The 2021 Freedom to Write Report recently released by NGO Pen America detailed the arrests of eight people in the country, including comedian Munawar Faruqui and those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.
India has the dubious distinction of being among the top ten countries that imprison writers, scholars and intellectuals for their writings, works and advocacy. A climate of growing intolerance fueled by the BJP-led government, which is strongly attacking the right of its citizens to speak freely, has led to this situation.
The 2021 Freedom to Write Report released Wednesday (April 13) by the non-governmental organization Pen America, which works to protect freedom of expression around the world, eight of the 237 writers and scholars detained or imprisoned in 36 countries l last year, came from India.
The eight were comedian Munawar Faruqui and defendants Bhima Koregaon, Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Hany Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Anand Teltumbde.
Pen America cited a report by a US government-funded non-governmental organization, Freedom House, which said the environment for free expression in India had deteriorated in 2021. Relevantly, the status of the India’s political rights and civil liberties had fallen to “partially free”. in the annual rankings of a “free” India in 2020.
The Pen report warned that India remains the only relatively free and democratic country in the top ten of their Index. But the imprisonment of writers and wider restrictions on free speech are only one element of the ruling party’s attempts to stifle dissent and tighten political control.
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The “infamous” eight
The report also details Faruqui’s arrest in January last year in Indore. He was taken to jail based on a complaint that he was going to make objectionable statements about Hindu deities on his show. Indore police also had no visual evidence to prove that Faruqui had indeed insulted Hindu deities and he was released on bail after a month.
The report also talks about the others, who were arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case. This case concerned caste violence that erupted in a village near Pune in 2018, over which 16 people were arrested for allegedly plotting the violence.
While Sudha Bharadwaj is out on bail, an 82-year-old poet activist, Varavara Rao, has been granted medical bail, which has been repeatedly extended by the Bombay High Court since September. However, the others are still languishing in prison. The report also highlights that detainees in the Bhima Koregoan case are suffering from various health issues and how tribal rights activist Stan Swamy died in a Mumbai hospital while in police custody on July 5. His death came nine months after his arrest. under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The injustices suffered by these activists in prison are detailed in the report. For example, in the case of Gautam Navlakha, his glasses were stolen in prison. But the prison authorities refused to accept the one sent by his family. The courts have also consistently rejected Gonsalves and Teltumbde’s bail applications. They are not allowed to write to their lawyers and Anand Teltumbde was not released on bail even after his brother died in November 2021.
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The virulent mark of Hindu nationalism poses a threat
The PEN report highlighted that those who championed marginalized and minority groups and criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “increasingly vocal brand of Hindu nationalism” were “at risk” in India.
They gave the example of journalist Rana Ayyub, who was “slapped with bogus money laundering charges”. Although she was not detained, according to the report, Ayyub’s case shows how, in recent years, “dozens of Indian writers and public intellectuals have faced spurious legal charges, other punitive administrative actions and threats both online and offline in response to their expression of dissenting views.
The Pen report also spoke out against shutting down the internet for 1,157 hours or 48 days last year, including in Jammu and Kashmir and the capital New Delhi during the farmers’ protest.