Kochi: Aisha Sulthana personified the resistance of a group of islanders cast away on the Arabian Sea off the west coast of the Indian mainland. The tranquil archipelago of Lakshadweep had a tumultuous period this year, first in the form of an unprecedented cyclone and then an unprovoked incursion from the administration.
The people’s movement against administrator Praful Patel’s arbitrary decisions found a face in Sulthana, who had made a name as an actor, director, and assistant director. She played a major role in projecting the islanders’ agitation onto the television screens and social media platforms across the country. She vocalized her land’s demands in television debates and social media feeds.
Sulthana eventually found herself in the center of a campaign intended to silence her and weaken the resistance of the islanders. She was slapped with a sedition charge for a slip of the tongue during a television debate.
Sulthana is also busy with the post-production works of her directorial debut, ‘Flush’. The day she released the first-look poster of the movie, she was visited in her Kochi apartment by a group of policemen from Kavaratti. She has made it clear that she would not budge in the face of such strong-arm tactics. She said that she would challenge the charges against her legally.
The director-activist spoke to Onmanorama.
Aisha Sulthana has become the voice of Lakshadweep. Silencing you may silence the islands. Is that the motivation for the sedition charge? How do the islanders stand by you in this hour of crisis?
They are trying to silence me. That is why they seized my phone. They have succeeded in that to an extent. They cut the means for the media to contact me. They seized the phone a day after they finished interrogating me, even after I received an anticipatory bail from the Kerala High Court. The Kavaratti police came to my apartment in Kochi without giving me any notice.
They are making my family’s life difficult in a bid to weaken me. The people of Lakshadweep are strongly supporting me. Children and elders, men and women, members of all parties, serving officers, everyone is with us in spirit. Some of them have said that they are unable to do anything else.
You have been vocal about social issues even when you worked in movies. Had you ever considered walking up to the frontline of an agitation?
Never. I am an artiste. I will react through my movies. That is one media I am familiar with. I know I can convey a lot of things to people through movies. That is what my movie is all about. ‘Flush’ is a totally feminist movie. I have a message for the girls. I have a story to tell the girls on the verge of suicide.
I can reach more people through a movie than I could reach if I were to go around with a microphone. Even if just 10 people took in the message, I would be happy. We see many girls committing suicide for silly reasons. I do not like the tendency. Everything has a solution. My movie will nudge them to search for solutions.
Have you faced any fissures in the agitation for Lakshadweep?
There are no fissures in the Lakshadweep agitation. The Lakshadweep Forum is leading the resistance and legal challenges as well. All the islanders oppose the latest reforms. That is why even BJP leaders on the islands met Union home minister Amit Shah to register their protest. There is no development happening on the islands. It is purely business. Any development activity should benefit the people. Anything that harms the people is not development, but business.
What is development in your opinion?
Each place should have a development model that suits it. As far as Lakshadweep is concerned, the most profitable means of income is fisheries. Most of the islanders are excellent sailors and fishermen. The government should facilitate their activities. In Norway, the government created fishing facilities for the coastal people. Today, that country is making huge profits importing fish and seafood. Here, the government is undermining the fisheries sector.
There are limitations in developing the islands. The islands cannot absorb massive development projects. The islands owe their existence to the lagoons. Big projects would harm the lagoons and the islands themselves. Even with the lagoons, we are facing coastal erosion. Just imagine our plight without the lagoons.
Tourism development would benefit the people. Bangaram island had tourism projects.
If they were to introduce tourism projects as in Bangaram, nobody would have objected to them. That is not the case. They are evicting people in the name of tourism. As many as 130 families have been asked to vacate their houses in Kavaratti alone.
Will the tourism initiative benefit Lakshadweep when basic infrastructure is not developed?
That is our primary requirement. You have to ensure basic infrastructure development before introducing tourism projects. Lakshadweep does not even have a good hospital. The hospital on my island is just a modest building with a doctor, four beds, and an oxygen cylinder. Covid-19 patients are put up in schools. They only have four nurses to take care of them.
Moreover, islanders are not allowed to participate in tourism projects. They cannot even build a hut in their land to offer homestays. How can you justify the moves to bring in outsiders to run tourism projects when you bar the locals from benefitting from tourism? Let them bring in hospitals and better travel facilities. Then we can think about tourism. Development is not about dictating what to eat and what not to.
Your detractors say that the Union government is spending a lot to support the islands.
Lakshadweep has an international shipping channel passing by it. Those ships are guided by the lighthouses on the islands. Those ships pay billions of dollars in taxes. As far as I know, those taxes are paid in Visakhapatnam, Kochi, and Delhi. Former MP PM Sayeed had spoken about it.
The islanders are also earning through fisheries, coconut produce, and coir and copra processing. Curiously, everything is sold at double the price on the islands. Everything has to be imported from the mainland. We have to spend double the money to build a small house on the island. When petrol prices crossed Rs 100 in Kerala, we were spending as much on a kilogram of tomatoes. And petrol was selling for about Rs 200!
How can the islanders shoulder such high costs of living?
Most of the employees fired by the administration in Lakshadweep had been drawing a salary between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000. They had adapted to living on such low wages. When they were fired, hundreds of families were pushed into a crisis.
The agitation in Lakshadweep was noted for their novelty. The undersea protest drew national attention. Who planned them all?
We could not plan any crowded agitations because of COVID-19 and the lockdown. That is why the Lakshadweep Forum went for home-centric protests. Every protest in Lakshadweep was planned by the people who protested. The undersea protest was the idea of a group of youngsters. So were the other protests.
How do you view Kerala’s response to the Lakshadweep agitation?
The islanders think of Kerala as a part of them. Malayalam is the official language of the islands. School students follow the Kerala government syllabus. We depend on Kerala for all our needs. Even in the present crisis, we turned to Kerala for help. Kerala held us close as usual.
How do you see the move to shift the island’s trade ties from Kerala to Mangaluru?
This is a very bad decision as far as traders are concerned. Lakshadweep residents depend on Mangaluru, Beypore, and Kochi ports. The trade sector in Lakshadweep can’t be reliant on just one port. We have to get goods from several ports for our trade sector to thrive. This arbitrary decision will lead to the ruin of many small-scale merchants. Many of the commodities will be pricier.
Were you worried when you were summoned for interrogation in connection with a sedition charge?
I was not worried because I had obtained anticipatory bail. Had I not obtained the anticipatory bail, they would have surely put me behind bars. That would have prompted the people of Lakshadweep to hit the street disregarding COVID-19. Such an event would have turned the spotlight away from the Lakshadweep agitation and onto me. The administration would have focused on getting me out of the island and weaken the agitation of the islanders. That is why I sought anticipatory bail. I wanted to get out as soon as possible to avoid any protests. I was not scared of them at all. I have no reasons to worry. The case against me was a tool to divert attention away from the resistance of the islanders.
Did you use the term ‘bioweapon’ intentionally?
I was referring to Praful Patel’s policies when I used the term bioweapon. When I watched the video of that television debate later on YouTube, I realized how that argument was received. I wanted to explain my position but the television channel denied me an opportunity saying that I was not a representative of the islands. I asked them why they had invited me to the debate in the first place, but they had no answer.
The first reported case of COVID-19 was a person who accompanied Praful Patel to the island. Lakshadweep managed to be free of the pandemic for over a year thanks to the strict quarantine practices. But Patel and team did not bother to quarantine themselves. They roamed around the islands, causing the virus to spread.
How did your family react to the charges against you?
My father died four years ago. He was admitted to a hospital in Lakshadweep after a heart attack, but he was not allowed to be carried to the mainland, citing an infection. He was flown into Kochi only on the fourth day when I created a scene. His condition had aggravated by then and he died within two days. I lost a younger brother two months after that. Then I brought my mother and my other brother to Kochi.
I became aware of the problems of Lakshadweep with the death of my father. My mother is from Mangaluru. She is the one who gives me courage. She always tells me it is my duty to speak up. I know she would go on even without me. Our family has become stronger after my father died.
You have said that you intended to make a movie out of your experiences with the agitation for Lakshadweep. Do you have the tale of Lakshadweep in mind or that of an agitation?
When a girl comes forward to speak up for her land, she does not have it easy. That is what I have in mind. There would be many girls in many places like me. They may hesitate to speak up. I want them to speak up. That is my message. We have to make both boys and girls capable of facing anything. Everyone should be molded into a fighter.
How was your experience shooting your maiden movie in your place?
‘Flush’ was completely shot in Lakshadweep. That is a candid tale of the lives of the islanders. That movie would also tell you why I took the initiative to speak up for Lakshadweep.
I finished the movie with a small crew of 41 members. All 41 of them have also acted in that movie. We made sure that we complied with all the restrictions of COVID-19. We remained in quarantine for seven days before starting the shooting even though the administration had lifted the quarantine requirement when we reached Lakshadweep. We had permission to shoot on four islands but we confined ourselves to Agatti and Bangaram because COVID-19 was spreading by then.
What is the future course of the Lakshadweep agitation? Will you call off the stir if the administrator is replaced?
The agitation will continue even if they change their plans. We will not call off the agitation unless Patel goes. He is not fit to rule Lakshadweep. The islands deserve an IAS-ranked officer as administrator. A good officer can bring in development without placing the people in hardship. The stir will continue under the banner of the Lakshadweep Forum. Even if they widen the jail and arrest all of us, we will continue the agitation from the jail. We will keep on fighting without violating the COVID-19 guidelines. We will also fight legally through the courts.
Aisha Sulthana lived on the Chetlat island and studied in a Kerala syllabus school until the higher secondary level. She went to Thiruvananthapuram to pursue a BA degree in Malayalam at the University College. She worked as a television jockey and model before shifting to the movie industry. She worked as an assistant director and associate director for several movies. Her directorial debut is in post-production.