A listing of statements on Free Speech issues.

Dissent is not an act against the state but an essential aspect of any democracy

Press statement

A public meeting was held at the Constitution Club on Saturday, 1st December. to discuss the worrisome trend of anti-terror laws being used to stifle democratic dissent by harassing civil rights lawyers, poets and writers. The meeting was called by the group of petitioners who had approached the Supreme Court in the matter of the arrest on 28th August of persons alleged to be “urban naxals” (Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Fereira and Vernon Gonsalves). Their petition, supported by more than 30 senior lawyers affiliated to the Supreme Court, was eventually rejected. Four of the five accused are currently in jail in Pune while the fifth (Gautam Navlakha) is continuing to fight a legal battle for his liberty.

The charges are quite dramatic, including a plot to assassinate the prime minister with arms and ammunitions smuggled in from abroad, but have not yet been supported by any credible evidence. The police claim to have some incriminating letters, but they have not produced them in court. The gross mismatch between the seriousness of the allegations and the slow pace of investigation suggests that the authorities are more interested in harassing the accused than in proving their case

Prof. Romila Thapar (professor emerita at JNU, and the first petitioner in the Supreme Court case) introduced the subject. Others who spoke included rights activist Aruna Roy, senior journalist N. Ram and leading public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Prof. Zoya Hasan (retired professor of political science at JNU), Vrinda Grover (eminent lawyer), Bhasha Singh (well known journalist) and Anirban Bhattacharya (student activist).

Romila Thapar recalled that dissent and diversity of views were common in Indian history and were considered quite normal. She stressed that dissent is not an act against the state but an essential aspect of any democracy.

Prashant Bhushan said that it is a complete perversion of our system that people can be locked up for having dissenting views. He emphasized that we have to fight against unconstitutional laws like the UAPA, NSA, AFSPA, law of sedition and criminal defamation that are being used to suppress dissent and intimidate political opponents. We have to fight to repair our institutions and to get rid of communal poison.

Deploring the lack of independence in much of the media today, senior journalist N. Ram recounted the recent use of an unknown provision of the law – Article 124A – against a Tamil magazine Nakkeeran. He said that the case for freedom of speech had to be made much stronger than simply liberal ideas so that they include notions of justice. He called for an educational campaign that would link the freedom of speech to the importance of dissent and protest.

Stressing the importance of the Supreme Court petition for the media, well known journalist Bhasha Singh reminded the audience of the change in the tone and tenor of reporting on the arrests of the alleged “urban naxals” after this petition. The prefix “alleged” was suddenly remembered and inserted where before the state’s accusations were taken at face value. The case and the unprecedented award of house arrest forced the media to rethink its role.

Young activist and scholar Anirban Bhattacharya said that those in power have a three “D” strategy – divide, divert and demonise. He said that various invented terms like anti-national and urban naxal are being used to pursue this strategy and a big effort is needed to detoxify our society.

Targeting of free speech on such a scale has not been seen since the Emergency, according to the eminent political scientist Zoya Hasan. What sets this regime apart from previous ones is its focus on inventing internal enemies. The aim here is not to target real enemies of the state but to deligitimise dissent and to disenfranchise minorities and vulnerable groups. That is why this regime is more dangerous than previous ones because it is trying to build a majoritarian state.

Rights activist Aruna Roy said that in her travels across the country in recent times she had been struck by the popular opposition to the arrest of the alleged “urban naxals”. She said that the government and ruling party is attacking activists of various kinds precisely because these activists are able to expose the hollow claims of the regime.

All the speakers expressed grave concern at the misuse of special laws for muzzling dissent and suppressing democratic rights. They highlighted the need to make the state accountable for its actions and for ensuring that the protections offered by the law were not denied.


33 eminent South Asians write letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister for release of Shahidul Alam on 100th day of detention

Arundhati Roy, Aparna Sen, Romilla Thapar, Amitav Ghosh, Shabhana Azmi, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Nandita Das, Mohammad Hanif, Anish Kapoor among other eminent persons from across South Asia have come together to write a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed demanding the immediate release of acclaimed photographer and cultural activist Shahidul Alam on the 100th day of his detention.

shahidul alam

Shahid-ul Alam being forcefully taken away from his home

The letter states: “As well-wishers of Bangladesh and supporters of its 166 million citizens’ struggle for dignity, social justice and prosperity, we are distressed by the continued imprisonment of photographer and cultural activist Shahidul Alam.”

Alam was forcefully taken from his home on 5th August and has been held at Dhaka Central Jail for the last 100 days. He is accused of ‘hurting the image of the nation’ while reporting on protests by young students demanding road safety. He has been denied bail 5 times.

The letter notes: “Shahidul Alam is a Bangladeshi citizen, but the rest of us in South Asia are also proud to call him our own, for the values of truth, justice and social equality he promotes.”

Other distinguished persons who have joined this appeal include singer/songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik (Kolkata), Former Nepal Chief Justice Sushila Karki (Kathmandu), political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda (Colombo), poet/critic Sankha Ghosh (Kolkata), historian/writer Ramchandra Guha (Bangalore), photographer Raghu Rai (Delhi), artist Salima Hashmi (Lahore) photographer Dayanita Singh (Delhi) among others.

The signatories state further: “It is clear to us that the case of Shahidul Alam is being used as a means to suppress criticism by others in civil society. His arrest and continued detention appear to be manifestation of an intolerant political atmosphere, an attempt to threaten and silence the voice of Bangladeshi citizens.”

The letter comes on the 100th Day of Shahidul Alam’s imprisonment.

Please find full text of letter in attachment and full list of signatories as below;

List of signatories:

  1. Akram Khan, London

  2. Amar Kanwar, New Delhi

  3. Amitav Ghosh, Goa

  4. Anish Kapoor, London

  5. Aparna Sen, Kolkata

  6. Arundhati Roy, New Delhi

  7. Ashok Vajpeyi, New Delhi

  8. Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Kolkata

  9. Dayanita Singh, New Delhi

  10. Ina Puri, Kolkata

  11. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Colombo

  12. Kanak Mani Dixit, Kathmandu

  13. Laila Tyabji, New Delhi;

  14. Manjushree Thapa, Toronto

  15. Mohammed Hanif, Karachi

  16. Moushumi Bhowmik, Kolkata

  17. Nandita Das, Kolkata

  18. Nimalka Fernando, Colombo

  19. Patricia Mukhim, Shillong

  20. Pooja Sood, New Delhi

  21. Rachana Singh, New Delhi

  22. Raghu Rai, New Delhi

  23. Rajdeep Sardesai, New Delhi

  24. Ramchandra Guha, Bangalore

  25. Romilla Thapar, New Delhi

  26. Salima Hashmi, Lahore

  27. Sanjay Kak, New Delhi

  28. Sanjoy Hazarika, Shillong

  29. Sankha Ghosh, Kolkata

  30. Shabana Azmi, Mumbai

  31. Sushila Karki, Kathmandu

  32. Vijay Prashad, New Delhi

  33. Vrinda Grover, New Delhi


An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg: The World’s Freedom of Expression is in Your Hands

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and more than 70 human and digital rights groups called on Mark Zuckerberg today to add real transparency and accountability to Facebook’s content removal process. Specifically, the groups demand that Facebook clearly explain how much content it removes, both rightly and wrongly, and provide all users with a fair and timely method to appeal removals and get their content back up.While Facebook is under enormous—and still mounting—pressure to remove material that is truly threatening, without transparency, fairness, and processes to identify and correct mistakes, Facebook’s content takedown policies too often backfire and silence the very people that should have their voices heard on the platform.Read the letter here


The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) strongly objects to the statement issued by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi on November 3, 2018, to editors and decision-makers in the news media, requesting them to refrain from deputing women journalists of a particular age group to Sabarimala to cover the reopening of the temple for a special puja on Monday (November 5).  We believe this is an unjustified and unacceptable interference in the functioning of the media and an unfair obstacle in the way of journalists –who happen to be women–  who wish to cover an important story of public interest.

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