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Open letter to the Prime Minister calling on the British government to take action to safeguard freedom of expression in India ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UK later this week.

Dear Prime Minister

Re: Urging Action by British government to Safeguard Freedom of Expression in India

As writers and writers’ organisations committed to protecting and defending freedom of expression around the world, we, the undersigned, are extremely concerned about the rising climate of fear, growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism in India. As the three-day state visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United Kingdom between 12 and 14 November draws near, we urge you to engage with Prime Minister Modi both publicly and privately on this crucial issue. Please speak out on the current state of freedom of expression in his country, urging him to stay true to the spirit of the democratic freedoms enshrined in India’s Constitution.

As you will no doubt be aware three public intellectuals, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, have been killed by unknown assailants in the last two years alone. At least 37 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992. Other writers have received threats.

Over the past month, at least 40 Indian novelists, poets and playwrights have returned the prize awarded to them by the Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, to protest against these attacks. In their statements, the writers have criticised the Akademi’s silence over the murders, the deteriorating political environment in which those expressing dissent have been attacked by government ministers, and challenged the government to demonstrate tolerance and protect free speech.

After this, and a silent march by protesting writers, the Akademi issued a statement condemning the murder of Kalburgi and a resolution asking ‘governments at the centre and in the states to take immediate action to bring the culprits to book and ensure the security of writers now and in the future.’ It also requested the writers who had returned awards to reconsider their decisions. Dissenting writers responded to the Akademi saying it should have spoken out much earlier, and urged the Akademi to rethink how it can support ‘writers all over India, and by extension, the people of the country.’ They reminded the Akademi of the urgency, calling the present time a ‘moment of spiralling hatred and intolerance.’ Mr Modi’s government has not yet formally responded to the Akademi’s resolution.

The protests have grown beyond the community of Indian writers of all languages. Scientists, artists, film-makers, academics, scholars, and actors have either complained the climate of intolerance or returned awards on a scale unprecedented in India.

In October, Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali had his performance in Mumbai cancelled by the Shiv Sena party, an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The Shiv Sena has said it will not allow any Pakistani artist to perform until the situation in Kashmir has improved. A few days later, Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairman of Observer Research Foundation, was attacked by Shiv Sena activists and smeared with black paint for hosting the book launch of former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book launch and refusing to cancel it.

India’s Constitution recognises freedom of expression as a cornerstone of India’s democracy; however despite its constitutional commitments, India’s legal system makes it surprisingly easy to silence others. In a report earlier this year, PEN and the International Human Rights Programme (IHRP) at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law outlined the overreaching legislation and longstanding problems with the administration of justice, which have produced cumbersome legal processes that deter citizens from exercising their right to free expression. The resulting chilling effect silences political criticism and often discourages marginal voices from speaking out on sensitive social, cultural, and religious matters.

In line with the United Kingdom’s stated commitment to promoting human rights, we ask that you raise the above issues with Prime Minister Modi and urge him to provide better protection for writers, artists and other critical voices and ensure that freedom of speech is safeguarded. Without these protections a democratic, peaceful society is not possible.

Raficq Abdulla
Jim Aitken
Lee Allane
Maggie Anderson
Kate Armstrong
Alan Ayckbourn
Sally Baker, Director, Wales PEN Cymru
Marion Baraitser
Marge Berer
Terence Blacker
Ricky Brown
Peter Buckman
Tom Bullough
Katie Burden
Jim Burnside
Maoilios Caimbeul
Jenni Calder, Membership Secretary, Scottish PEN
Fiona Cameron
Drew Campbell, President, Scottish PEN
Joyce Caplan
Aimee Chalmers
Regi Claire
Anne Clarke
Jennifer Clement, President, PEN International
Jo Clifford
Ken Cockburn
Anne Connolly
Michael Connor
Nicki Cornwell
Christine Crow
Manishita Dass
Suzy Davies
Christine De Luca
Patrick Dobbs
Colin Donati
Sasha Dugdale
William Duncan
Anne Dunford
Jonathan Edwards
Suzanne Egerton
Dorothy-Grace Elder
Menna Elfyn, President, Wales PEN Cymru
Moris Farhi
Penelope Farmer
Vicki Feaver
Euna Fisher
Matthew Fitt
Una Flett
Steven Fowler
Miranda France
Lindsey Fraser
Maureen Freely, President, English PEN
Vivian French
Leah Fritz
Iain Galbraith
Omar Garcia
Alan Gay
Maitreesh Ghatak
Magi Gibson
Anne Lorne Gillies
Brian Girvin
Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN
Fiona Graham, Vice President, Scottish PEN
Niall Griffiths
Jay Griffiths
Bishnupriya Gupta
Daniel Hahn
Georgina Hammick
Ann Harrison, Director, Freedom to Write Programme, PEN International
David Harrower
Jonathan Heawood
Mairi Hedderwick
Joy Hendry
Diana Hendry
Daisy Hirst
John William Hodgson
Eva Hoffman
Amanda Hopkinson
Sarah Howard
Sunny Hundal
Brian Johnstone
Alice Jolly
Carole Jones
Sally Roberts Jones
Beth Junor
Meena Kandasamy
Nitasha Kaul
Peter Kerr
Andrew Kidd
Hari Kunzru
Nikita Lalwani
Lee Langley
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
Thomas Legendre
Joan Lennon
Paul Levy
Gwyneth Lewis
Marina  Lewycka
Jean Liddiard
David Lodge
Sarah Lutyens
Pauline Lynch
Neil Mac Neil
Ian Macdonald
Carl MacDougall
Shena Mackay
Iseabail Macleod
Aonghas MacNeacail
Iain Maloney
Colin Manlove
Karen Margolis
Robyn Marsack
Henry Marsh
Annabelle May
Val McDermid
David McDonald
David McDowall
Ian McEwan
Sarah McIntosh
Sophie  McKeand
Pauline Melville
Greg Michaelson
Paul Moore
Cathy Moore
David Morgan
Neel Mukherjee
Anne Murray
Rebekah Murrell
Maureen Myant
Beverley Naidoo
Liz Niven
Katharine Norbury
Georgina Norie
Heather Norman-Soderlind
Claire O’Kell
Ruth Padel
Simin Patel
Penny Perrick
Catherine Peters
Rosemary Phipps
Naomi Popple
Tom Pow
Chris Powici
Angharad Price
Faith Pullin, Chair of Women Writers Committee, Scottish PEN
Anna Purser
Jean Rafferty, Chair of Writers at Risk Committee, Scottish PEN
Monisha Rajesh
Ravinder Randhawa
Lynne Reid Banks
Elizabeth Rimmer
Fiona Rintoul
Prof Richard H Roberts
Ferial Rogers
Lesley Anne Rose
Sioned  Rowlands
Salman Rushdie
Michael Russell
Gita Sahgal
Angela Saini
Chrys Salt MBE
Philippe Sands
Ros Schwartz
Andrew Sclater
Lawrence Scott
Robert  Sharp
Owen Sheers, Chair, PEN Wales Cymru
Sara Sheridan
Nikesh Shukla
Salma Siddique
Francesca Simon
Penny Simpson
Joan Smith
Dennis  Smith
Nicola Spurr
Tom Stacey
Anne Stevenson
Leslie Stevenson
Anne Stokes
Zoe Strachan
Lynsey Sutherland
Aniko Szilagyi
Mary Taylor
Carl Tighe
Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International
Hannah Trevarthen
Jonathan Trigell
Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International
Mirza Waheed
Jehanne Wake
Harriet  Walter
Lynnda Wardle
Val Warner
Eleanor Watts
Nicola White
Zoe Wicomb
Colin Will
Karina Williamson
Les Wilson
Fiona Wilson
Peter Wood Cotterill