‘Now I Get To Speak Out About What Is Happening To The Freedom Of Expression In India’

26 Sep 2022 11 min read  Share

On 19 September, Indian anti-caste author and poet Meena Kandasamy was awarded the prestigious Hermann Kesten Prize of Germany, given to individuals who support persecuted writers. She explains how the award will give her renewed courage to talk about India’s dwindling freedom of expression, how she views the government’s approach to caste and religious minorities and the ecosystem that undergirds India’s majoritarian politics.

Indian anti-caste author and poet Meena Kandasamy/FACEBOOK PAGE

Delhi: “Now I get to speak about what is happening to the freedom of expression in India,” Meena Kandasamy—an anti-caste feminist, novelist and poet—told us during an interview, after becoming the winner of the 2022 Hermann Kesten Prize, announced by the German chapter of the PEN International writer’s association

The award, instituted in honour of the 20-century renowned German novelist, Hermann Kesten,  recognises and honours individuals who defend the rights of persecuted writers and journalists. 

Kandasamy—whose work primarily revolves around the themes of gender, caste, sexuality, and ethnic subjugation—joins a group of renowned individuals who PEN regards to be champions of free expression, including German novelist and social critic Günter Grass, British writer Harold Pinter, assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkowskaya, Chinese writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo, and exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar

Speaking out, Kandasamy said, comes at a cost for anyone speaking against the government in today’s India, but it is, she added, worse for women. 

“It is just that when you happen to be a woman writer these attacks get very personal,” said Kandasamy, who confessed to worrying about her two children. “They have a template: they attack your looks, they attack your character, they attack your personal life, they threaten and your children with rape and death.”

In 1985, on the occasion of the 85th birthday of German novelist and dramatist Hermann Kesten as its honorary president, the German chapter of PEN presented the first Hermann Kesten Award medal. Since then, it has recognised individuals whose work has supported persecuted writers. The medal was awarded annually beginning in 1993 after previously being awarded every two years. It was renamed the Hermann Kesten Award in 2008.

Born in 1984 in the capital of southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to parents who were university professors, Kandasamy, 37, has been writing poetry and translating books by Dalit writers and leaders into English as early as the age of 17. A fierce critic (here, here and here) of “Brahmanical oppression” and narratives of caste and gender segregation, the author uses her writing to deconstruct trauma and violence.

Some of her notable works include The Gypsy Goddess (2014), When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017), Ayaankali (2007), and poems including Touch (2006), and Ms Militancy (2010).

Referring to Ms. Militancy, vice-president of the German PEN Centre, Cornelia Zetzsche, called her “a fearless fighter for democracy and human rights, for the free word and against the oppression of landless, minorities and Dalit in India; not a ‘Ms. Pleasant’, rather a ‘Ms. Militant’”. 

Kandasamy has used poetry and prose as tools of political dissent and her novels have been shortlisted for various literary awards, such as, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Hindu Lit Prize. In July 2022, she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) of the United Kingdom. She also released a collection of essays in 2021 titled “The Orders Were to Rape You: Tamil Tigresses in the Eelam Struggle.”

Kandasamy has been vocal against the persecution and detention of notable writers and poets, including poet-activist Varavara Rao and former Delhi University professors GN Saibaba and Hany Babu from Delhi University, under the current far-right regime of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). 

In August, 2018 the Pune Police arrested Rao on charges of making incendiary remarks at the Elgar Parishad gathering on 31 December 2017, at Shaniwar Wada in Pune, leading to rioting at the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day. Saibaba and Babu have been detained since March 2017 and July 2020, respectively, in the Nagpur and Taloja central jails in Maharashtra.

Saibaba and Babu have also been accused by the government of belonging to the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) and participating in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These activists are among prominent public intellectuals and leaders in India who have been critical of the government and as a result detained under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or UAPA, an anti-terrorism law that makes it almost impossible to get bail.

Crimes against Dalits increased by 6% from 2009 to 2018 with over 391,000 reported,  according to a study by the National Dalit Movement for Justice based on National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.  The latest NCRB data, released on 29 August 2022, said atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis rose by 1.2% and 6.4% respectively in 2021 compared to 2020. India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, home to 16.5% of India’s population, accounted for more than 25% of cases, more than any other state.

Hate crime against the religious minorities have increased manifold after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in May 2014: in 2018, IndiaSpend reported that as many as 90% of religious hate crimes since 2009 occurred after 2014.

As a result of increased violence against minorities and a crackdown on dissidents in the course of the eight years that the BJP has been in power, multiple international reports have downgraded India’s rankings on social and personal freedoms.

“It (India) is not a place where some discourse is happening,” said Kandasamy. “It's a place where people are just… getting charged with draconian laws, framed by the establishment and picked up.” 

India ranked 46 (an improvement from 53 in 2020) of 165 independent countries, in the 2021 Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, down from 27th rank in 2014, the year Modi was elected.

India was counted among the top 10 “autocratising” nations according to the latest report of the V-Dem Institute—which referred to India as an ‘electoral autocracy’, in the company of, among others, El Salvador, Nigeria, Tunisia—at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. 

The Freedom In The World report by Washington DC-based Freedomhouse, which produces research on issues related to democracy, political rights and civil liberties, pegged India as ‘partly free’.    

“The situation is that it’s not just ranks [in which India is getting] downgraded,” said Kandaswamy. “...it’s also because there is so much dependence (of the media) on the government for finances, and, so, a lot of newspapers and media outlets are afraid of going all out against the government.” 

How do you feel about winning this prize and what is its significance, especially, in the current political scenario of India? 

When I heard news of the prize, beyond my initial shock and disbelief, my thoughts were: ‘Okay, now I get to speak about what is happening to the freedom of expression in India. I get to talk about how some of the most brilliant minds of our country, whether Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, G N Saibabab or Hany Babu, have been unfairly incarcerated.’ 

You have been vocal about minority rights and atrocities against them. What do you think, why is there so much hostility and increasing violence against religious and caste minorities? 

I think part of what’s happening is that there's vast religious polarisation. And this polarisation is part of the fundamentalist right-wing BJP and RSS regime. They want this, the othering of Muslims, the othering of minorities. Because this is one way for them to consolidate Hindu vote banks but some of it is because ideologically that's where they're headed. Though this is a regular left argument, it really deflects them from the serious economic crisis that we are witnessing in the country. At this point, we have a record-breaking unemployment level, growth rates are dropping and so many serious things are happening. 

So, this kind of hate allows for a certain deflection from what do they do with the number of unemployed people? They're not taking to the streets against the government, demanding rights but instead they're taking to the streets and becoming part of mob-violence. 

Despite increasing caste-based atrocities, how has the current establishment still managed to use caste for their vote bank? 

I think that there is something very intrinsic to Hindutva, which is the consolidation of caste identities. And this is a very interesting process because what they want to do is they want to consolidate everyone as Hindus but on the other hand, they want to sharpen the caste divide among the intersectional groups of Hindus. So they want all the others to identify themselves as all—all Naidus as Naidus, all Chettiars as Chettiars etc. So, the caste structure becomes stronger and stronger. And at the same time, they broadly identify as Hindus.

This idea of Hindu as an identity that transcends caste as an identity that ‘I am just a Hindu, I do care about the caste, but that (the issues related to it) doesn't exist in my vocabulary or society.’

Because it's only through these consolidation and strengthening of caste and the casteist mindset that they're able to engineer hate, they're able to keep the system in place, because once you consolidate caste, they also become easily tappable vote banks. 

India has been downgraded from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ in the US-based Freedom House's annual report Democracy under Siege and the human rights situation is also deteriorating in the country. Your comments?

India has very poor ranks on so many indices. There's also a Reporters Without Borders ranking that talks about how India’s fallen many places (150 from 136 over five years). The situation is that it’s not just ranks [in which India is getting] downgraded. Also, who owns the media? So, there's so much privatisation of media, as well as a single owner (she would not say who) controlling literally vast sections of media.

And it’s also because there is so much dependence on the government for finances, and, so, a lot of newspapers and media outlets are afraid of going all out against the government.  

Then there's all these cases being filed against journalists and independent news media portals. And it’s being done to frighten them. Amnesty India closed down. The attacks on People’s Watch in Tamil Nadu. Last week, there was even a raid on the Centre for Policy Research and Oxfam India. 

Many human rights organisations are in such vulnerable conditions because most of these organisations are NGOs. And as NGOs, they have to survive on voluntary funding. There's no state funding. You cannot raise these funds on the ground itself so they're dependent on funding from western democracies and then this kind of crackdown just makes them unable to function. So, they become reliant on corporate social responsibility funds, (CSR), but then CSR funding is not going to go to any of them because again, companies are also fighting, they wouldn't want to face the ruling regime. So, it's such a tough situation to be in.

How difficult is it to be a (female) writer in today's India? What are the challenges that you personally go through? 

I think that all writers who are not allied with Hindutva today are facing the heat. It is just that when you happen to be a woman writer these attacks get very personal. They have a template: they attack your looks, they attack your character, they attack your personal life, they threaten and your children with rape and death.

Also, when you realise how this system of oppression and gagging works, you realise that for a repressive regime to silence writers, they don’t have to silence everyone. If they target and imprison a critical layer, a very visible/powerful handful of dissident voices, it sends the rest of the country into silence. 

For example, the most fierce intellectuals have been picked up whether it's Anand Teltumbe, Varavara Rao or Hany Babu. Not many people talk about Hany Babu, but he was very instrumental in fighting for reservation and social justice politics. He's very different from the rest of prisoners because they are kind of left oriented but Hany Babu was quite vocal about social justice for it takes courage to fight for reservation policy in universities and all of this.

So, once you pick up all of these key voices, it often silences everyone because you see the professor of your university was just put in prison. So a lot of the academics start thinking, should I be opening my mouth next time. It's a kind of shock tactic. Because you just realise what can I do? Should I be able to speak when someone as famous as that, as important as that is in jail? All these people are being used to serve as examples, to silence others.

They don't have to arrest all of them. They just have to arrest the ‘critical mass’ of them [population] to make the others go into a kind of silence [that sends the message], let's not risk it because this is the consequence. They make an example out of these people.

Also the arrest of Rona Wilson, which I always think is a really peculiar case because this guy was running a committee to release political prisoners and then he himself became a political prisoner. So, the thing is then who is going to remain and run an organisation. Talking about the right political business, you speak and then you're joined in the jail. It's a really vicious circle. 

I'm a young mother. And I speak out about all of this, but at the same time, I'm also a human being, I have two little children. Who's going to take care of my two preschoolers if something happens to me? 

So, all these people also have this kind of compulsion because at this point it's not like if somebody objects to a viewpoint, they're just going to write another article. If the State objects to a viewpoint, it's not like somebody's going to sit down and explain why we do what we do. It's not a place where some discourse is happening. It's a place where people are just having cases filed against them, getting charged with draconian laws, framed by the establishment and picked up. 

(Jyoti Thakur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.  Hanan Zaffar is a reporter based in South Asia. He has reported for, among others, VICE, Al Jazeera, DW News, Newsweek.)