Police Raids and Arrests Raise Grave Concerns About Government Respect for Free Expression in India
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NEW YORK—Raids by Indian police on homes of writers, scholars, and human rights activists, and the arrest of five activists, including prominent poet Varavara Rao, raise grave concerns about government respect for free expression in India, PEN America said in a statement today.
Across multiple Indian states, the homes of prominent activists were raided on Tuesday, extensive searches of their personal belongings were carried out, and five activists were reportedly arrested—Rao; lawyer Vernon Gonsalves; writer and human rights activist, Gautam Navlakha; and activists and lawyers, Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj. Police alleged that the activists had ties to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist); they were arrested under provisions of the penal code, the anti-terrorism law, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which criminalizes support for terrorist activities, supposedly in connection with an investigation into violence between Dalits and upper-caste Marathas that broke out in the village of Koregaon-Bhima near Pune on December 31, 2017, following a meeting of Dalits, which then spread to other neighboring districts. Those arrested include activists with a long history of work on behalf of minority and marginalized groups, while those initially named as orchestrating the violence have not been held. Writers, academics, and politicians spoke out against the raids and arrests, with the author Arundhati Roy calling them “an attempted coup against the Indian Constitution and all the freedoms that we cherish.” On Wednesday, the Supreme Court instructed that those arrested be held under house arrest until September 6.
“Arrests of poets, intellectuals, and human rights activists are deeply alarming to see in the world’s largest democracy,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Spurious and vague allegations against those targeted, coupled with the heavy-handed way they have been treated, represent a serious escalation in an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and signal a disturbing new low in India’s already worrisome democratic trajectory.”
Threats to free expression and political dissent in India have been building steadily in recent years. As noted in PEN International’s 2016 report Fearful Silence: The Chill on India’s Public Sphere, the environment for free expression has deteriorated under the present government, with authorities regularly using legal cases and other regulatory mechanisms to curb dissenting views. Those who advocate for human rights or express unorthodox viewpoints are sometimes subject to arrest, prosecution, and other forms of legal intimidation, and recent cases of murders of leading journalists, thinkers, and writers, such as Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh, have yet to be fully investigated or prosecuted.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org
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