March 17, 2010
English PEN is seriously concerned about the charges facing Mumbai-based writer Murzban Shroff for his debut book Breathless in Bombay. We believe that the charges brought against Shroff may be politically motivated, and fear for his freedom and his safety.
According to our information, Shroff was charged in February 2009 under Section 153 (b) of the Indian Penal Code for allegedly making statements prejudicial to national integration in the book Breathless in Bombay. The charge carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. The complaint was brought by an activist who objected to certain dialogues including the word 'ghati' in 'This House of Mine', one of fourteen stories in the collection. The term 'ghati', meaning 'hilly billy', is a derogatory term for Maharashtrians and is used by one of the characters in the story. The complainant alleges that the term was used intentionally to create communal disharmony and incite feelings of enmity, hatred, and ill will. The complaint was filed in the Metropolitan Court which directed the police to file a first investigation report and investigate the matter. Shroff maintains that the book explores the issues of class divide and class biases, and that the views of the fictional character that uses the word are not representative of those of the author. The complaint was brought a year after the book was published, and there has been no evidence of unrest. Shroff and his family were provided with police protection in April 2009, following fears that publicity surrounding the case could lead to a politically-motivated attack.
On 18 September 2009, when Shroff petitioned the Bombay High Court to quash the order of the Metropolitan Court, the judge held that Shroff was 'an author not a trouble-maker' and that no coercive action was to be taken against him. On 23 September 2009 the police submitted a report to the Metropolitan Court stating that their investigation of the case found that the story had a unifying and not a divisive message, and recommending that the charges be dropped. On 20 January 2010 the case was dismissed by the Bombay High Court. However, on 30 January 2010, the complainant presented a protest petition to the Metropolitan Court, before the same magistrate who had originally admitted the complaint, alleging that the police investigation was biased and that it should be investigated by another branch of the police. The magistrate has accepted the appeal and ordered a fresh investigation into the matter. Shroff has once again had to approach the Bombay High Court, who are expected to hear the case on 19 March 2010.
Meanwhile, a second complaint was lodged against Shroff in Kodaikanal, South India, on 21 November 2009 under articles 292 and 293 of the Indian Penal Code for another story, 'Traffic', in the same book, which the complainant alleged to be 'obscene.' This charge is also believed to be without foundation. Shroff has approached the Madurai High Court in South India to quash this order, and it is also expected to hear the case on 19 March 2010.
English PEN urges the Indian authorities in the strongest possible terms to uphold their constitution and the international treaties to which they are a state party by ensuring that all criminal cases against writer Murzban Shroff are dropped, and that he is given police protection as a matter of urgency.
Breathless in Bombay is a collection of short stories published in February 2008 by St. Martin's Press U.S. and Picador India. The book has been favourably reviewed by forums such as Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, Booklist, and the BBC Asian Network. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the best first book category from Europe and South Asia. A recent review by a premier American university held the book to be "a dialectic of nation-building."
Please send appeals:
- Expressing serious concern that the charges against writer Murzban Shroff are politically motivated, and could present a threat to his safety;
- Urging the Indian authorities in the strongest possible terms to uphold their constitution and the international treaties to which they are a state party by ensuring that all criminal cases against writer Murzban Shroff are dropped.
Send appeals to:
Dr. Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister of India
If possible please also copy your appeal to:
Rahul Gandhi, General Secretary, All-India Congress
Shri M. Veerapa Moily, Honorable Minister of Law
No 3, Tughlak Lane, New Delhi 110011
Ashok Chavan, Honorable Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Mantralaya.
Shri K.G. Balakrishnan, Honorable Chief Justice of India
Supreme Court of India, Tilak Marg, New Delhi 110 001.
You may also wish to send copies of your appeal to the Indian Embassy in London:
H.E Mr Nalin Surie