New Delhi: Renowned anti-communalism activist and human rights defender Teesta Setalvad was honoured with an empty chair at the 55th International Writers for Peace Committee Meeting in the Bled, Slovenia this week.
Setalvad has been a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 communal violence against Muslims in Gujarat. Over the last two decades, she has tenaciously assisted the riots’ victims in their fight for justice, while also attempting to expose the role of the then-chief minister Modi as well as of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s workers in either perpetrating or aiding the communal crimes.
She told the Telegraph that she is grateful for her work being recognised given the backlash she faces for it in India.
“It is a huge moment for us at the Citizens for Justice and Peace [an NGO she helps run], our teams and communities on (the) ground, especially given the fact that I have faced such constant targeting and slander by the most powerful,” she said.
PEN International, a global advocacy body for free speech that organised the event, recognised the chain of events which led to Setalvad’s recent and allegedly vindictive arrest by the Gujarat anti-terror police, and the subsequent bail given to her by an Indian court.
“On 25 June 2022, Gujarat anti-terror police detained Setalvad at her home in Mumbai, the capital of the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, on allegations of ‘criminal conspiracy’ and ‘forging evidence’ as part of her efforts to seek government accountability for the 2002 Gujarat Riots, a period of inter-communal violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of Indian citizens,” PEN International said according to the Telegraph.
“Just one day before Setalvad’s detention, on 24 June the Supreme Court rejected a plea submitted by Setalvad and co-petitioner Zakia Jafri, whose husband, the former parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri, was killed during the riots … The plea sought to reopen an investigation into the potential involvement of local government officials in the violence,” PEN’s citation went on to say.
PEN International has had a tradition of honouring imprisoned and missing writers with empty chairs at its events. It has also honoured those writers who have been restricted from travelling. Setalvad too has had to surrender her passport as a bail condition in the case in which she was arrested in 2022, the Telegraph‘s report said.
The report added that the book PEN International: An Illustrated History says that the system of awarding an empty chair to such writers was first ideated by renowned novelist and writer Salman Rushdie, who was himself subjected to multiple attacks.
“The ceremony of the empty chair was started by English PEN and Canadian PEN and soon thereafter became a tradition after Salman Rushdie, as the keynote speaker in Barcelona at the 2004 Writers in Prison Conference, presented the empty chair.”
“Today, hundreds of PEN meetings across the globe are chaired by imprisoned writers. The Swedish Academy used the ceremony of the empty chair when the writer Liu Xiaobo, leader of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” the book says.
Among the Indians who also were also honoured with an empty chair are Telugu litterateur P. Varavara Rao and Delhi University academic Hany Babu M.T., both accused in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links terror case.
Apart from Setalvad, Ales Bialiatski (Belarus), Galal el-Behairy (Egypt), Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes (Eritrea), Jose Ruben Zamora (Guatemala), Volodymyr Vakulenko (Ukraine), and Julian Assange (Australia) who is in jail in the UK were also similarly honoured.