Police in India’s Lakshadweep Islands have charged a local filmmaker with sedition after she labeled the federal administration a “bio-weapon” used by the government against the islands’ residents.
The case against Aisha Sultana was registered at a police station on Lakshadweep’s main island and capital, Kavaratti, after a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician lodged a complaint with Prime Minister Narendra Modi (BJP), Indian media reports said Friday.
The BJP complaint quoted a Malayalam television broadcast about controversial government plans in Lakshadweep, in which the Sultana allegedly said Modi’s government was using the island’s administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, as a “bio-weapon.”
Lakshadweep police registered an FIR against filmmaker Aisha Sultana for sedition and hate speech after she said during a televised debate that the central government had used COVID-19 as a “bio-weapon” against the people of Lakshadweep
– ANI (@ANI) June 11, 2021
Patel, 63, is the first non-bureaucratic administrator of the Lakshadweep Islands and once served as interior minister of Modi’s home state Gujarat when the Indian prime minister was its chief minister for more than a decade.
The Lakshadweep Islands, popular with tourists, are managed by an administrator appointed by the Indian President.
Since taking over the Lakshadweep government last December, Patel has pushed through a number of new laws and proposals in India’s only Muslim-majority territory besides Indian-administered Kashmir – without consulting the locally elected representatives.
Lakshadweep is an idyllic archipelago of 36 islands – 10 of which are inhabited – spread over an area of 32 square kilometers in the sea, about 200 km (124 miles) off the southwest coast of the Indian peninsula.
It is the smallest of India’s eight Union Territories (UTs), with a population of 65,000 – 97 percent Muslim – who now fear losing their land, livelihoods and other rights as the government plans to develop the remote archipelago supports a tourist center.
Proposed new town planning laws to make way for tourism, luxury housing and deep-sea mining projects would give Patel the authority to remove or relocate islanders from development areas by designating land as “planning areas”.
Other controversial proposals range from banning cow slaughter and allowing more alcohol licenses, which are viewed as violating local Islamic religious sentiments. Currently, the sale and consumption of alcohol is largely banned on the islands.
Other proposals include excluding people with more than two children from village council elections. The government could also detain anyone for up to a year without trial, according to Patel’s proposals.
Sultana is among thousands of islanders using social media as COVID-19 curbs keep them from taking to the streets to protest.
COVID crisis in the islands
In a Facebook post, Sultana defended her outbreak against Patel on the TV show.
“I used the word bio-weapon in the TV channel debate. I sensed Patel and his politics [have acted] as a bioweapon, ”she wrote.
“COVID-19 spread to Lakshadweep through Patel and his entourage. I compared Patel as a bioweapon, not the government or the country…. You should understand. What else should I call him? … “
Lakshadweep had remained coronavirus free throughout 2020 as the strict protocol was required due to its poor health infrastructure with only three hospitals for the 10 inhabited islands.
Patel is accused of worsening the COVID-19 crisis in Lakshadweep by changing the quarantine protocol in January, allowing anyone to enter the islands with a negative RT-PCR report obtained 48 hours prior to their trip.
A week after the rules were changed, the Territory reported its first coronavirus case on January 17. As of Thursday, the island had recorded over 9,000 cases and more than 40 deaths, according to Maktoob’s news website.
Filmmaker Aisha Sultana Lakhadweep
Aisha Sultana has been booked for rioting about statements against Administrator Patel. #WithdrawSeditionCase #supportaishasulthana #FarmersProtest pic.twitter.com/8CBtTLimsR
– Chhotubhai Vasava (@Chhotu_Vasava) June 10, 2021
A student-launched Twitter campaign has gained prominence in mainland India, with #SaveLakshadweep being endorsed by prominent politicians such as main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi.
This week, the local residents group Save Lakshadweep Forum started a one-day hunger strike to protest the new land purchase plans that have raised fears of displacement among the islands’ approximately 65,000 residents.
“For generations we have led a quiet life and have rarely protested against the policies created on the mainland … But if they take my land and my home away from me, where will we all go?” Fisher Sakariya, who uses a name, said by phone .
Like many local fishermen, his only asset is the family house his grandfather built on a plot of land of around 93 square meters near the beach in the island’s capital, Kavaratti.
“This is not a big city to which people can be relocated nearby. For us it will probably mean that we have to move to the mainland. How can we allow someone to take our home away? ”He said.
Protesters also fear the plans could put a strain on the islands’ already limited public services, which include a lack of safe drinking water, health care and access to the mainland.
Lakshadweep Police are charging sedition against filmmaker Aisha Sultana for alleging that the government used Praful Khoda Patel as a “bio-weapon” against humans. This is an abuse of the sedition law. BJP destroys Lakshadweep and blows anyone who speaks out against it!
– Dr. Shama Mohamed (@drshamamohd) June 11, 2021
Lakshadweep’s administrator Praful Patel did not respond to a request for comment, but another senior official – Collector S Akser Ali – recently told reporters that the goal was to develop the islands “holistically” while respecting the wellbeing of residents is kept in mind.
But distrust and anger towards the Hindu nationalist government in Muslim-majority territory are widespread.
The recent demolition of the fishermen’s beach huts by the authorities only fueled suspicion, said K Nizamuddin, who belongs to the self-government in Kavaratti, which is being rethought as a “smart city” in the development plans.
Nizamuddin said part of the problem was that residents were not properly informed of the plans.
“We have not been consulted and most of the islanders do not know what the future will bring. If any drastic changes are imminent, they should be informed, ”he said.
“In a smart city there must be space for local fishermen and for traditional livelihoods such as livestock. Instead, authorities broke fishermen’s huts on the beach and said it was against the norms. So there is mistrust. “
In solidarity with Aisha Sultana. Dissenting voices cannot be suppressed by sedition. pic.twitter.com/kiwRL9R2z6
– Aishe (divine) (isaishe_ghosh) June 11, 2021
According to the draft regulation called for by Patel, residents would also have to obtain a building permit before making even minor changes to their homes, said attorney R Rohith.
“In other regions, it may seem normal for the government to buy land for projects like building a road, but the islands just don’t do that,” Rohith said, referring to laws aimed at protecting the rights of islanders fragile ecosystem.
Last month, the legislative assembly in Kerala, the closest mainland state, approved a motion calling for Patel to be removed and people’s livelihoods protected.
“We have been living in this small area for decades. We know the effects of disturbing this ecology better than anyone. The officers should listen to us, ”said Fischer Sakariya.