New Delhi: Over 100 prominent international writers, including authors from India and the Indian diaspora, penned a letter to President Droupadi Murmu expressing “grave concerns about the rapidly worsening situation for human rights” in the country and calling for the release of imprisoned writers and “dissident and critical voices”, on the eve of India’s 76th Independence Day.
Marking their strong protest, a total of 102 signatories, including Salman Rushdie (signed before the attack on him on 12 August), joined PEN America and PEN International — a worldwide association of writers — in signing the letter.
The letter, dated 14 August, stated: “We urge you to support the democratic ideals promoting and protecting free expression in the spirit of India’s independence, and restore India’s reputation as an inclusive, secular, multi-ethnic and -religious democracy where writers can express dissenting or critical views without threat of detention, investigation, physical attacks, or retaliation.”
“Free expression is the cornerstone of a robust democracy. By weakening this core right, all other rights are at risk and the promises made at India’s birth as an independent republic are severely compromised,” the writers emphasised.
Earlier, PEN America in its Freedom to Write Index 2021 had considered India as the only “nominally democratic country” which makes it to the “top 10 jailers” of writers and public intellectuals worldwide. The letter highlighted the arrest of writers in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, including poet Varavara Rao (who was recently granted bail).
In a direct attack on the Modi government, the group of writers expressed “grave concern” regarding “threats to free expression and other core rights building steadily in recent years, since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has come to power.”
Furthering their concerns, writers also alleged that Judiciary was being misused by not just the authorities but also the private actors against those who dissent. The letter stated: “Authorities as well as private actors regularly use legal action and the threat of legal action against people expressing dissenting views, independent thought, and human rights advocacy.”
The signatories underlined that writers and public intellectuals were “subject to arrest, prosecution, and travel bans intended to restrain their free speech”.
The letter, also signed by noted authors Amitav Ghosh, Perumal Murugan, Orhan Pamuk, Jerry Pinto, Salil Tripathi, Aatish Taseer and Shobhaa De, noted that “Online trolling and harassment is rife, hate speech is expressed loudly”, and criticised frequent internet shutdowns “centered on Kashmir” limit the access to news and information.
Murders of leading journalists, thinkers and writers such as Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh and “slow investigation pace with no accountability” have also been flagged.
The letter registered a strong protest over the “persecution” of writers, columnists, editors, journalists, and artists, including Mohammed Zubair, Siddique Kappan, Teesta Setalvad, Avinash Das, and Fahad Shah.
Writings on India at 75
In another PEN America initiative, 113 authors from India and the Indian diaspora contributed to a collection reflecting on the state of free expression and democratic ideals. Titled India at 75, it comprised original writings by Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Geetanjali Shree, Rajmohan Gandhi and Romila Thapar among other notable writers.
In a brief piece by Rushdie, written prior to his attack, he said India’s “dream of fellowship and liberty is dead, or close to death”.
He wrote: “Then, in the First Age of Hindustan Hamara, our India, we celebrated one another’s festivals, and believed, or almost believed, that all of the land’s multifariousness belonged to all of us. Now that dream of fellowship and liberty is dead, or close to death. A shadow lies upon the country we loved so deeply. Hindustan isn’t hamara any more. The Ruling Ring—one might say—has been forged in the fire of an Indian Mount Doom. Can any new fellowship be created to stand against it?”