The Laccadive Islands lie in the Arabian Sea just North of the Maldives. They are now known as Lakshadweep and are a Union Territory of India. Other than Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, Lakshadweep is the only Muslim-majority constituent unit in India. This gives the Islands a unique character and one which was overlooked by the All India Muslim League and later the newly formed Government of Pakistan although an unconfirmed incident shows that the Liaquat Ali Khan Administration did try to make this remote and tropical archipelago a southern extension of Pakistan in the Indian Ocean.
The History of the Laccadives and the ethnicity of its populace are closely linked to the neighbouring regions of Kerala and the Maldives. The people of the islands mostly speak Malayalam, the Dravidian language spoken in Kerala with a minority in the southernmost islands speaking Mahl, a dialect of Divehi, the Indo-Aryan language of the Maldives. In antiquity the islands were usually independent but at times the Maldivian Sultans and the Zamorins of the Malabar Coast exerted influence on the archipelago. The Portuguese often used the islands as a stop over on the way to Goa and Ceylon and it was their depredations which led to the people relying upon the Malabarese princes for protection. Eventually the islands fell into the control of the Mysore Kingdom of Tipu Sultan and upon his defeat the Laccadives became a possession of the British East India Company and later the British Raj. During the days of the Raj they remained a part of the Malabar District of the Madras Presidency, without any real separate administrative status.
Let us delve into the realm of alternate history and imagine a scenario wherein the Pakistani ship beat the Travancore Police to it and reached the Laccadives before the Indian flag was hoisted
If the islands had been a separate entity perhaps the Pakistani leadership would have paid more attention to the archipelago in the days leading up to the 1947 Partition, but like the rest of South India the Madras Muslim League never really had any aspirations to extend partition to the South and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was adamant that the principle of non-contiguity must be adhered to, i.e. any part of India with a Muslim majority that did not directly border either the Western or Eastern wings of Pakistan could not be a part of the new dominion. In any case, it seems that Pakistan simply overlooked the Laccadives.
But unconfirmed reports on both sides show that Pakistan did eventually realize this and tried to take control of the islands in August 1947.
The exact dates are not confirmed but sometime in the end of August, 1947, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, realized that a Muslim majority region had been excluded from Pakistan and that he had a chance to take control of it. At around the same time the Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of India, Vallabhbhai Patel, also started to think about those very islands. There is not much information about how both came around to thinking about this archipelago of coral atolls in the Arabian Sea.
From the Pakistani side this would not seem odd as there was a large Malabari Muslim community in Karachi itself, mostly involved in the spice trade, and they might have been able to convey the message to those in power about annexing the Laccadives. However it came about, the Royal Pakistan Navy sent a warship south from Karachi. Meanwhile in India Patel somehow came to the conclusion that the islands may be at risk. It is not entirely unfeasible that he got wind of the developments in Karachi. He immediately sent instructions to the Collector of Revenue in Travancore to get to the main Island, Kavaratti, with a police escort and raise the Indian Tricolour. This went as planned and after a brief flag raising ceremony the archipelago was cemented in the Indian Union. Soon afterwards the Pakistani ships reached the Island and saw the Indian flag flying.
The rest, as they say, is history but let us delve into the realm of alternate history and imagine a scenario where in the Pakistani ship beat the Travancore Police to it and reached the Laccadives before the Indian flag was hoisted.
If on that humid monsoon day in the tropics our sailors had landed on Kavaratti they would have discovered an island in confusion. The islanders would have heard by then that India was independent and that the Madras Presidency, where they were located, was part of it. The educated amongst them though would also have heard about the Muslim League and Pakistan so it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that some amongst them would welcome the Pakistan Navy with open arms and the Star and Crescent would be raised. Suppose the Travancore Police sailed into Kavaratti Harbour to see a battleship moored offshore and the Pakistani flag flying. They would most probably have turned around and returned to the Malabar. What would follow could be anyone’s guess. Perhaps the first Indo-Pak skirmish would have been a naval battle. Or maybe Pakistan could hold a plebiscite and successfully annex the Laccadives. The distance between Karachi and the islands is 1,726 kilometers, a couple of days’ sailing. An airport would also have be established further enhancing communications. Thus Pakistan would have had an oceanic outpost close to the equator. The geostrategic and defense benefits would have been immense and Pakistan would also have tropical island destination that would rival the Maldives as a touristic haven.
Pakistan missed an opportunity in the Laacadives in 1947. The people of Lakshadweep are now content with their status as Indian citizens – as are the vast majority of Muslims in South India. The cosmopolitan and mercantile outlook in South India negates some of the problems that Muslims face in other parts of India. It was the same back in the Partition era and that is why the Madras Muslim League never even considered opting for Pakistani enclaves in the South.
One cannot, however, stop imagining what a Pakistani tropical paradise the Laccadives might have been if our ship had reached the archipelago just a few hours ahead of the Travancore Police!