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World writers' body PEN International asks Modi: Why are you silent on attack on writers, free speech?

By Our Representative
In a move that would give a major setback to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's effort to build his image worldwide, one of the world's most important writers' bodies, PEN International, at its 81st Congress in Quebec City, Canada, has expressed its solidarity with with Indian writers who returned  Sahitya Akademi award, protesting against what it calls "silencing of independent voices" by "killing" writers and artists in India.
The statement, signed by delegates from 73 countries from across the globe, has called on the Government of India to provide "better protection for such individuals" and "safeguard free speech as guaranteed by the Indian constitution."
In a separate letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, PEN International president John Ralston Saul has has urged the Government of Indian "to take immediate steps to protect the rights of everyone, including writers and artists."
The organisation, known today as PEN International, began in London, UK, in 1921, as simply PEN. Within four years there were 25 PEN Centres in Europe, and by 1931 there were several Centres in South America as well as China.
As the world grew darker just before the outbreak of war in 1939, PEN member Centres included Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Palestine, Uruguay, the US and others.
PEN was one of the world’s first NGOs and amongst the first international bodies advocating for human rights. "Certainly, we were the first worldwide association of writers, and the first organisation to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable", PEN claims.
PEN statement says, "India is the world’s largest democracy. Yet there is a climate of growing intolerance in India where those who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism have become increasingly vulnerable."
"Three public intellectuals have been murdered", PEN says, adding, it "mourns the passing of MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, killed by unknown assailants."
Calling upon the Government of India "to identify and arrest the perpetrators of these crimes", the statement regrets, "Kalburgi was the recipient of one of India’s highest literary awards, the Sahitya Akademi Award, and yet, after his murder, the Akademi remains silent even as its members resign in protest, and several award-recipients return their awards."
It takes particular exception to the fact that "two government ministers have questioned the motives of the writers returning the awards. It takes courage in the current climate in India to express public dissent in a public manner."
The statement underlines, "PEN International salutes the courage of and expresses solidarity with those who have returned their awards in protest or resigned their membership of the Akademi or its governing council", after which it gives the names of those who have returned the award, starting with Nayantara Sahgal.
"PEN International finds it disturbing that India’s Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma has reacted to these tragic developments by saying, 'If they (the writers) say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see'”, the statement says.
Saluting the writers, "who represent the breadth, diversity and excellence of Indian literature", the statment says, "As the most populous democracy in the world, PEN International expects India to live up to the high ideals of its constitution so that every Indian can live in a land where 'the mind is without fear and the head is held high'."
Writing in a similar tone to the Prime Minister and the President, PEN president John Ralston Saul has said, writers "assembled here in Quebec City in Canada for the 81st Congress of PEN International have expressed grave concern over the crisis following the murder of noted scholar and intellectual, MM Kalburgi."
Saul says, "They have asked me, as President of PEN International, to share with you our strongly held view that the Indian Government takes immediate steps to protect the rights of everyone, including writers and artists, in the finest
traditions of Indian society and culture, and indeed, the letter and spirit of the Indian constitution."
"For this", he says, "the government must reassure the community of writers and artists that its ministers are tolerant of diverse views. Also, it must ensure that the investigations into the murders of MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare are conducted fairly and expediently and their killers are brought to justice."
He concludes, "We stand in solidarity with the more than fifty novelists, scholars, poets, and public intellectuals who have returned their awards to the Akademi and admire their courage", even as attaching the copy of the statement from the PEN Congress.

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