The Kerala High Court on Thursday granted interim protection from arrest to filmmaker Aisha Sultana for a week in a sedition case filed against her in Lakshadweep, reported Bar and Bench.

A single-judge bench of Justice Ashok Menon directed Sultana to appear before the Kavaratti police station on June 20 for questioning under Section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The High Court said that in the event that she is arrested, she will be released on interim anticipatory bail for one week.

The High Court, however, reserved its final verdict on Sultana’s plea seeking anticipatory bail.

On June 10, the police had booked Sultana for saying that the Centre was using the Union Territory’s administrator Praful Khoda Patel as a “bio-weapon” against the residents. The Lakshadweep unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party had filed a complaint, accusing her of making “anti-national” comments “tarnishing the patriotic image of the central government” during a debate on a Malayalam news channel.

A slew of regulations introduced by Patel has triggered a massive outcry among the residents of the Union Territory as well as Opposition parties. Sultana has been booked under Section 124A (sedition) and 153B (acts against national integration) of the Indian Penal Code.

In her bail plea, Sultana had argued that criticism of political matters did not constitute sedition. Referring to two Supreme Court judgements, including one in the Vinod Dua case, the filmmaker contended that merely criticising the government did not amount to sedition if there was no incitement to violence.

Responding to another charge of Section 153B (assertions against national integration) of the Indian Penal Code under which she has been booked, Sultana submitted that it will not hold as what she said was not prejudicial to national integration or causing disharmony or feelings of enmity or hatred or ill will.

She also stated that her protest was mainly against the new standard operating procedure related to Covid-19 in the Union Territory. Residents of Lakshadweep have blamed Patel’s decision to relax quarantine norms for the rise in Covid-19 cases. For nearly a year, the Union Territory was free of the pandemic. The first coronavirus case was reported in Lakshadweep on January 18. As of Thursday morning, Lakshadweep has 484 active cases of coronavirus, 8,768 recoveries and 45 fatalities.

During the hearing, senior advocate P Vijayabhanu, appearing for the filmmaker, said that Sultana made the remark in the “heat of the moment”, admitting that it was “a lapse”, reported Live Law. He said that the filmmaker has clarified her remarks and also issued an apology.

Vijayabhanu also cited the Supreme Court judgements mentioned in the bail application, saying Sultana’s remarks, even if expressed in harsh language, did not amount to sedition. He submitted that the case did not need custodial interrogation.

S Manu, the standing counsel for the Lakshadweep administration, opposed the bail plea, arguing that her “bio-weapon” remark had the tendency to create disaffection among the residents of the Union Territory against the Union government.

“She has practically sowed the seeds of separatism in the minds of people,” the counsel argued. “Imagine a school going girl hearing her statements. She is a filmmaker in a position of influence...If people of Lakshadweep are told that the Government of India has used bio-weapon against them like China, what more is required to create disaffection against the Government. This is clearly Section 124A IPC.”

Manu also said that there was no ground to grant anticipatory bail when the police have only issued a notice to appear so far. He contended that fear is not a reasonable ground for attracting the provisions of section 438 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (anticipatory bail).

Advocate Krishna Raj, appearing for an intervenor, also opposed the bail plea, saying that Sultana’s remarks have “international ramifications”. “What if her remarks that India government used ‘bio-weapon’ are used tomorrow by Pakistan or some other country against India in UN [United Nations]?”, he asked.

Although the bench observed that a third party cannot intervene in a bail plea as it was not a public interest litigation, it allowed Raj to make submissions.

The proposed regulations

The new regulations by Patel include a proposed cow slaughter ban, a preventive detention law in the Union Territory – which has one of the lowest crime rates in the country – and a draft law proposing sweeping changes in land development rules.

Opposition parties have criticised Patel’s decisions related to the Union Territory and have asked for his removal from the post. The parties accused him of harassing locals and destroying the heritage of the island territory. Politicians have also alleged that Patel, who had served as Gujarat home minister, has been targeting Lakshadweep’s large Muslim population.