THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Kerala — Four days after the Lakshadweep Police booked her for sedition under the 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), in an interview with India Ahead News on Saturday, Aisha Sultana said that she would not be deterred from opposing the forthcoming changes, including the ban on cow slaughter and disallowing people with more than two children from contesting in the local body election, to the cluster of islands where 99% of the population is Muslim.
In addition to the sedition case registered against her at the Kavaratti police station in Lakshwadeep on 8 June, on Saturday, the Thirsssur city police in Kerala confirmed to India Ahead that they had received a complaint from BJP district president KK Anil Kumar against Sultana on Saturday.
Speaking on the phone from Kochi, Kerala, where she is seeking legal advice, the 37-year-old actor, model, and director from Chetlat island in the archipelago, said, “As a true believer of Islam, I wish to quote Prophet Muhammed, who urged his followers to love their respective motherlands. I am a proud Indian. The sedition charge is part of the attempts to silence me from voicing the survival concerns of my people.”
“Whatever is the fallout of the police action, I don’t harbour even an iota of fear about the repercussions of engaging in free speech. I will go to jail for the right cause,” said Sultana. “I’m only sad that a fellow islander has lodged a police complaint against me for standing up for our people.”
Whatever is the fallout of the police action, I don’t harbour even an iota of fear about the repercussions for engaging in free speech.
On 7 June, in a television discussion conducted on the Malayalam channel Media One, while referring to the growing number of Covid-19 cases in Lakshwadeep, and Praful Khoda Patel, the administrator of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep, who has drafted the forthcoming changes, Sultana said, “The central government had sent a bio-weapon to the archipelago of Lakshadweep.”
Praful, the Home Minister of Gujarat from 2010 to 2012, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of the state, was appointed as the administrator of the Union Territories of Lakshadweep, Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagarhaveli in Jan 2021; the first political appointment to a post previously held by officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
The FIR was registered by the Lakshadweep Police on 8 June at the Kavaratti police station following a complaint by the Lakshadweep unit president Abdul Khader Haji of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power at the Centre.
The sedition case against Sultana comes a week after the Supreme Court quashed a sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua, on 3 June, ruling that criticism of the government did not constitute sedition, and “a citizen has a right to criticise or comment upon the measures undertaken by the Government and its functionaries, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law.”
In using the term “bio weapon,” Sultana said that she was trying to explain her viewpoint that Praful and his policies were responsible for the rise in Covid-19 cases in Lakshadweep, and that she had apologised for her remarks while speaking with a Malayalam-language channel Kairali on Friday. Sultana added, however, that her apology was restricted to the use of the word, not the lapses on part of the administrator.
The first case of COVID-19 in Lakshadweep was recorded on 18 January 2021. Until then, Lakshadweep was India’s only COVID-free territory. As of 12 June, 2021, there were 9,122 confirmed cases and 24 deaths in a population of 64,473 (as per the 2011 census).
“It was his wrong and controversial policies that crushed our collective vigilance against Covid,” said Sultana. “I never used any word damaging to the national interest and the integrity of the motherland.”
“Our people maintained social distancing and regulated the movement of people between our own islands and the mainland. The then administration kept a close vigil against people from outside visiting the islands unnecessarily and without keeping Covid protocol. When Patel brought in people from outside without following Covid protocol, tests and mandatory quarantine, the virus occupied the islands,” she said.
“I never used any word damaging to the national interest and the integrity of the motherland.
On May 26, BJP Lakshadweep general secretary Mohammad Kasim had opposed the new regulations.
On May 27, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader and Lakshadweep’s Lok Sabha member Mohammed Faizal also criticised the administrator for doing away with quarantine protocols necessary for people to enter Lakshadweep, stating, “Praful Khoda Patel is implementing all the anti-people rules and regulations. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah should listen to the outcry of the local people and send in a new Administrator.”
On May 28, defending the regulations that the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) 2021, including the inquiring of land for public purposes, now pending with the Home Ministry, Patel said that the regulation were meant to usher in development, and he intended to develop Lakshadweep like neighbouring Maldives, an international tourist destination.
In 2019, Sultana was an associate director in the Malyalam language film Kettyolaanu Ente Malaakha (Wife is my angel). In 2020, Sultana made her independent directorial debut with the Malayalam film Flush.
To India Ahead, Sultana said, “There was no pre plan to use the word. It came out of my mouth while taking part in a news hour discussion of a Malayalam television channel. My proficiency in Malayalam was minimal. It was indeed a slip of the tongue that would not deserve sedition and hate speech charges.”
There was no pre plan to use the word. It came out of my mouth while taking part in a news hour discussion of a Malayalam television channel.
Sultana, who has become the face of Lakshadweep’s protests against the controversial projects and programs of the administrator, from banning cow slaughter to opening up the ecologically sensitive islands to large scale tourism, said that organised false propaganda and attempts to bring her under complex legal wrangling would not deter her from speaking out.
Sultana said that she was receiving information that several other complaints of similar nature are now getting filed in various police stations both in Lakshwadeep and in Kerala.
“I wish to point out that I would not backtrack from my fight for my native land. Let them file cases,” she said. “I am only concerned about traitors among my people like the one who petitioned against me. So far, the sea surrounding the islands has protected me, and I must protect the sea and its fragile ecology. I will fight for my people whatever be the repercussions.”
So far, the sea surrounding the islands has protected me, and I must protect the sea and its fragile ecology.
In his complaint, BJP’s Haji said that Sultana “caused disrespect to the country and the Union government by saying that the Union government had brought corona infections to the islands by using bio weapons.”
Sultana denies it. “I had only termed Patel as a bioweapon, not the government or the country. I was not able to find an alternative word while engaging in the television discussion,” she said.
Sultana said that she had received the copy of the FIR booking her for sedition (124A) and hate speech (153 B) of the IPC, and was told to reach the Kavaratti Police Station on June 20 to record her statement.
Extending his support, K Bahir, secretary of Lakshadweep Sahitya Pravarthaka Sangam, a writers forum, said that it was wrong to depict her as an “anti-national” and criticised the “inhumane approach of the administrator.”
On Saturday, a number of BJP leaders in Lakshadweep, led by its general secretary Abdul Hameed Mullipuzha resigned from the party terming the sedition case against Sultana as “false and unjustified.”
In their letter to party unit president Haji, they said that even BJP workers in Lakshadweep were protesting against the “enormity” of the “anti-democratic, anti-people and terrifying” policies of the Administrator Patel.
KA Shaji is a journalist based in South India. He writes on human rights, environment, livelihood, caste and marginalised communities.