India is among the top 10 countries that have jailed writers, academics and intellectuals for their writings, works and advocacy, said the 2021 Freedom to Write report published by non-governmental organisation Pen America. It works to protect freedom of expression across the world.

According to the report published on Wednesday, 277 writers and academics were detained or in prison in 36 countries last year. Of them, eight are from India – comedian Munawar Faruqui and Bhima Koregaon accused persons Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Hany Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Anand Teltumbde.

The report said more than half of these 277 people were also in jail during 2019 and 2020. At least 62 of them have been serving sentences of 10 or more years in prison.

Faruqui was arrested in January last year in Madhya Pradesh’s Indore based on a complaint that he was allegedly going to make objectionable statements about Hindu deities at his show.

However, attendees at the show had said that the police had detained Faruqui even before he had started his performance. The Indore Police too had admitted that there was no visual evidence to show that Faruqui had insulted Hindu deities. He was granted bail after a month.

The remaining persons named in the report are accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, which pertains to caste violence in a village near Pune in 2018. They are among 16 people arrested for allegedly plotting the violence.

Among them, Bharadwaj is out on bail. Rao was granted medical bail, which has been extended several times by the Bombay High Court since September. However, the rest are still languishing in jail.

In its report, Pen America noted the many of the persons in jail in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case suffer from health ailments and have been subjected to restrictions on sending or receiving letters or reading materials.

One of the accused person, tribal rights activist Stan Swamy had died at a Mumbai hospital while in police custody on July 5, nearly nine months after was he was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The 84-year-old suffered from multiple ailments including Parkinson’s disease and had contracted the coronavirus disease at the Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai.

Several others, including Navlakha, have complained about their deteriorating health condition. His counsel had also informed the Bombay High Court on April 4 that after the activist’s spectacle was stolen, the jail authorities even refused to accept the one sent by his family.

The Freedom to Write report said that courts have repeatedly rejected the bail requests of Gonsalves and Teltumbde. “He has been unable to write to his wife and lawyer and was refused bail, even after his brother’s death in November 2021,” the report said.

On Rao’s medical bail, the report noted that he has to remain in Mumbai, far away from his family in Hyderabad. In Bharadwaj’s case too, the report said she cannot travel outside the jurisdiction of the Mumbai court without permission or speak to the media.

The United States non-profit also mentioned journalist Rana Ayyub, saying that complaints have been filed to discredit her fundraising campaign for Covid-19 relief. Ayyub has been “slapped with spurious charges of money laundering,” it noted. However, she has not been detained.

“Her [Ayyub’s] 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,” the report said.

It added that those who advocate for the marginalised and minority groups and those who have spoken out against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “increasingly virulent brand of Hindu nationalism” are at risk in India.

Pen America said that the Modi government has also imposed internet shutdowns for 1,157 hours or 48 days last year, including in Jammu and Kashmir and capital New Delhi during the farmers’ protest.

Citing a report by a US government-funded non-governmental organisation, Pen America said the environment for free expression in India declined in 2021. India’s status on Freedom House’s report on political rights and civil liberties was lowered to “partly free” in annual rankings. In 2020, the organisation’s report ranked India as “free”

“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,” Pen America said.

Also read:

Remembering Stan Swamy, the revolutionary who challenged everything – including the Church

Other countries

Meanwhile, Myanmar has joined China and Saudi Arabia in the list of countries that have imprisoned the most number of writers, academics and intellectuals, the report said. These three countries have jailed 26 writers, academics and intellectuals each.

Myanmar recorded a rise in putting such personalities behind bars from eight in 2020 to 26 last year following the military coup on February 1, 2021.

The other countries in the list are Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Belarus, Vietnam and Eritrea.

The report said that more than 71% writers in its 2021 Index were currently in prison. It said that while 17% were free from custody, they continued to face legal battles, restrictions on their ability to work and travel along with continued harassment from authorities. It said that only 11% of them have been released without conditions and 1% have died in custody.

Pen America said that in 55% cases of detention, charges related to national security were applied. Same justification of national security was also used while detaining the writers in 2019 and 2020 as well, the report said.

In 2020, 273 writers were put behind bars while in 2019, 238 people were detained, according the report.