publicly ignore the quarantine rules imposed on everyone else.
Tensions rose further when, while on the way to his official residence, Patel saw a banner imprinted with a slogan against India’s controversial new citizenship law, which has been accused of discriminating against Muslims. He ordered it to be removed and three people on whose land the sign was placed were arrested and released on bail.
Then, without consultation and despite staunch opposition, he introduced a slew of new measures and draft laws that the people of Lakshadweep, 96% Muslim, saw as an attack on their identity, religion, culture and land, and a devastating threat to their way of life.
As the extent of Patel’s measures – described as “brazen”, “authoritarian” and an imposition of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda on one of India’s only majority-Muslim regions – has become widely known, some of India’s most prominent politicians have voiced robust opposition.
Dozens of MPs have written to the central government and a campaign to “Save Lakshadweep” has gained traction across India. On Monday, the state assembly of Kerala, where Patel’s measures have been met with outcry, passed a unanimous resolution for the administrator to be recalled from his post.
Priyanka Gandhi, a prominent figure in the opposition Congress party, has been a particularly vocal critic. “The people of Lakshadweep deeply understand and honour the rich natural and cultural heritage of the islands they inhabit,” she tweeted. “They have always protected and nurtured it. The BJP government and its administration have no business to destroy this heritage, to harass the people of Lakshadweep or to impose arbitrary restrictions and rules on them.”
Shashi Tharoor, a senior opposition politician, added: “One could be forgiven for reading these laws as legislation for a war-torn region facing significant civilian strife, rather than laws meant for an idyllic archipelago filled with abundant natural beauty and peace-loving fellow citizens of India.”
The most divisive laws proposed by Patel include a ban on eating beef, under the guise of animal conservation; removing a four-decade ban on the consumption of alcohol and allowing liquor stores to open; banning people from running in village elections if they have more than two children; and a proposed regulation which empowers the administration to acquire land on the islands, irrespective of its ownership, for “development” purposes.
In addition, all dairy farms were closed and a businessman from Patel’s home state of Gujarat was allowed to come in and franchise milk production and sales on the islands.
Most controversially, Patel has also proposed the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act, or “goonda act” as it is locally known, a new law that gives police powers to jail suspects without trial, and without full evidence, for up to a year.
“People are scared by these absurd laws,” says Hassan Bodumukka, chief councillor and panchayat president on the islands. “We are Muslims and have been eating beef traditionally. Banning it is an attack on our religious identity. More than that, policies are being made to dispossess us from our land and this is all happening in the guise of development.”
No one is against development, Bodumukka says, “but it cannot be done at the cost of the environment, people, their identity and faith”.
The islands have always strictly protected themselves from the often corrosive impacts of tourism and development. Though hotels exist, they are mostly small and government-run. Special permission is required for tourists to visit the islands. Fishing in the surrounding tuna-rich waters is the islanders’ main livelihood.
Lakshadweep has flourished under these protected conditions; per capita income is higher than the Indian average, the literacy rate is 92%, much higher than India’s average of 74%, and crime is negligible.
But Patel and the Modi government appear to have their sights set on developing Lakshadweep into a major tourist destination, including paving new roads and creating a designated “smart city” in the capital, Kavaratti. For islanders and former administrators, these plans signal the beginning of the end of Lakshadweep as they know it.
“Tourism development in Lakshadweep must be people-centric, not investor-centric,” says Wajahat Habibullah, former administrator of the region. “The idea is to preserve the ecology because these are very fragile ecological entities. The Maldives [which is adjacent] is already facing this problem of extinction because the reefs have been compromised, which, fortunately, has not happened in Lakshadweep to that extent. We need to preserve those reefs.”
Already, sheds along the seafront belonging to local fishers have been demolished and trees have been cut down to make way for new roads. Rumours are rife that the islands will be opened up for development by large hoteliers and corporations, leaving people fearful that their land will be grabbed from them.
“We fear losing our land,” says Mohammed Faizal, the islands’ only MP, who is from the Nationalist Congress party. “All the people living in Lakshadweep are scheduled tribes and their land is protected under the constitution. No one can come here and take our land.”
Faizal adds that the government is trying to make land grabs legal under the guise of development.
Patel served as home minister of Gujarat from 2010 until 2012. He was then appointed administrator of Daman and Diu followed by Dadra and Nagar Haveli, now merged into one union territory which includes Diu island off the coast of Gujarat. Patel was accused of imposing laws which infringed local customs by bringing major development and a tourism push to the island, which saw heritage buildings demolished to build roads.
Many fear the same, or worse, for Lakshadweep. Abdul Salam, general secretary of the Congress party on the islands, says people “have been living here for generations and most of us are self-sufficient. We don’t want corporations to come here with the aim to dispossess us.”
Patel did not directly respond to requests for comment, but the BJP has denied all the allegations, saying Patel’s new measures were “aimed at the overall development of the island” and that his administration in Lakshadweep had fallen prey to a politically motivated “misinformation campaign”.
This week, Faizal said he had been given assurances by central government that nothing would be introduced without the consent of the islanders.
Most of the new laws are awaiting final approval from cabinet. But some decisions have already affected hundreds of people and elected bodies have been stripped of key powers.
While there have been protests on the island, Patel’s “goonda act” has left people scared to voice their opposition to the regime for fear they will be locked up without trial.
Twenty-one people, including elected representatives who resisted the change in quarantine policy, have had police cases filed against them and many others have been arrested.
“We have seen what is being done with the Muslims in India,” says Mohammad Saalim, a college student from Lakshadweep. “From Kashmir to Delhi, and other places, laws are being made by the Modi regime to make Muslims second-class citizens, and the same is happening with us now.”
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).
All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”
McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.
“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?”
“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.
Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance.
Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee.
McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021
“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.”
Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.
“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.
On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.
Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.
It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.
A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.
Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.
“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”
Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.
The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.
But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.
Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.
Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.
Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.
This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.
The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.
The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.
The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.
“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”
Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”
After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.
The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.
It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.
The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.
Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.
The surge in Covid-19 cases due to the spread of the more contagious Delta variant has prompted a debate in Germany over whether people who have not yet been vaccinated should face restrictions – after other countries like France and Greece made similar moves.
“Vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people,” chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, said in an interview published on Sunday (25 July).
If infections continue to rise, unvaccinated people might be forbidden from entering restaurants, cinemas, theatres or sports stadiums because “the residual risk is too high,” he said.
Merkel has previously spoken out against making vaccination itself mandatory.
According to Braun, cases are increasing by 60-percent per week and are expected to continue rising.
“If the Delta variant were to continue to spread at this rate and we don’t counter it with a very high vaccination-rate or change in behaviour, we would have an incidence of 850 [cases per 100,000 inhabitants] in just nine weeks,” he said.
Braun argued that introducing further restrictions for unvaccinated people would be legal since “the state has the responsibility to protect the health of its citizens” – triggering a debate even within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
The CDU candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in September’s national elections, Armin Laschet, has opposed such measures.
“I do not believe in compulsory vaccination, and I do not believe in indirectly putting pressure on people to get vaccinated,” he told ZDF television.
“We have had a rule that you must be tested, vaccinated or recovered and I think that is a good principle,” Laschet said.
For his part, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Rolf Mützenich, warned that politicians are not going “to change the vaccination behaviour of individuals with threats”.
About 60 percent of Germany’s 83 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 jab, while just 48 percent are fully-vaccinated.
All jabs approved in the EU – BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson&Johnson – appeared to be effective against the Delta variant when both doses are administrated in the case of two-shot jabs.
Other countries like Italy, France, and Greece are trying to increase vaccination rates by imposing vaccine passport schemes or mandatory vaccination for certain workers, such as health and care staff.
Those moves have sparked protests over the weekend.
Thousands gathered on Saturday in several French cities to speak out against the new Covid-19 restrictions for unvaccinated people and mandatory vaccination – with far-right activists and members of the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement clashing with police in Paris.
Similar rallies took place outside the Greek parliament in Athens for the third time this month, while large crowds took the streets in Dublin to protest against the introduction of vaccines passports.
As part of a so-called “Worldwide Rally for Freedom” campaign, protest against vaccine passports, wearing masks, and further lockdowns were organised in major cities across the world, including Sydney, London or Rome.