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Take up issue of intolerance in India with Modi, 200 writers including Rushdie urge Cameron

Speed News Desk | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 8:33 IST

It's just not the baggage of Bihar debacle that Prime Minister Narendra Modi carries to the United Kingdoms. The debate on intolerance seems too will be a cause of much embarrasement for the Prime Minister on foreign soil. More than 200 writers including Nikita Lalwani, Henry Marsh, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Val McDermid have written an open letter to British Prime Minsiter David Cameron calling on him to take action to safeguard freedom of expression in India, according to a press release published on PEN International website.

The letter, signed by members and supporters of PEN International's UK-based centres - English PEN, Scottish PEN and Wales PEN Cymru - highlights "the atmosphere of fear and violence towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism in India". The writer also urge Cameron to 'engage with Prime Minister Modi both publicly and privately on this crucial issue'. Prime Minister Modi arrives in the UK on Thursday, 12 November.

The writers express grave concern over threats to freedom of expression in the country and highlight the cases of three public intellectuals murdered in the last two years, the murders of at least 37 journalists since 1992, and the threats that writers and others continue to receive, and the protests that are mounting in response to the attacks:

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.

First published: 12 November 2015, 4:09 IST