Lakshadweep-born film-maker Aisha Sultana has been slapped with sedition charges for criticising the Union Territory’s Administrator Praful Khoda Patel in a debate in a Malayalam channel. Sultana has been among the most vocal critics of the recent ‘reforms’ introduced by Patel, which triggered widespread protests in the island.
The filing of sedition charge again drew criticism from political leaders, legal experts and the public. Speaking to The Federal, Senior Congress leader and Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor said the sedition law has been wrongly interpreted to charge Aisha Sultana, and that this is little more than harassment.
Criticism over COVID management
“There were zero cases of COVID in our island, and then the Central government sent Praful Khoda Patel as the new Administrator,” Sultana had said in the TV programme. “He cancelled the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), which caused the entry of the virus into the island. This is nothing but a ‘biological weapon’ used by the Centre against the people of the island.”
The BJP’s representatives in the TV debate protested against her use of the term ‘biological weapon’ in public. Following a complaint filed by Abdul Khader, the BJP chief in Lakshadweep, the Kavaratti police filed an FIR against Sultana under sections 124 A (sedition) and 153 B (hate speech) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Sultana responded that she would not yield to intimidating tactics and would continue to amplify the voice of the islanders for upholding their human rights. In a Facebook note, she said that those who ‘betray their own people’ will eventually taste defeat, in what is construed as a reference to Khader.
Saying that her voice will only be louder henceforth, she asked the people of Lakshadweep not to fear those who try to scare them.
Interestingly, Sultana was slapped with sedition charges just days after the Supreme Court made critical remarks against imposing sedition laws arbitrarily. In a recent Judgment quashing an FIR for sedition against journalist Vinod Dua, the apex court had held that “a citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder”.
Misinterpretation of law: Tharoor
Tharoor told The Federal the sedition law had been misinterpreted. “I have long argued that in our democracy, any criticism of the government that does not involve incitement to violence is not seditious — a principle the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld and that various state police forces have more repeatedly ignored,” he said.
“I even introduced a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament in 2014-15 to ‘read down’ the sedition law so as to make this interpretation clear,” he added. “The case will fail in the courts but she (Sultana) will be made to suffer till then. It is a total abuse of the process of law and unworthy of our democracy.”
Sultana, meanwhile, has received support both from the LDF and the UDF in Kerala. On social media, too, there was robust support for the film-maker, with hashtags cropping up criticising the application of sedition law.
“The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly made it clear that criticising the Prime Minister or the government is not seditious. Slapping sedition charges on Aisha Sultana is equal to dishonouring and challenging the Supreme Court. This is nothing but an expression of the BJP’s fear of dissenting voices. We all stand with her and will fight for her,” said Elamaram Kareem, CPI(M) leader and Rajya Sabha MP from Kerala.