A culture of intolerance has taken root in India and grown “more menacing” since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister two years ago, according to a new report prepared jointly by a Canadian university and global writers group PEN International.
India must overhaul its antiquated laws and cumbersome legal system, which are increasingly being misused to silence dissent, said the report titled “Fearful Silence: The Chill on India’s Public Sphere”.
It was prepared by the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program, PEN Canada and PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression and literature. The report is a follow-up to another from the same organization released in 2015, “Imposing Silence: The Use of India’s Laws to Suppress Free Speech”.
PEN International said the report reveals that “a growing culture of intolerance linked to a rising nationalist discourse has taken root in the country and has become more menacing since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, creating an atmosphere in which ‘vigilantism has been given an implicit go-ahead’”.
PEN returned to India in January to “to assess how the state of freedom of expression had changed” and interviewed 17 authors, activists, journalists and lawyers in Delhi, Hubli and Jaipur.
According to the new report, their accounts suggested that “the unchecked abuse of India’s vague and overbroad legislation, and its inefficient legal system, have helped to create a chill within Indian society and throughout its public sphere”.
It added, “As a result, a relatively small number of aggrieved citizens can successfully deter many others from speaking out on sensitive issues, thereby limiting the scope of India’s broad and pluralistic culture and endangering some of its key democratic freedoms. This update considers this troubling development.”
Among the issues the report looked at are censorship of cinema, with an essay by Vikramaditya Motwane, director and co-producer of Udta Punjab.
It also considered the phenomenon of online harassment and stated “people are forced into silence by the online mob. This is the chilling effect in action.”
The report concluded: “Antiquated laws, like the sedition provision in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), continue to be used to silence discussion on matters of public interest.” The British-era sedition law carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.