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Freedom of Speech

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Recently, police of the Odisha government, headed by chief minister Naveen Patnaik, arrested my friend Abhijit Iyer Mitra, a leading defence and foreign policy analyst in India. Apart from working at a reputed think-tank in New Delhi, he has been a prolific writer and commentator, both in Indian print and television media.  His social media profile and dozens of short videos attest to his proclivity for satire, sarcasm, slapstick humor and unconventional contrarianism. He has also been open about his homosexuality way before India decriminalized gay sex.

Now, why was he arrested? His crime: He cracked a joke.

What was the joke?

During a visit to the famous Sun Temple at Konark, Bhubaneswar, he made a short video, as usual, to satirize on the glaring contradictions of human societies. The comic video alluded to the sexual nature of the sculptures in the entire temple premises.

Along with the video, he posted a series of tweets describing the various facets of Odisha state, extolling not just the architectural and structural brilliance of the temple, but its landscape, people and cuisine too.

The idea behind the satire in the video was to critique the Hindu prudes and conservatives who are in denial of India’s historical celebration of diversity, freedom and openness. It was also a dig at conservative and communal Hindus who blame everything on Muslims.

Being a homosexual himself, and thus painfully aware of the manner in which orthodoxies seek to exercise control over the sexual mores of society, Iyer has always stood for the notion of plurality and for confronting the truth with regard to the diverse range of sexual practices prevalent in all cultures. 

Just days ago on social media, he had challenged the communal notion of Hindu Right wingers on bestiality. Iyer had urged them not to demonize Muslims for bestiality since it was not specific to Muslims. He had posted photographs of sculptures at Khajuraho and Barsur to establish that it is common across cultures.

But Odisha police chose to persecute Iyer because it suits the politics of the state. The politicians and legislators of the ruling party of Odisha state came to the streets, burning his effigies, chest thumping “hurt religious sentiments” and even went on to bring a privilege motion against him in the state legislative assembly. As a result, frenzied mobs, both on the roads and on social media began threatening to kill Iyer.

The Odisha police arrested Iyer under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections, 295A and 153A, which criminalize any speech or expression that can hurt religious sentiments and disturb communal harmony. Though he was granted a brief transit bail by a local court, India’s Supreme Court has declined to free Iyer citing incitement to religious sentiments. It is critical to note here that there have been no communal clashes or violence other than the one threatened against Iyer.

This censorship and gagging of people in India has been a common phenomenon. Law has always been abused/misused by political parties and politicians to silence their opponents and pander to their respective conservative constituencies and vote banks. Hence, there is almost no movement by any political or civil society group against the draconian archaic laws such as IPC 295A and 153A.

If you are a conscientious member of civil society or a believer in the ideas of democracy, liberty and the right to freedom of speech and expression, please come forward to sign this petition demanding Abhijit Iyer’s release and an end to the politically motivated witch-hunt against him.   

In Support of the Appeal

1.  Aarti Tikoo Singh (Journalist)

2.  Dilip Simeon (Historian)

3.  Mohan Guruswamy (Journalist)

4.  Prof. Happymon Jacob (Academic)

5.  Francesca Marino (Journalist)

6.  Desiree Klain (Journalist)

7.  Tarek Fatah (Writer & Activist)

8.  Chitra Subramaniam (Journalist)

9.  Dr. Vikram Sampath (Historian)

10. Beniamino Natale (Journalist)

11. Sushant Sareen (Security policy analyst)

12. Aditya Raj Kaul (Journalist)

13. Abhijit Majumder (Journalist)

14. Gita Sahgal (Human Rights Advocate)

15. Ramachandra Guha (Historian)

16. Samir Saran (Academic)

17. Abhinav Prakash (Academic)

18. Stephen Evans (National Secular Society)

19. Anand Ranganathan (Scientist)

20. Manu Joseph (Journalist & Novelist)

21. Aakash Singh Rathore (Academic)

22. Nayantara Sahgal (Writer)

23. Rajdeep Sardesai (Journalist)

24. R Jagannathan (Journalist)

25. Arshia Malik (Writer)

26. Sualeh Keen (Writer)

27. Siddharth Vardarajan (Journalist)

28. Andy Heintz (Journalist)

29. Meredith Tax (Journalist)

30. Bob Churchill (International Humanist and Ethical Union)

31. Dr. Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan (Nuclear policy analyst)

32. Articolo 21 (Italian Association of journalists and writers to promote freedom of expression)

33. Imbavagliati (Journalism Festival)

34. Rupa Subramanya (Economist)

35. Dr. Vivek Deheja (Academic)

36. Mira Kamdar (Author)

37. Reuben Abraham (Scholar)

38. Sreemoy Talukdar (Columnist)

39. Anuraag Saxena (India Pride Project)

40. Nidhi Razdan (NDTV)