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.