PEN South India and PEN Delhi are shocked and deeply disturbed at the plea made by the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Mr C. K. Prasad, seeking to intervene in a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India filed by Kashmir Times executive editor, Anuradha Bhasin, that asks for relaxation of restrictions on the media in Jammu and Kashmir. The Press Council’s Chairman is reported to have said that ‘reasonable restrictions’ on free speech are acceptable and that the curbs on the media and on free speech are ‘in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation’. PEN South India and PEN Delhi strongly defend the freedom of the press and believe that this act on the part of the Chairman of the Press Council goes against the mandate of the Council which is to ‘preserve the freedom of the press’. We extend our support to members of the Press Council who have opposed this move and to their suggestion that the PCI send a fact finding team to Kashmir.
PEN Delhi condemns the Indian government’s communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir which is preventing journalists from doing their duty. It demands that the Indian government institute an enabling environment for a free press in all parts of Jammu and Kashmir by relaxing curbs on the movement of print, photo and video journalists and by taking strict measures to prevent violence against journalists as well as the confiscation of equipment used by them. We note with concern the reports that journalists in Kashmir have been “thrashed” by the police. We urge the government to act with all speed to restore internet and telecommunication services in Kashmir so that information is freely available and the prevailing fear and anxiety are allayed. People have a right to know how decisions that affect their future and the future of the country are playing out, just as journalists in Jammu and Kashmir have the right to fulfil the duty of a free press, guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of India.
PEN Delhi notes with deep concern the renewed threat of arrest that is hanging over the head of well-known writer, professor and academic Dr Anand Teltumbde, who currently faces a threat of arrest on a number of baseless charges.
“Dr Teltumbde is a leading public intellectual, a democratic and educational rights Activist and the kind of human being we in India should be proud of. In his rejoinder to the affidavit against him filed by the police, Dr Teltumbde has refuted all allegations and there is no reason why he shouldn’t be granted bail,” said Urvashi Butalia, PEN Delhi President.
Born to parents who were poor Dalit farm labourers, Dr Teltumbde has educated himself, earning scholastic merit while continuing to work and write for poor and Dalit citizens of India.
A First Information Report (FIR) was filed against him by the Pune police last year, accusing him of involvement in inciting violence at the Bhima Koregaon public meetings organized by Justice PB Sawant, retired judge of the Supreme Court and Justice BG Kolse-Patil, ex-judge of the Bombay High Court. The first FIR related to this case was filed on the 8th of January, 2018, and did not have Dr Teltumbde’s name. His name was added, without further reasons, on the 21st of August, 2018.
The truth of the matter is that Dr Teltumbde was not even present at this occasion, and indeed had declined to be involved when asked because he was too busy with his academic engagements. In fact, he had written an article critiquing an aspect of the way in which Bhima Koregaon was being commemorated, and stuck his ground despite angry responses, in the spirit of a true intellectual.
Dr Teltumbde appealed to the Supreme Court, seeking the FIR against him to be quashed, but on the 14th of January, the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, while giving him a time period of a month to seek pre-arrest bail from the competent court, i.e. the Sessions Court in Pune. Notably, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act bars a Court from granting bail to an accused individual as long as the police chargesheet, taken on its own terms, makes out a prima facie case. If bail is not granted, Dr Teltumbe could face up to years of incarceration in prison.
PEN Delhi believes these charges to be trumped up and calls on the relevant authorities to drop all charges immediately and unconditionally. If they will not, they should at least grant Dr Teltumbde pre-arrest bail and a fair trial. PEN Delhi also appeals to everyone to join this plea. A petition to prevent Dr Teltumbde’s arrest can be found here: https://www.change.org/p/prime-minister-narendra-modi-quash-the-false-fir-and-not-to-arrest-professor-dr-anand-teltumbde-65826336-d1a2-44f0-84a9-2eb95e6f5211.
PEN Delhi is dismayed and shocked at the arrest and continuing incarceration of writer and defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra.
Iyer-Mitra has been arrested, his bail rejected, and he has been sent to prison, according to the Odisha police, for “derogatory and very very objectionable and vulgar comments” about “Odiya culture, people of Odisha and Lord Jagannath” on Twitter. The Odisha Police statement further said that, “His frivolous comment on rasogolla is not at all a ground for legal action against him.” However, the comments on Twitter, for which Abhijeet Iyer Mitra has been imprisoned, do in fact stem from a conversation which has arisen from a debate, half in jest, on whether the rasogolla (an Indian sweet) originated in West Bengal or Odisha. The sequence of Tweets for which Iyer-Mitra is facing action have been listed further on in this statement.
Iyer-Mitra has been sent to judicial custody for 14 days.
The Odisha police statement adds that “Mr Mitra’s malicious and defamatory comments have also hurt the religious feelings of devotees of Lord Jagannath” and that “these comments are also detrimental and prejudicial to the peaceful and harmonious communal environment of the state.”
Iyer-Mitra has two cases registered against him. He was arrested after having been made to appear and apologise before the House Committee of the Odisha Assembly over a breach of privilege motion. He has been asked to appear before the committee again on November 2.
Action against Iyer-Mitra was initiated after he put out a satirical and humorous tweet and video on the Konark temple in Odisha on the 16th of September. His tweet read:
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval; the video can be found on the tweet linked to the date at the end): “Odisha 9: my special message to you from the Konark temple expressing my utter disgust at this monumental conspiracy against the Hindu Civilisation” September 16, 2018
The satirical nature of this tweet and video is especially underlined by a tweet Iyer-Mitra posted shortly after this one, in a more serious vein, appreciating the same temple. This tweet read:
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval): “Odisha 10: Jokes aside this temple is just mindblowing. The sculptures are exquisite & and it has a great sense of symmetry & gravitas.” September 16, 2018
A day after his arrest, Iyer-Mitra’s older tweets were trawled and a second case was filed against him for comments tweeted in the spirit of humour. These comments were part of a Twitter conversation that discussed the deity Lord Jagannath, the fish delicacies of ‘rui and ‘ilish’ as well as the rossogolla and its origin. The exchange of tweets between Iyer-Mitra and those in conversation with him can be viewed below:
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval): “Oriya propaganda!!!! Jagannath was actually a diety of Kolkata, idol stolen by evil kalinga demon kings” September 14, 2017
This was in response to:
Chaula Bara (@NitiBakya): “:) actually it’s the other way round. You can stop the aloo nonetheless” September 14, 2017
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval): “Shocking assault on Bengali pride by noted parliamentarian – please Bengali braathars & shishtaars no more Rui & Ilish exports to Odisha” September 13, 2017
Jay Panda (@PandaJay): “Not content with trying to steal the origins of the rossogola, eh
The humorous nature of the above Twitter conversation is underscored by the comments in response to them, including ones with laugh emoticons.
As ridiculous for this tragicomic series of events to have occurred and PEN Delhi to have to condemn them, the hard fact is that they have resulted in Abhijeet Iyer Mitra being imprisoned for some days now. The shocking state action against Iyer-Mitra highlights once more and irrevocably how draconian the country’s colonial era anti-free speech laws are and how they may be misused at the leisure of anyone wishing to harass a writer in this country.
PEN Delhi calls for Iyer-Mitra’s release and the quashing of charges against him by the authorities concerned. This attack on his rights sets a dangerous precedent and makes every writer in this country vulnerable to similar attacks.
PEN Delhi and PEN South India centres join more than 180 writers, academics, artists, musicians, judges and activists in condemning the harassment being faced by musicians of the Carnatic tradition such as T M Krishna, O S Arun and Nithyashree Mahadevan from fringe groups in India and the US for performing songs on Christian and purportedly ‘non-Hindu’ themes.
According to reports, many musicians have received threats from right wing organisations claiming to be ‘Hindu’ organizations, merely for bringing people and religions together on a musical platform. Some of them have been bullied into apologising and have had to cancel concerts. OS Arun, who was invited by T. Samuel Joseph, a long time student and teacher of Carnatic music, to render Carnatic compositions on Christ, was attacked online and pressurised to cancel. Within days, WhatsApp and social media clippings of Nithyashree Mahadevan rendering a Christian song was circulated with disapproving comments. Also, T M Krishna was invited to sing at the SSVT Temple in Washington DC. This was cancelled, according to reports, at the behest of self appointed ‘Hindu’ gatekeepers.
Musician T M Krishna, rejecting all such attempts at coercion, has said, “Considering the vile comments and threats issued by many on social media regarding Carnatic compositions on Jesus, I announce here that I will be releasing one Carnatic song every month on Jesus or Allah.”
PEN Delhi and PEN South India stand in solidarity and express their support for creative artistes who refuse to let their voices be silenced.
PEN Delhi and South India also condemn the arrest of defence analyst and writer Abhijit Iyer Mitra from New Delhi and demand that charges against him be dropped.
Mitra was arrested on September 20 by the Odisha Police, days after his comments on the Konark Temple led to an uproar in the Odisha State Assembly. According to reports, he was granted bail on a surety of Rs 100,000 and has been asked to join the investigation in Bhubaneshwar by September 28.
On September 16, Mitra had posted a video from the temple on Twitter. Pointing to the erotic sculptures of couples in various stages of intimacy at the temple complex, Mitra said: “Can this be a holy place? Not at all. This is a conspiracy against Hindus by Muslims who want to keep us down. Jai Sriram. In our new Ram temple, such obscene sculptures will not be there.” Soon after, in another tweet he clarified that it was a joke. “Jokes aside this temple is just mindblowing,” he wrote. “The sculptures are exquisite & it has a great sense of symmetry & gravitas.” Following the uproar over the remarks, both in the Odisha Assembly as well as outside, he tweeted: “Happy to answer to anyone for my allegedly ‘distasteful’ remarks. Says a lot about the abysmal intellectual Calibre of @Naveen_Odisha’s MLA’s the(y) cant tell satire from seriousness.”
Mitra has been charged under Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion), 295A and 298 (criminalising acts or words uttered intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings of any individual or class), and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.
Mitra’s arrest comes on the heels of an FIR being filed against another journalist in Kolkata ostensibly for tweeting that an upcoming film starring Bengali actor and Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament Deepak Adhikari has been copied from a Pakistani film. For this, Indranil Roy, a film journalist with Sangbad Pratidin, was booked under sections 43 and 66 of the Information Technology Act and Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code on September 13.
PEN Delhi and PEN South India centres express their concerns at such laws being used freely by random individuals and groups and by the state to intimidate and harass journalists, writers and creative artists to curb free expression in India. It reiterates that the enormous wealth of India’s many creative traditions must find expression in the works of different people, no matter what their religion, nationality or background. In India, a thousand – and more – flowers must bloom.
PEN Delhi and PEN South India join various journalists’ associations in India and abroad in expressing deep concern over the detention and arrest of journalist Aasif Sultan, the Assistant Editor of Kashmir Narrator in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Based on news reports and conversations with Kashmir Narrator Editor Showkat Motta and Aasif’s father Mohammad Sultan, PEN Delhi and South India have learnt that Aasif’s house was raided, his laptop, cell phone and other documents were seized, and that he was detained from the night of the 27th of August. He was formally presented to the Court only five days later, on the 1st of September. This sequence of events occurred soon after Aasif had published an article on the Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani.
Motta claims further that Aasif was questioned as to who his sources were and why he did particular stories. Questions regarding his political ideology were put to him as well. The police have said, “In journalism, he would instigate people in Jammu and Kashmir, especially Kashmir Valley, by glorifying terrorists associated with Hizbul Mujahideen… In his magazine, ‘Kashmir Narrator’, he would often give coverage to Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists, especially Burhan Wani, to attract youth towards terrorist organisations, especially Hizbul Mujahideen.”
Aasif has also been accused of “being in contact with” and “harbouring” militants, though his father Mohammad Sultan and Editor Motta claim that the police have so far not substantiated these claims with any evidence. One officer associated with the case is reported to have said, “This case is about harbouring a militant but yes, he is writing against uniformed forces, supporting militancy.”
In light of the above, PEN Delhi and South India condemn the unlawful detention of a journalist on account of what he has written and urge authorities to ensure that Aasif receives the benefits of due process and is released by the authorities if this should follow from the same.
PEN Delhi and PEN South India join large numbers of Indian citizens in unequivocally condemning the arrests and searches conducted on the homes of human rights activists, writers and thinkers on the 28th of August. Sudha Bharadwaj, lawyer and rights activist, known for her work with tribal and women’s rights, P Varavara Rao, poet, activist and teacher, Gautam Navlakha, journalist, writer and human rights activist were arrested suddenly, with extensive searches being conducted on their homes and with material such as laptops, books and notes being confiscated. Vernon Gonsalves, activist, and Arun Ferreira, activist, writer and cartoonist, were also arrested. Other activists and intellectuals, including Anand Teltumbde, K Satyanarayana, KV Kurmanath and Father Stan Swamy had their homes searched. These intellectuals and activists have consistently spoken out on behalf of the poor and marginalized, and have used their writings in the service of human rights. It is a dark day for India when crackdowns and arrests target those who fight for human rights, while murderers such as those who killed journalists, thinkers and writers, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh are yet to be convicted. Pen Delhi and Pen South India stand in solidarity with the activists and writers and their right to freedom of thought and expression.
PEN South India and PEN Delhi note with extreme distress the harassment and silencing of Malayalam writer S Hareesh in Kerala.
Hareesh’s new novel, Meesa (Moustache), was being serialised in the leading weekly magazine Mathrubhumi. As its third chapter was published, members of the Yoga Kshema Sabha declared that a conversation in the chapter between two men about how women dress to visit a temple was offensive to Hindu women. They demanded that the serialisation of the novel be immediately stopped.
Offices of the magazine have been vandalised and staff members have been threatened. At a book exhibition, a stall carrying other publications from Matrubhumi was attacked by an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu Aikya Vedi. The publisher of Matrubhumi, a magazine that has long enjoyed critical and popular support, has stopped the serialisation of the novel and Hareesh himself has withdrawn it from publication after he and his family received threats of violence on social media and the phone. Some of the social media attacks have been obscene and a gross violation of privacy and all norms of decency.
We insist that the concerned authorities in the state of Kerala and at the Centre treat this matter with the utmost seriousness – the State must act to secure the right of freedom of speech and expression to all its citizens. No private individual or organisation can be allowed to intimidate and threaten the rights of a citizen of India in this fashion. Since some of the threats to Hareesh have been on social media, we demand that this be treated as a cyber-crime and that an investigation into the perpetrators begin with no further delay. Local authorities must guarantee the physical safety of Hareesh and his family.
PEN South India and PEN Delhi stand with S Hareesh and with all writers who are prevented by any means to speak and write with complete freedom.
Pen Delhi and PEN South India condemn the murder of well-known and deeply respected journalist Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar. Bukhari was shot dead by two assailants as he stepped out of his office in the evening to attend an Iftar event in the days leading up to the holy festival of Eid. A recipient of several death threats previously, Bukhari was accompanied by his two guards both of whom lost their lives.
Bukhari’s death is the latest in a spate of killings of journalists and writers that have become a virtual epidemic in India in recent years. It signals yet another attempt to silence the voices of those who defend the freedom of speech. Bukhari’s was also one of the sanest voices in the Kashmir valley and he was a person who constantly argued and acted for peace, organizing and taking part in peace initiatives and Track II discussions. His loss, which tragically occurred just as the United Nations released its first ever report on human rights violations in the valley, will be keenly felt, especially at this moment when his contribution to peace in the valley would have been crucial.
Pen Delhi and PEN South India demand that the Government act swiftly to arrest and punish the perpetrators of this violence and we further demand that the state put in place measures that allow for a healthy and vital free speech and free thought environment.
PEN Delhi and PEN South India join the Network of Women in Media, India, to note with deep concern the sustained and apparently orchestrated social media vilification of writer and journalist Rana Ayyub, author of the award-winning book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up which focuses on the organised violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.
On 22 April 2018, a twitter account, using the name of Republic TV, attributed a fake tweet to Ayyub in which she purportedly defended child rapists, calling them ‘human’ and apparently said Musims were not safe in India. The twitter account, purportedly belonging to Republic TV, has since been proved to be fake by the website AltNews. The tweet, however, has spread far and wide, it has been translated into Hindi and shared with thousands on social media. Ayyub herself has been trolled and traumatised and has had her face morphed and photoshopped onto all sorts of images, and she has been threatened with gang rape if she doesn’t stop ‘talking against Hindus and (Narendra) Modi.’ Moreover, her address and personal number have been made available on the media, which has increased the harassment and threats exponentially.
This concerted, malicious misrepresentation and open intimidation as well as incitement to violence through the use of ‘fake news’ has serious implications for Rana Ayyub and, indeed, all journalists. It has a very real chilling effect on free speech and opinion. It is also in contravention of laws in India concerning violence against women.
Pen Delhi and Pen South India affirm our solidarity with Rana Ayyub. We condemn her vilification in the strongest terms. We ask that all responsible politicians speak out against such vilification and the spreading of fake news, and they act to rein in their followers who abuse and threaten in their names. Further we ask that the cyber crime cell of the Delhi Police take immediate steps to trace the source of the threats and act against the perpetrators, as well as to ensure the safety and security of Rana Ayyub.
We believe that it is the responsibility of social media platforms like Twitter to ensure that parody accounts can be distinguished from real ones and to intervene when their platforms are used to spread hate speech and issue threats of violence. Social media platforms must take such threats seriously and not allow themselves to be a party to such illegal acts.
We stand in solidarity with all journalists and writers in their right to freedom of expression.