Prime Minister Modi has a packed schedule during his UK visit - most of it meetings with CEOs and Ministers to encourage investment in India. However, what he will have to contend with is growing international concern over incidents that highlight the rise of intolerance against diverse views.
To underline this concern, 200 writers including names like Salman Rushdie, Neel Mukherjee and Magi Gibson have penned a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron urging him to discuss the need for 'freedom of expression' to exist in India. The letter was first published on Pen International.
Dear Prime Minister
Re: Urging Action by British government to Safeguard Freedom of Expression in India
As writers and writers’ organisations committed to protecting and defending freedom of expression around the world, we, the undersigned, are extremely concerned about the rising climate of fear, growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism in India. As the three-day state visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United Kingdom between 12 and 14 November draws near, we urge you to engage with Prime Minister Modi both publicly and privately on this crucial issue. Please speak out on the current state of freedom of expression in his country, urging him to stay true to the spirit of the democratic freedoms enshrined in India’s Constitution.
As you will no doubt be aware three public intellectuals, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, have been killed by unknown assailants in the last two years alone. At least 37 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992. Other writers have received threats.
Over the past month, at least 40 Indian novelists, poets and playwrights have returned the prize awarded to them by the Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, to protest against these attacks. In their statements, the writers have criticised the Akademi’s silence over the murders, the deteriorating political environment in which those expressing dissent have been attacked by government ministers, and challenged the government to demonstrate tolerance and protect free speech.
After this, and a silent march by protesting writers, the Akademi issued a statement condemning the murder of Kalburgi and a resolution asking ‘governments at the centre and in the states to take immediate action to bring the culprits to book and ensure the security of writers now and in the future.’ It also requested the writers who had returned awards to reconsider their decisions. Dissenting writers responded to the Akademi saying it should have spoken out much earlier, and urged the Akademi to rethink how it can support ‘writers all over India, and by extension, the people of the country.’ They reminded the Akademi of the urgency, calling the present time a ‘moment of spiralling hatred and intolerance.’ Mr Modi’s government has not yet formally responded to the Akademi’s resolution.
The protests have grown beyond the community of Indian writers of all languages. Scientists, artists, film-makers, academics, scholars, and actors have either complained the climate of intolerance or returned awards on a scale unprecedented in India.
In October, Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali had his performance in Mumbai cancelled by the Shiv Sena party, an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The Shiv Sena has said it will not allow any Pakistani artist to perform until the situation in Kashmir has improved. A few days later, Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairman of Observer Research Foundation, was attacked by Shiv Sena activists and smeared with black paint for hosting the book launch of former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book launch and refusing to cancel it.
India’s Constitution recognises freedom of expression as a cornerstone of India’s democracy; however despite its constitutional commitments, India’s legal system makes it surprisingly easy to silence others. In a report earlier this year, PEN and the International Human Rights Programme (IHRP) at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law outlined the overreaching legislation and longstanding problems with the administration of justice, which have produced cumbersome legal processes that deter citizens from exercising their right to free expression. The resulting chilling effect silences political criticism and often discourages marginal voices from speaking out on sensitive social, cultural, and religious matters.
In line with the United Kingdom’s stated commitment to promoting human rights, we ask that you raise the above issues with Prime Minister Modi and urge him to provide better protection for writers, artists and other critical voices and ensure that freedom of speech is safeguarded. Without these protections a democratic, peaceful society is not possible.
The names of the undersigned:
Sally Baker, Director, Wales PEN Cymru
Jenni Calder, Membership Secretary, Scottish PEN
Drew Campbell, President, Scottish PEN
Jennifer Clement, President, PEN International
Christine De Luca
Menna Elfyn, President, Wales PEN Cymru
Maureen Freely, President, English PEN
Anne Lorne Gillies
Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN
Fiona Graham, Vice President, Scottish PEN
Ann Harrison, Director, Freedom to Write Programme, PEN International
John William Hodgson
Sally Roberts Jones
Neil Mac Neil
Faith Pullin, Chair of Women Writers Committee, Scottish PEN
Jean Rafferty, Chair of Writers at Risk Committee, Scottish PEN
Lynne Reid Banks
Prof Richard H Roberts
Lesley Anne Rose
Chrys Salt MBE
Owen Sheers, Chair, PEN Wales Cymru
Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International
Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International
Peter Wood Cotterill