PEN Delhi and PEN International on An Attack on The Caravan Journalists

PEN Delhi and PEN International note with deep concern the attack on three journalists from The Caravan on the 13th of August, 2020.

At about 2 pm, on the day, a group in Subhash Mohalla, North East Delhi’s North Ghonda neighbourhood, attacked The Caravan reporters Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh, and a woman journalist (who asks not to be named for safety concerns), while they were reporting a story. They were beaten mercilessly, subjected to abuse and communal slur, threatened with murder and sexually harassed. The woman journalist was assaulted in the presence of a policeman who trivialised the situation when she called out for help. A full account of their  experience as well as a copy of their complaints filed with the Delhi Police are available on The Caravan website.

According to the journalists, during the nearly one-and-a-half-hour-long attack, one of the attackers claimed to belong to the country’s ruling party, suggesting that he could therefore act with impunity. The local police station, the Bhajanpura station, refused to register FIRs (First Information Reports) against the complaints filed by the journalists. Instead, they said that the locals accused of assaulting the journalists had also filed a complaint and that they would have to examine “both sides’ complaints” before registering an FIR. They have still not filed an FIR.

The growing attacks on journalists are a serious cause for concern: a free press benefits all, the state and its citizens. This principle has been key to The Caravan, a journal that has been steadfast in reporting on attacks against minority communities, and in critiquing police inaction and complicity in silencing voices, including those of a free press. Should a police force stand by and watch people being beaten? Should they watch and not act when a woman gets sexually abused and harassed? The keepers of the law are tasked to maintain peace, and to ensure that people can peacefully carry out their work responsibilities, as the journalists were doing.

PEN Delhi on Apoorvanand

Over the years, PEN Delhi has stood steadfast in support of writers who have been intimidated, assaulted, imprisoned or killed, simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Today we speak in support of Professor Apoorvanand Jha, a member of our Board, a thinker and writer of courage.

 

Widely known simply as ‘Apoorvanand’, the professor was asked by the Special Cell, Delhi Police, to appear before it on August 3, 2020, in connection with an investigation into FIR no. 59/20, Police Station: Crime Branch, dated 06/03/2020, investigated by the Special Cell of Delhi Police, related to the violence in North-East Delhi in February, 2020. He was summoned under section 43F of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA. The summons mentions 19 sections of the IPC including that of Conspiracy for Sedition, Murder, Attempt to Murder and Hate Speech; two sections each of the Prevention of Damage of Public Property (PDPP) Act; two sections of the Arms Act; and, finally, four different sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Amended, 2019. He spent five long hours at the police station.The Delhi Police have seized his phone.

 

Below is an excerpt from his statement on his interrogation:

 

“While cooperating and respecting the right of police authorities to conduct a full, fair and thorough investigation, one can only hope that the probe would focus on the real instigators and perpetrators of the violence against a peaceful citizens’ protest and the people of Northeast Delhi.”

 

He cautioned that, “It should not lead to further harassment and victimization of the protestors and their supporters, who asserted their democratic rights through constitutional means, while stating their dissent to the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) and the decision of the GOI to operationalise the National Population Register (NPR) and the National register of Citizens (NRC), all over the country.”

 

He added: “It is disturbing to see a theory emerging which treats the supporters of the protestors as the source of violence. I would urge the police and expect their probe to be thorough, just and fair so that truth prevails.”

 

In a further comment, after this statement was released, Apoorvanand said, when asked by the press: “I am surprised if not shocked. I want to put it on record that I was not harassed. The interaction was very polite and courteous. But to even assume that I may have information about the murders and the robbery that took place as part of the riots is wrong.”

 

He was right to be surprised for all he had done (by writing and speaking about the issues above mentioned) was exercise his Constitutional right to the freedom of speech and expression. Unfortunately, while a fair and unbiased investigation into the violence in Delhi this year is imperative, such questioning, and attacks on writers for simply writing and saying what they believe, are becoming increasingly common.

Salil Tripathi, chair, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, said:

“The law enforcement authorities in India have a legitimate duty to identify those who perpetrated violence on innocent civilians earlier this year in Delhi. But they seem to be confused about who they should investigate – instead of identifying and charging those who incited or perpetrated violence, the authorities are targeting peace activists, academics, human rights defenders, writers, and scholars who were at the forefront of defending the rights of those protesting peacefully.”

 

PEN Delhi is a part of PEN International, one of the oldest human rights organisations in the world, founded by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott. Throughout its history PEN has stood up against fascism (H. G. Well’s campaign against the burning of books in Nazi Germany), authoritarianism (Arthur Miller refusing to tweak the charter to suit Soviet Russia), fanaticism (PEN’s global campaign for Salman Rushdie) and anti-environmentalism (the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa fighting multinational petroleum corporations in Nigeria), when such ideas threatened freedom of expression.

 

The history of PEN in India goes back to 1934, in the pre-independence era. It’s first president was Rabindranath Tagore and its vice-presidents included Sarojini Naidu and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan— some of the Indian freedom movement’s most robust voices against the tyranny of British rule.

 

Today, PEN centres in India are made up of Indian writers (the word ‘writer’ has a broad definition according to PEN), many writing in Indian languages. It is this legacy of PEN in India that directs us to do what we do today, to proudly defend the rights of writers from across languages and literatures. Many writers targeted by state and non-state actors are those with a deep and often direct connection to the Indian people, as in the case of Anand Teltumbde, now unjustly in prison, a remarkable scholar and writer who was born to a family of Dalit farm labourers, or Gauri Lankesh, who ran a fiery Kannada weekly, and who was shot down, or Sudha Bhardwaj, known for her work at the grassroots with woman and tribal rights, and so many others.

 

Apoorvanand, too, is such a writer. A professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi, he has published two books of essays in literary criticism and many articles, essays and columns in Hindi and English. Those who know him, and some who don’t, will attest to his work for the welfare of Indian people (this may comprise agitating for their rights or simply seeing to it that migrant labourers receive basic meals during a lockdown).

 

In less than two weeks from now, India will celebrate its 73rd anniversary of independence. But ‘independence’ is more than a moment in time, or a document. It is a pact between people, a common ground, that decides how the people of a nation will live— individually and collectively. Such a pact guarantees each of us certain rights and freedoms that no one – not even the state – can infringe upon, because if one person’s rights or freedoms dissolve, then those of others will soon do so as well.

 

The right to freedom of expression is not a right that matters only to writers, and it does not only have to do with writing. Just as writers fight for the right to write and speak, so also other Indians require the freedom to raise their voices for issues such as rising prices, unemployment, the failure of the healthcare system and citizenship rights. Writers, often unwittingly, play the role of thermometer, but the disease affects all. It is this right that gives us the freedom to live with dignity.

 

PEN Delhi, like PEN International and PEN centres around the world, has stood up for writers across the ideological spectrum, and will continue to do so when freedom of expression is under threat.

 

We ask simply this: if state or non-state actors disagree with a writer’s ideology or thinking, they should do so with argument, not intimidation, assault and terror.

 

In support of the right to freedom of expression of all writers, and our colleague Apoorvanand, we would like to reiterate here the words of our Constitution that secures, for all of us, “the people of India”:

 

“Liberty of thought, expression, belief…”

 

If we fail to protect these words our pact, made over seven decades ago, will stand negated.

Varavara Rao: An Appeal from PEN International and PEN Delhi

Poet Varavara Rao has been held in jail since 2018 and has been consistently denied bail. Varavara Rao is 81 years old. His health is deteriorating. He is old. He is frail. He is ill. When he speaks with his loved ones what he says does not make much sense. Those taking care of him are concerned. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is raging and the government has ordered the decongestion of jails to prevent the infection from spreading, there is an even greater risk to Varavara Rao’s health.

 

In a civilised society that respects the elderly, cares for the sick, honours its poets, and has room for those who dissent, Varavara Rao would have had the freedom to be with those who love him. But because the state has not yet examined what it calls evidence against him, and because, apparently, it fears he might disappear during the time of a pandemic and lockdown, it refuses to let him be free. It is for the judiciary to do the right thing and display humanity. Justice has to follow due process, and the process is meaningless without mercy. 

 

It is clear that there is no danger of Varavara Rao jumping bail. His most ardent wish at this time is to be with his family: Why would he want to run away? At a moment when health and survival are uppermost in everyone’s minds, the state must rise to the occasion and save the life of this ailing poet.

PEN Delhi Stands in Solidarity with Assamese Poet Nilim Kumar

PEN Delhi stands in solidarity with Assamese poet Nilim Kumar who is being targeted by a youth organization in Assam, the Tai Ahom Yuba Parishad, for his poem ‘Akhon Asustho City Bus’ (An Ailing Citybus’), published in Prantik. Since the poem appeared, FIRs have been lodged against Kumar and he has received death threats. Several people and organisations have now jumped into the fray and Kumar has been forced to offer an explanation of his satirical poem.

 

Nilim Kumar is one of Assam’s best known and most popular poets. With seventeen collections of poems to his credit, he is something of a household name, and is known for his deep love of Assam. He is also a translator, and a well known Assamese voice at various literary events, including those organised by the Sahitya Akademi. Among his many awards is the Raza Foundation Award (2009) and the Uday Bharati National Award (1984). Kumar is also a physician employed with the Assamese government and, after taking part in anti-CAA protests earlier this year, he was transferred from Deomornoi Community Health Centre (CHC) at Patharighat in Assam’s Darrang district to Sonari Sapori PHC in Dhakuakhana in Lakhimpur district.

 

PEN Delhi defends Nilim Kumar’s right to freedom of speech and condemns the attacks against him. It notes also that the threats of violence have created an atmosphere of fear such that Nilim Kumar now finds himself isolated and, even though he has offered explanations for the content of his poem and apologized if he has inadvertently offended anyone, the threats have not died down. Writing, whether critical or otherwise, must have an atmosphere free of fear if it is to thrive and serve the purpose of being the conscience and inspiration of society and human beings.

 

AN AILING CITYBUS

Original : Assamese : Nilim Kumar

 

An ailing citybus.

It travels around the city

One gets asphyxiated. Stops sometimes for a while

Standing it by the side of the road. Exhales black smoke.

Sometimes it makes whizzing sound, like one struggling to breathe.

It traverses very slowly

Among the busyness of the city

A city of hurriedness

A city of horn and overtake

A city of two gleaming inviting eyes.

Among these finding the way, exuding black smoke

Comes an ailing citybus.

People embarks and looking at its speed

Disembarks again immediately.

Passengers swear at it – an ailing citybus.

 

A driver of eight hundred years

A handyman of five hundred years

The driver says his name – Siu-ka-Pha.

Handyman says his name – Gadapani

No licence.

The bus is a headache of traffic police.

A bus that cannot ferry the students to schools and colleges in time.

A bus that gets the women late in reaching the temple.

An ailing citybus that runs with a lifelong licence provided by history.

The passengers gets in by mistake and gets down the next moment

No one wants to get up in that bus

That remains away from the traffic jam of future

 

Only one young girl is there in the city

Her name Kamalakunwari

Who likes to ride in this bus.

She comes daily, sits by the window

Who never visits a temple.

Who at the time of coming out from home

Plants a thousand years long kiss

On the cheek of her mother.

 

With the meandering thoughts of history along the streets of the city

Daily plies an ailing citybus

Name of the driver Siu-ka-Pha

Handyman Gadapani

 

Published Prantik July 1, 2020

PEN Delhi Stands in Solidarity with the Courageous Humanist Writer and Journalist Patrica Mukhim

PEN Delhi expresses its deep concern at the intimidation that Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, is being subjected to for her opposition to the violence against non-tribals in Meghalaya.  A complaint has been filed by Lawsohtun Dorbar Shnong, the traditional local body, with the Shillong police, against Mukhim, charging her with defaming the Khasi community and creating communal enmity between communities.

The complaint claims that the case against her is made out under sections 153A, 505 and 499 of the Indian Penal Code. The demand to initiate criminal proceedings against Patricia Mukhim was made after she wrote a post on her Facebook page about an attack on a group of young non-tribal youth by a gang of masked youth, allegedly tribals. Mukhim wrote:

Conrad Sangma CM Meghalaya, what happened yesterday at Lawsohtun where some non-tribal youth playing Basketball were assaulted with lethal weapons and are now in hospital, is unacceptable in a state with a Government and a functional police force. The attackers, allegedly tribal boys with masks on should be immediately booked. This, continued attacks on non-tribals in Meghalaya whose ancestors have lived here for decades, some having come here since the British period, is reprehensible to say the least. The fact that such attackers and trouble mongers since 1979 have never been arrested, and if arrested never penalised according to law, suggests that Meghalaya has been a failed state for a long time now.”

Mukhim also asked the local village council known as Dorbar Shnong of Lawsohtun why it was unable to sense the violence brewing in the community, “ …what about the Dorbar Shnong of the area? Don’t they have their eyes and ears to the ground? Don’t they know the criminal elements in their jurisdiction? Should they not lead the charge and identify those murderous elements? This is the time to rise above community interests, caste and creed and call out for justice.”

What should be regarded as a sane and humane response was, however, criminalised. Mukhim asks: “Why should our non-tribal brethren continue to live in perpetual fear in their own state? Those born and brought up here have as much right to call Meghalaya their state as the indigenous tribal does.” According to the Dorbar Shnong, criminal proceedings should be initiated against her because: “This statement incites communal tensioning, may instigate a communal conflict which may spread to the entire state thereby… putting all Khasis outside the state in extreme danger.”

The complaint also alleges that: “Miss Mukhim has defamed not only the Dorbar Shnong of Lawsohtun but also the entire village without any basis and… has put the entire village in a very bad light before the entire world.”

Patricia Mukhim has done what any conscientious citizen / person would do. She brought to the notice of the constitutional functionaries an act of crime, which her long experience as a journalist tells her is part of  a pattern of a sectarian and communal violence against the non-tribal minorities. She has consistently written about the dangers of majoritarian violence and has reminded her people about the violence of 1979 and later in 1984, 1987, and 1992.

Mukhim has previously suffered for having spoken out about the hatred and violence against the non-tribal people by groups promoting sub-nationalistic fervour. At the time, her house was petrol-bombed.

PEN Delhi urges the Shillong police and the Chief Minister of Meghalaya to take note of the genuine concern of Patrica Mukhim and investigate the violence against the non-tribals. It also appeals to the Dorbar Shnong to appreciate the concern behind Mukhim’s questioning and work towards the elimination of hatred against so-called outsiders.

PEN Delhi stands in solidarity with the courageous humanist writer and journalist Patrica Mukhim.

 

PEN Delhi and PEN International Express Concerns over an FIR Lodged Against Supriya Sharma and Scroll.in’s Chief Editor

PEN Delhi and PEN International express concerns over a First Information Report being lodged on June 18 against senior journalist Supriya Sharma, executive editor at Scroll.in, as well as Scroll.in‘s chief editor. Scroll.in is one of India’s leading independent news portals. While he has not been named in the FIR, Scroll.in’s editor is Naresh Fernandes.

Ms Sharma recently wrote a series of articles about the impact of the nationwide lockdown imposed in India to prevent and contain the spread of coronavirus. In one story she interviewed a resident of Varanasi’s Domari village, who said in the published article that she was a domestic worker and had experienced acute food distress during the lockdown as she did not have the paperwork necessary to get food assistance. The interviewee has now filed a complaint, alleging that Ms Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity in the article. Varanasi is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, and Domari village is part of Mr Modi’s Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (Parliamentary Model Village Scheme). The interviewee now alleges that her remarks were misrepresented because she says she is not a domestic worker but a sanitation worker and says neither she nor her family faced any problems during the lockdown.

In its public response, Scroll.in stands by its story. It says the interviewed was conducted on June 5 and the interviewee’s statements were reported accurately. “The FIR is an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown,” Scroll.in said.

The first information report is prepared by the police when they receive complaints of an offence under Indian laws and decide which provisions of the law apply. The law lays down which offences are cognisable and which aren’t. An offence is cognisable when the complaint is about grave crimes such as violence, murder, or rape and the police can make an arrest without warrant and initiate investigations without a court order.

Among the sections of the Indian law that the FIR cites are those in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989, amended 2015). The FIR against Ms Sharma and Mr Fernandes cites Sections 3 (1) (r) (someone not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe intentionally insulting or intimidating, with an intent to humiliate, a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view) and 3 (1) (s) (the same abusing any member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe with caste name in any place within public view). The FIR also cites Sections 501 and 269 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 501 deals with defamation and Section 269 concerns ‘negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.’ Under the SC and ST Act of 1989 the defendants cannot seek anticipatory bail.

That this assault on press freedom is another in a long line of such cases during the pandemic makes it even more disturbing. A report by the Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG), published last week, claimed that 55 Indian journalists “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats” for reporting on COVID-19 or “exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown between March 25 and May 31, 2020”.

In a statement, Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:

“Supriya Sharma’s report pointed out a profound weakness in India’s poorly-planned lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. Her stories have shown the adverse impact of the lockdown on India’s most vulnerable people. That it happened in the Prime Minister’s constituency is no doubt embarrassing to the government. For the police to treat the complaint from the interviewee as a cognisable offence shows that the real intent of the state is not to provide an effective remedy for the complainant, but to silence dissent. The invoking of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocity) Act is particularly disturbing, since it prevents the defendants from seeking anticipatory bail. In India, the process is often the punishment, and Ms Sharma’s report cannot in any sense be described as ‘a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’.

“Several governments around the world have used the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on investigative media, and India is no exception, as the intimidation of Vidya Krishnan and Siddharth Varadarajan earlier this year have shown. PEN International calls upon Indian authorities to desist from using draconian laws against independent reporting and urges parliamentarians to amend the law that allows the state and individuals to use them to stop reporting they don’t like.”

Chiki Sarkar, treasurer of PEN Delhi, said:

“The FIR against respected journalist Supriya Sharma, lodged by the UP police, is yet another example of the ways in which the UP government has sought to intimidate and suppress the press. The freedom of the press is vital to our democracy and PEN Delhi strongly opposes such a move.”

Supriya Sharma is an award-winning reporter whose work has won accolades around the world. She has received India’s highest journalism awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award, and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Women Journalists, and has been a Reuter Fellow at Oxford University. Her in-depth reporting from the ground, covering rural India and the country’s vulnerable groups has exposed readers to the reality to which many publications have not paid attention. Naresh Fernandes is a veteran journalist and author who has worked for the Times of India in Mumbai and the Wall Street Journal in New York. He is the author of two books.

PEN Delhi on FIRs Against Aakar Patel and Vinod Dua

PEN Delhi is extremely concerned at the First Information Reports (FIRs) lodged against writer, translator and journalist Aakar Patel and journalist Vinod Dua.

Patel, also former India head of Amnesty International, has had an FIR lodged against him by a police inspector at JC Nagar police station, Bangalore—  his local police station. The FIR was filed after Patel retweeted a tweet by the US news site Colorado Times Recorder with a comment saying: “We need protests like these. From Dalits and Muslims and Adivasis. And the poor. And women. World will notice. Protest is a craft.” What Patel was referring to was a video tweeted by the Colorado Times Recorder of a peaceful protest in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, where thousands of protesters were lying face down with their hands behind their backs and chanting “I can’t breathe” for 9 minutes.

The FIR filed against Patel for this tweet demands that he be charged under sections 505 (1) (b) (with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or public tranquility), 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 117 (abetting commission of an offence by the public or by more than ten persons) of the Indian Penal Code. PEN Delhi finds the charges requested by this FIR in the context of this tweet to be baseless and appeals that it be quashed by the authorities concerned.

PEN Delhi also notes with concern the blocking of Patel’s Twitter account in India upon the receipt of a “legal demand”, neither providing Patel any further details on why his account was blocked, nor providing him with a right to plead his side in the matter. Twitter is a leading information platform and – as such – must comply with principles of transparency and natural justice befitting it. PEN Delhi is relieved that Patel’s Twitter account has now been unblocked in India (though those in India still can’t see the tweets he had put out in the period in which his account was blocked).

An FIR has also been filed against Vinod Dua, by a politician of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in Himachal Pradesh, for a YouTube video he uploaded criticising the central government’s implementation of the COVID-19 lockdown. Following this FIR, Dua has been charged with offences under the Indian Penal Code, including sedition (section 124A), public nuisance (section 268), printing defamatory matter (section 501) and intent to cause public mischief based (section 505). A police team from Himachal Pradesh had landed at Dua’s house on June 12 for serving a notice requiring his presence at Kumarsain Police Station in the state at 10 am on June 13 for an investigation. A three judge bench of the Supreme Court has granted Dua protection from arrest till July 6, when the case will next be heard but refused to stay the police probe, saying that the police will be at liberty to interrogate Dua in Delhi, after a 24 hour notice.

Another FIR was filed against Dua by a different BJP politician, for allegedly misreporting the communal violence that took place in Delhi in February through a YouTube video. Pursuant to the FIR the police had registered a case against Dua charging him under sections 290 (punishment for public nuisance in cases not otherwise provided for), 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), 501 (printing defamatory matter) and 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes) of the Indian Penal Code. But the Delhi High Court has stayed this investigation, saying it is likely to cause “unwarranted and unjustified” harassment to Dua.

PEN Delhi appeals that the charges against Dua, in context to the videos in question, be dropped as they amount to nothing short of harassment without just cause. It further notes that such FIRs as those filed against Patel and Dua can only have a chilling effect on free speech in the country.

PEN Delhi joins PEN International in Expressing Deep Concern for the Welfare of Indian Poet P. Varavara Rao

PEN Delhi joins PEN International in expressing deep concern for the welfare of Indian poet P. Varavara Rao who has been in detention since November 2018. Aged 81 and in poor health, a bail hearing for Rao was due on 2 June 2020. He had been admitted into the hospital for his failing health last week, but was discharged one day before the hearing, on 1 June 2020, and sent back to jail. The bail hearing has now been postponed to 5 June 2020. Given his fragile state of health – especially in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak – and questions surrounding the validity of the charges under which he is held, PEN is calling for him to be released on medical grounds.

A poet and activist, Rao is considered an important figure in Telugu literature, and has since the late 1960s published numerous poetry collections. From 1966 to 1992 he ran Srujana (Creation), a monthly journal focusing on modern Telugu literature.

Rao served several stints in prison through the 1970s to the late 1980s for his writing and activism. Between 1973 and 2014 he was implicated in 25 cases with serious charges, but the prosecution could not prove a single charge in a single case and he was acquitted by law courts in all the cases. His latest arrest took place in November 2018, and he has been detained ever since. Rao is accused of his purported connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, commentators believe that he is being held for his views and that he is being penalized for his continued radical left activities and advocacy for the underprivileged communities in India, including indigenous tribal groups. Several appeals that he be freed on bail in the past year have been rejected.

‘By keeping an ailing 81year old Varavara Rao in jail in the times of the pandemic, the Indian state is only demonstrating that it is interested in turning the process into punishment. In the first place his arrest is wrong and then the insistence of the state not to allow him bail is proof that it doesn’t want to let any free and dissenting voice remain active.’

– Apoorvanand, Board Member, PEN Delhi (you can also read Apoorvanand’s piece on P. Varavara Rao, in Hindi, here)

‘For a country that claims to venerate its poets and writers, reveres its elders, and says it is compassionate towards those vulnerable to illness, India’s stubborn refusal to consider appeals of Varavara Rao, the 81-year-old poet currently in custody, is profoundly wrong. The way to address questions raised by writers who challenge the state is of dialogue and counter-arguments, not detention. Varavara Rao is not well and ailing; his family, his readers, and writers around the world are concerned about his health. We join the appeal for his release on medical grounds.’

– Salil Tripathi, Chair, PEN International Writers in Prison Committee

PLAIN TALK

by Varavara Rao

It is hard to be clean

After the lines are drawn

Nor it is good to respect protocol

While talking about Naxalbari

It does not suit to tune anger

As profound as singing anguish

Yelling against

The blood stained hands

Should be at the top of your voice

But beside an obscure poem

Smelling new paper or printing ink

Nothing could be recognised

Except your photo

An eagle in the skies

Or a bear in the woods

Or a racing hound

Sniffs anything easily

Why don’t you speak out

About that which all of us react to

When even the nascent flowers

Are soaked in blood

You cannot conceal ideas

Within diapers or layers

The hands that clean the wounds

The hands that aim arrows

The hands that compose tunes

Have become open sores being wet for long

They have become the hardened blood

Turned to people’s flags after song and dance

Duty of a chisel is

To fill life into stone

But not turning life into a sculpture

Turn of phrase, don’t get scared

Come out with plain speak

That touches the heart

***

July 10, 1989

Translated by N Venugopal

PEN Delhi on the Importance of Press Freedom in India in the time of Coronavirus

In a democracy, cracking down on a pandemic requires the active support of a free press and must not include a crackdown on it. This is essential because fighting a pandemic requires a free media not just to inform the people likely to be affected by it but also to act as a watchdog for them, ever more important in a time of crisis.

It is in this context that PEN Delhi notes with concern the attitude of the Indian government, state governments and police authorities towards the media in India, during the ongoing battle against CoVid 19 and the nationwide lockdown it has led to.

Just hours before announcing a national lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked over twenty owners and editors of print media to publish “positive” stories, according to this report. While no one denies that publishing positive and inspirational stories in a time of crisis is important, this cannot be the only narrative and it is equally the media’s responsibility to give voice to the pain of the people, as well as to provide a critical perspective on the handling of crises. In the past, it is the media’s critical reporting on other disasters that has provided much needed information to the State to act.

Instead, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in the lockdown that ensued, journalists were assaulted by police forces. This was despite journalists being exempted from the ongoing lockdown to enable them to cover it on ground.

Further, journalists who have published reports critical of governments have been targeted: both offline and online. In UP, Vijay Vineet, news editor of Jansandesh Time was served a notice by the police for a story on the Musahar community, a Dalit community, having to eat grass as a consequence of their plight having worsened during the lockdown (many of the community’s members are daily wage earners).

Journalists, especially those writing for foreign publications, have also been subjected to abuse, and worse, on social media. Vidya Krishnan, a freelance journalist reported death and rape threats to Twitter for her article in The Atlantic.

It was also suggested on social media that Krishnan be prosecuted under some of India’s disturbing anti-free speech laws, including “Sedition” under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Regrettably social media trolling has become another way of silencing free speech and branding any critical writing anti-national, discounting the fact that journalists who are critical write not out of hate but out of a deep concern for the country and its people.

On March 31st, the central government sought a direction from the Supreme Court that no media outlet should print, publish or telecast anything on COVID-19 without first ascertaining facts from the “mechanism” provided by the government. Thankfully the Supreme Court has denied this request, saying it would not interfere with “the free discussion about the pandemic” but concern over a government actively seeking prior censorship of news remains.

On April 1st, the Uttar Pradesh Police registered an FIR against the “editor” of the news portal, The Wire, for what the complainant called “an objectionable comment” which has “caused anger among people”.

Meanwhile, questions posed by health journalists regarding basic information on the State’s response to the coronavirus remain unanswered.

PEN Delhi appeals to the central and state governments to heed and respond to the media in this time of crisis instead of attacking it, and to not try and curb the powers of the press. This is the time to support a free and vibrant media.

Microblogging and social networking services like Twitter, too, need to be cognisant of accounts that pose and publicise violent threats to journalists, bearing great risk to do their jobs during such demanding times.

Media, in its turn, must stick judiciously to reporting the facts but the best way to avoid fake news and prevent panic in this dark hour is not to muzzle the watchdog, but encourage it. To strengthen the freedom of the press on one hand, and the transparency of the state on the other.

PEN Delhi and South India on the Revocation of Aatish Taseer’s OCI Status

PEN Delhi and South India condemn the recent revocation of writer and journalist Aatish Taseer’s Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status by the Government of India.

The OCI status, provided to millions, acts as a permanent visa for those who possess it. Till this September, Taseer, a UK citizen with a US Green Card, was one such person.

Further, implied in this revocation of Taseer’s OCI status, is the possibility of him being put on a blacklist with respect to obtaining even a standard tourist visa for India. This would mean that Taseer, who has lived and grown up in India since the age of two, may effectively be banned from traveling to India. He would be, in his own words, “an exile”. 

The likelihood of this blacklisting has arisen because the Government has claimed that Taseer “concealed the fact that his late father was of Pakistani origin”. The Government has also accused him of “obtaining OCI card by means of false representation and the concealment of material facts”.

But Taseer, in his application, had listed his father’s name and never tried to hide his identity. In fact, a number of his books – which have been widely reviewed and read – have extensively covered his past.

Taseer’s parents never married and were estranged when Taseer moved to India with his mother, the prominent Indian journalist Tavleen Singh. A single mother, Singh was his sole guardian and Taseer spent the majority of his life here.

Taseer was estranged from his father Salman Taseer—who is of mixed British and Pakistani heritage and who lived in the U.K. at the time of his brief relationship with Taseer’s mother. He did not meet his father until he was an adult.

At  no time until this September was Taseer’s OCI status ever questioned or challenged by the Government.

Earlier this year, in May 2019, in the middle of a contentious Indian election season, Taseer wrote a cover story for TIME magazine headlined “India’s Divider in Chief” which was critical of the Indian Prime Minister and ruling party (as well as of the opposition). It attracted an official complaint from the Indian Government as well as sustained online harassment and statements from the ruling party and the Prime Minister which sought to discredit Taseer. 

PEN Delhi and South India are concerned that Taseer has been targeted in retaliation for his writing and calls for a review of this decision and a restitution of Taseers’s OCI status. Denying access to the country to writers and journalists has the effect of a freeze on public discourse and goes against India’s traditions of free and open debate, and weakens its reputation as a democracy.