India among top 10 countries to jail writers, academics in 2021, shows Pen America’s report

Original article here.


In the context of continued threats to free expression in the country, the number of writers behind bars in India in 2021 declined marginally, with eight cases counted in the Index for 2021.222 The majority of these individuals are connected to the ongoing Elgar Parishad case, which concerned a deadly inter-caste altercation in the village of Bhima Koregaon in 2018. In the aftermath of the violence—in which one person was killed and five injured—both state- and national-level authorities detained and aggressively pursued charges against a broad swathe of leftist writers and intellectuals, accusing them of inciting the violence and of links to banned groups.223 In August 2021, after years of delay, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) finally submitted 17 charges under the penal code and sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in the case.224 Health concerns have beset a number of the detained writers, and they have been subjected to restrictions on sending and receiving letters and on accessing reading materials while in prison.225 The majority remain detained and are awaiting trial, including writers Hany BabuArun FerreiraVernon GonsalvesGautam Navlakha, and Anand Teltumbde.226

During the course of the year, courts rejected repeated bail requests for Gonsalves and Teltumbde—including one request made by Teltumbde for a 15-day reprieve following the death of his brother—although Babu was released once very briefly on the grounds of poor health before being pulled back into jail.227 A letter written by Teltumbde, Ferreria, and other activists was confiscated by prison authorities in August 2021, and authorities mounted a concerted effort to restrict Teltumbde and Gonsalves from sending and receiving certain communications, including with their lawyers, throughout 2021.228 Poet P. Varavara Rao, elderly and in very fragile health after testing positive for COVID-19 in 2020, in addition to incurring a head injury while in state custody, won a six-month release on bail in February 2021.229 Rao’s temporary release has since been extended in repeated small increments, but he had to remain in Mumbai, hundreds of miles away from his family in Hyderabad, and was not allowed to have contact with the others accused in the case.230 After numerous attempts, Sudha Bharadwaj managed to win a conditional release in December 2021; she was released from pretrial detention, but the terms of her bail include no travel outside the jurisdiction of the Mumbai court without permission, no statements online or in print about the case, and no communication with her co-accused.231

Writer, activist, and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj

Writer, activist, and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj was released on bail in December 2021 after more than three years in prison. Photo by Friends of Sudha

In a new case that is illustrative of the heightened threats against religious minorities, and particularly Muslims, under the Modi government, Munawar Faruqui, a comedian, was arrested after a police report was filed alleging that he had “insulted Hindu deities.”232 Despite a lack of evidence, he was held in jail for just over a month before being released on bail by India’s Supreme Court after earlier appeals failed.233 Rana Ayyub, an outspoken and critical columnist and opinion writer, has faced a range of threats during 2021, including the filing of legal charges as well as a sustained campaign of online harassment and trolling. Complaints have been filed against her in an attempt to discredit her fundraising for COVID and disaster relief, which UN experts have called “baseless.”234 Police also opened a criminal investigation into Ayyub and other journalists for a video they shared on social media.235 Meanwhile, Ayyub struggled with misinformation attacks by right-wing groups and publications, allegedly to discredit her journalism work.236 The fundraising debacle escalated through 2021: in September 2021, Ayyub was slapped with spurious charges of money laundering.237 She reflected on the harassment in an opinion piece later that month for The Washington Post, lamenting that, “I’ve barely written or reported, because all my energy has gone to battling the latest accusations and clearing my name.”238 Her case is indicative of many others: in recent years, dozens of Indian writers and public intellectuals have faced spurious legal charges, other punitive administrative actions, and threats both on and offline in response to their expression of dissenting viewpoints. Those particularly at risk include those with a history of advocating on behalf of India’s marginalized and minority groups, challenging the caste system and promoting the rights of economically disadvantaged populations, and those who have spoken out against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s increasingly virulent brand of Hindu nationalism.

More broadly, the environment for free expression in India continued to decline in 2021. Freedom House, which had downgraded India from “Free” to “Partly Free” in their annual Freedom in the World report for 2020, noted further worrying trends in 2021, including a February 2021 law restricting anonymity and encryption on social media applications, and the official use of Pegasus spyware against journalists and human rights activists.239 Modi’s government shut down the internet for 48 days over the course of the year.240 The government restricted the internet to stifle news and communications about the farmer protests in the capital of New Delhi, which opposed laws intended to deregulate their industry. In Kashmir, the fiercely contested region in between Pakistan and India, where militant groups and security forces engage in regular skirmishes and dozens of civilians were killed during 2021, the government also continued to regulate internet speeds; Kashmir was previously under a dramatic, six-months-long blanket internet shutdown, the end of which was marked with continued restrictions on accessing social media.241 Dissident voices from the region continued to experience various types of pressure, with journalists and others subject to brief detentions, travel bans, and threats from Indian security forces to curb their criticism.242 The government also engaged in censorship of online criticism—including from opposition politicians—concerning the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.243

Women reading a magazine at farmers’ protest in January 2021

Women protesters read a magazine during farmers’ protests in Mumbai, India, January 2021. Photo by ShamsherSingh1

Political pressure is also mounting on Indian academics and scholars, both within the country and overseas. In March 2021, two professors resigned from a Delhi university following their vocal critiques of the country’s political leadership,244 and in September 2021, scholars and universities inside and outside India faced severe online harassment for their participation in Syracuse University’s “Dismantling Global Hindutva” conference.245 Hindutva is a political ideology supported by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeking hegemony of Hinduism in India, and Indian right-wing groups led an intimidation campaign against scholars and universities participating in the event. The 2021 Free To Think report by Scholars at Risk describes the shrinking space for academic freedom in the country, citing physical injuries to protesting students in February 2021, professors forced to resign for class or social media content, and an official inquiry launched over a master’s student’s thesis referring to “India Occupied Kashmir.”246 India remains the only relatively free and democratic country in the Index’s top ten, an outlier, but also a warning sign that the jailing of writers and broader curbs on free expression represent but one element of the ruling party’s attempts to quash dissent and entrench political control.

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