200 Writers Urge British PM David Cameron To Speak To PM Modi About Intolerance In India

12/11/2015 4:26 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a bilateral meeting at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibitions Centre, ahead of the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. Brisbane is playing host to top officials from the 20 biggest industrialized and developing economies for a two day meeting from Saturday Nov.15. (AP Photo/Lukas Coch,Pool)

PM Narendra Modi's troubles at home seem to be tailing him to the United Kingdom. Two days back, anti-Modi organisation Awaaz sparked a controversy by projecting Modi as Hitler in London.

Mirror reported on 10 November: "A swastika was projected onto the Houses of Parliament on Remembrance Sunday in protest against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Modi to London this week. A huge red projection, which featured a picture of Modi wielding a sword in front of the Nazi symbol, appeared on the walls of the Palace of Westminster. It was beamed onto the iconic building just a few metres away from the Big Ben tower, where there was a projection of red poppies for Remembrance Day."

And now, as the Indian Prime Minister kicks off his UK tour, 200 hundred writers have got together and have written an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, asking him to 'to stay true to the spirit of the democratic freedoms enshrined in India’s Constitution'.

The letter, which has been uploaded on the PEN website, has been signed by at least 200 writers and intellectuals. The letter begins with the writers urging Cameron to engage with Modi on the issue of the atmosphere of communal disharmony in the country:

"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."

Prior to this, PEN had backed writers returning their Sahitya Akademi awards and had issued 'a statement of solidarity'.

On 18 October, PEN had released a statement saying, "As the most populous democracy in the world, PEN International expects India to live up to the high ideals of its constitution so that every Indian can live in a land where “the mind is without fear and the head is held high”.

Here's the full text of the letter PEN has addressed to Cameron:

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.

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