The Writers and Free Expression project explores the role writers play in defending free expression in today’s globally interconnected world. Focusing on writers organisations, most significantly International PEN, the project considers the history of writers’ activism since 1921 and the current challenges writers face in defending free expression. The project brings together scholars, writers and activists with particular expertise in three geo-political areas, the UK, South Africa and India, to investigate these questions in their international dimensions.
In an interview with Laetitia Zecchini, writer and journalist Salil Tripathi says that he always felt passionate about free expression…
He traces this back to his parents, who he says never put any constraints on his reading, except to occasionally suggest that he wait until he was older to read certain volumes.
‘So I always felt that if people want to write, they should be able to write.
‘It’s also very simple and very self-evident that if you don’t like something, don’t read it, don’t buy it, shut the book, or campaign against it, lobby against it, write a counterargument.
‘All those options are available. From a very young age in fact I used to collect books that were banned.’
Fittingly, Tripathi is now chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, which campaigns for those imprisoned because of their writing.
For him the most important thing is to keep bringing these cases to the attention of the public and of the government:
‘At PEN, we have this idea of the empty chair: every time we have an event, we have an empty chair, and we talk about all these writers who are forgotten, as it were and who we must remember.
‘The challenge is that we have to make sure that they remain in the limelight.’
He discusses this role as well as Salman Rushdie, Liu Xiaobo and the future of PEN in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
I should begin by pointing out that a mere four months is by no means enough time to get through PEN’s enormous archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
In order to approach the archive, I had to work closely with Professor Rachel Potter, the PI on the project, to ascertain precisely the best way to tackle the archival holdings which comprise hundreds of archive boxes.
These boxes hold not only committee and meeting minutes but also financial records, personal and organisational letters between figures from H.G. Wells to Glenda Jackson, Salman Rushdie to George Bernard Shaw and countless other items of ephemera from theatre programmes to menus from PEN dinners.
We decided to concentrate primarily on working through the meeting minutes, year by year, which would guide us outward to other documents whilst making sure that we still viewed events within their historical context and in chronological order.
This would help to track the development of discussions around free expression but also the growth and influence of the organisation as a whole.
As Rachel had already made inroads into the earlier part of the archive, my job was to begin in 1951 with the congress in Lausanne, Switzerland.
This method allowed me to watch the history of the second half of the twentieth century unfurl through PEN, observing how its members, their debates and opinions echoed the debates taking place internationally.
I began then, with the aftermath of World War Two, with PEN dealing with UNESCO to address the ongoing paper shortage on a practical level.
On a political level, meetings at this time were also preoccupied with the difficulties of dealing with the re-establishment of Centres in formerly fascist countries and with extending membership to writers who had either sympathised with or who had not actively condemned the actions of fascist governments.
Clearly, for countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France, it was unconscionable to allow collaborators back into PEN and this raised a number of thorny issues around PEN’s commitment to stand above politics and national sympathies.
There followed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, significant clashes between Communist and Western centres, each citing PEN’s commitment to political impartiality, whilst trying to uphold PEN’s commitment to defend free speech, and to prevent the writer from becoming part of the apparatus of the State.
As a clipping from The Times discussing PEN’s 1959 Congress explains: ‘‘Behind a façade of unity there lies a deep rift among members of the club about the attitude the club should take toward the Cold War. This has resulted in a policy of “neutrality” and “coexistence”, to which the directors have given a distinct fellow-travelling tinge’ (The Times, 24 March 1959).
This attitude changes markedly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which often see PEN taking a harder line with countries such as Russia and Hungary, who were persecuting writers who could be seen as subversive or critical of the Communist state.
PEN remained engaged in these debates until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the admittance of a mainland China Centre in 1980 and a Russian Centre in 1989.
Beyond the machinations of the Cold War, PEN addressed many other key issues of the times, speaking out about the use of atomic weapons, critiquing the Communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism in the US and even fighting Apartheid in South Africa.
It was also at the forefront of campaigning for writers’ freedom for almost a century, playing a key role in the cases of Boris Pasternak, Salman Rushdie and Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many hundreds of others.
There was even a spirited discussing in the 1990s about whether Nelson Mandela qualified as a writer and therefore could legitimately be given PEN’s support, unfortunately it was decided that this was something of a stretch and the organisation should concentrate their activities elsewhere. They remained vocal supporters of Mandela however, despite not themselves undertaking direct action to secure his release.
The incredible historical value of this archive has now been properly recognised and it is being fully-catalogued and, in places, digitised which we hope will help other researchers to tease out other areas of the archive.
I had no time, for example, to look at the records relating to individual national Centres housed at the HRC (as well as in PEN Centres and former Centres across the world), or to investigate fully PEN’s activities with, for example, queer activism, feminism or postcolonialism.
There is much work currently being undertaken – as you can see from our growing research network – and much, much more still to be done.
The next stop for me and the rest of the team is the PEN Archive at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa.
Do you work on any aspect of PEN’s work, on freedom of expression or on another writers organisation? Do get in touch.
If you would like to write a blog for our website about any of the topics discussed in this post, do get in touch.
Laetitia Zecchini interviews Githa Hariharan.
Githa Hariharan is a writer, editor and activist. She was born in Coimbatore, South India, grew up in Bombay and in Manila, and currently lives and works in New Delhi. Her first novel The Thousand Faces of Night won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book in 1993. Her other novels include The Ghosts of Vasu Master (1994), When Dreams Travel (1999), In Times of Siege (2003), and Fugitive Stories (2009). She has edited the essay collection From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (2014), and recently published a collection of her own essays, Almost Home: Cities and Other Places (2016).
In 2015, with poet K. Satchidanandan, historian Romila Thapar and Indira Jaising, an advocate of the Supreme Court of India, she co-founded the Indian Writers’ Forum that describes itself as a “platform for cultural politics”. The interview below was conducted by email and on Skype in June 2017.
Laetitia Zecchini (LZ): I thought that we could begin by a very general question on the ways by which your work as a writer and essayist, as an editor and as an activist (but perhaps you wouldn’t use that term?) coexist and may be interdependent. And I was wondering if you could date the beginning of your political involvement or your concern with issues pertaining to free speech?
Githa Hariharan (GH): It is difficult to separate the strands that make up a life – to identify where the writer (and reader) begin and end, or where the citizen, or the socially and politically engaged person. I imagine the concerns of each of these personas informs and leaks into the other, in ways I need not be self-conscious about. My “political involvement” began with what was closest to me as a very young woman – the question of women’s equality with men. As I learnt more about the world, especially the country I live in, I understood that equality for any one constituency is linked with that of other constituencies. So the women’s movement naturally builds (or should build) alliances with, say, caste movements or anti-communalism movements. As for free speech: it’s one of those basics, the sort of thing you assume, like air and water. It’s only when it’s being taken away from you, or from people around you, that you start asking questions about it. You can hardly be anything, do anything, if you don’t have at least a subsistence level of free speech, and if you don’t continuously aspire toward more of it.
But right away, I want to say that this phrase “free speech” is a bit like its relative, “freedom”. We can and should describe this right which builds on our need to speak what we think, to engage in discussion and debate with ourselves and with others. This is a necessary philosophical aspect, our going back again and again to this ability which makes us human – thinking thoughts not always acceptable to someone else, speaking it or writing it, painting or singing it, or just using it to make a choice of living a particular way. The other aspect is how this cluster of descriptions plays out in real life, in an organised collective with power structures, multiple voices, and a specific political and legal framework. I do want to emphasise that “free speech” is not something of concern only to writers and readers.
LZ: You’ve repeatedly talked about being under “siege” as a writer in India today, and it is hardly – if at all – metaphorical. Can you describe what you mean, and how would you define the cultural, literary and political climate that you and other Indian writers live in today?
GH: I wish siege were more metaphorical. In fact, the metaphor is a shockingly real – or surreal – thing standing before us like a solid wall, and this is true of far too many places in the world. What does this siege look like in India? I would not separate cultural and political. In India, the establishment loves it if culture can be reduced to what they can control, a soft, “feminine” sort of thing – a kind of on-going festival of incredible India with colourful costumes, entertaining exotica. We need to make it clear that culture is not just this sponsored exhibition of cultural practice; it is not just “high culture”; but a dynamic range of transacting, colluding, colliding ways of life. Such a view allows us to include multiple languages, multiple locations, choice of religion or no religion. What we eat, how we dress, the historical figures we admire or critique – everything is a part of the culture and sub-cultures we live. It may seem I am repeating the obvious. But we need to do this, because we cannot debate free speech in depth today in India without taking on questions about the conditions necessary in a diverse country, to live the various possibilities of free speech. This is why free speech gets reduced into fragments, such as bans on books and films. It’s actually much more.
The cultural climate in India at the moment: it’s bad news. And the list is very long, we are spoilt for choice, which is why I can only highlight a few aspects. First and most obvious is the violence that has become a part of “culture”. There’s the language of discourse – threats to beat up or gang-rape or kill anyone who you disagree with. There’s the lynching of someone who you suspect ate beef or someone who is transporting cows. (The most recent lynching, of a boy called Junaid travelling on a train, has not even had this alleged excuse.) There’s the violence against Dalits because they speak up against ongoing discrimination, and the dehumanising things they have always been forced to do, such as manual scavenging. There’s the increasing violence against women – it’s always been there, against women of certain castes and communities – but now the net has been spread to include even the relatively privileged. And, of course, there’s the violence against entire regions, peoples, in highly militarised places, Kashmir, the Northeast and Chhattisgarh for example, and this violence is given a semblance of the workings of law and order, the armed forces keeping peace and so on.
I list these which do not seem obviously like cultural territory, because they are. This is what provides the context for the practice of an ideology that is afraid of a writer, a book, a film, a painting. It’s not just “intolerance”; it’s a kind of cultural civil war. For the rightwing “cultural” organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its range of offspring, diversity is a problem. If you want to homogenise a place like India, where else would you begin your war but in the cultural space? So you divide tasks among government bodies, semi-autonomous bodies, the army and police, the media and, of course, multiple “armies” of real life and virtual hoodlums. Let’s take one small strand: writing. Writers are killed for their views (Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare), for their questions (M.M. Kalburgi). Writers have been hounded by rightwing goons for their imagination (Perumal Murugan), for their language (Urdu writers), or for their critique of the state (Arundhati Roy). Colleges and universities are regimented so that students and teachers cannot use these spaces as they must, if debate and speculation, education, reading and writing, culture itself, are to happen. And I am only citing the most obvious examples; many of us have written about and spoken about other examples; and still there must be any number we don’t even know about.
As for painting, making films or music: the censorship ranges from the official to the unofficial – that is, intimidation by a few goons. It ranges from the ban of a book, or the hounding of a writer, to some truly bizarre forms. An artist who was making a point about cows eating plastic got into trouble in the Jaipur Art Fair because he had a cow, made of fibreglass, I think, floating in the air. The chair of the Film Certification Board insisted that the word “balls” had to be replaced with the word “cats”, and that the kisses he found too long in a James Bond film should be shortened. A film on the effects of demonetisation on people’s lives got into trouble. The most recent instance is that a filmmaker who has made a film on Nobel Prizewinning economist Amartya Sen has been asked to beep out words such as “cow”, “Gujarat” and “Hindutva”. In addition to this censorship by official bodies, censorship increasingly happens on the street, in art galleries, in educational spaces, or on the film sets even before a film is made. Someone or the other, some group or the other, claims “hurt sentiment”. There’s intimidation, violence; and the current establishment either offers support, or looks the other way.
LZ: In 1995 you challenged the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act as discriminatory against women, and the case (Githa Hariharan and Another vs. Reserve Bank of India and Another) led to a Supreme Court judgment in 1999 on guardianship. So you have the experience not only of going to court but also of winning in court. Now, the judicial in India has played an ambivalent role in matters pertaining to free speech, at times ‘asphyxiating’ art and literature and acting as an ally of censorship rather than in defence of writers, artists, academics, etc. I wonder if you’d like to talk to us about that early struggle; what your experience of dealing with the law in the late 90s taught you and if it helps you in any way today in resisting these threats to free speech.
GH: I don’t want, for a minute, to make out that my case on guardianship was more than a small step, though I am deeply grateful to the lawyers who fought it on my behalf. Judicial activism is one important tool in any good fight. But it is that – just one tool, and usually available only to a certain class, and usually difficult to implement.
You have made a good point about what happens if you expect the courts to sort out all matters of free speech. Good judgements are important, of course. We were delighted when the court insisted that the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan had the right to write and publish a work that involves imagination, and that people who were “offended” by it need not read it. We also need judicial activism to get rid of deadweight that could come back to life in monstrous forms. There are laws that apparently dead, or unused, that can raise their heads anytime as censors. In Maharashtra for instance, a play has to be checked and approved before it is staged for the public. A friend in theatre tells me these restrictions can be worked around most of the time; but there is no guarantee that it will not suddenly be used because the authorities want to censor a play or a film or a song. Or take 377 for instance, which criminalizes what they call ‘un-natural sex’, which also means that anal sex between a male and a female would be criminal. You could say that it’s rarely used. And of course, it’s highly unlikely that somebody would find out, produce evidence, etc. But there are always those exceptional cases. And you’ve got groups, which spring up overnight to intimidate individuals. Actually there was a professor at Aligarh Muslim University who was victimized in exactly that way with a video tape, and this man’s life was destroyed.
But while it is important to make the court an ally, limiting the struggle to the court means limiting the battlefield. The full-strength battle – for free speech, freedom to dissent, and to ensure citizens’ rights — has to be waged in every possible setting, whether courts, classrooms, media, diverse forms of cultural practice; and within different movements such as caste, anti-communal or women’s struggles. Another aspect of the fight is finding ways to support beleaguered individuals or groups as they live through the experience of intimidation-censorship-fear-isolation.
LZ: As a follow up to the above question, how do you put pressure on decision makers to change the law? In February 2014, Penguin India released a statement on its decision to recall copies of Wendy Doniger’s book saying that Section 295A of the IPC ‘will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.’ During the same period, a petition signed by many Indian and non-Indian academics asked for the revision of sections 153 (A) and 295 (A) of the IPC. Do you think this will ever succeed, and if it does, that this will make a difference?
GH: I am not a lawyer, but my own opinion is that publishers, especially large publishers who can certainly afford a legal fight, should not be cowed down so easily. They are as implicated in the struggle for free speech as writers and readers are. While we let our legal friends take on aspects of the law, and support them with “civil society pressure” of our own, we can also find ways to make sure these books are available through alternate means. The Internet, despite its use for hate speech and venom, can also be a great friend to those who believe in free speech. It seems to me that the real but challenging task for those of us who are not directly part of the legal system is to take these matters to public space, discuss and debate them, and make some difference in public opinion.
LZ: But do you think that changing the law is part of the solution? I am thinking also of the repealing of Section 66A which criminalised offensive online speech…
GH. Yes, of course, judicial activism can help though it is just one strategy. But we all know that a kind of “informal” censorship is always done in a much more complex and subtle way. The state doesn’t have to censor any more. You see, strictly speaking, you can change the law all you like, but how much of a difference is it going to make unless there is an ethos of freedom that allows a good law to function, and a not-so-good law to be challenged by any citizen?
What do I mean by this ethos of freedom? We are, at present, living with a government that has brought back an irrelevant colonial law: sedition. From students to writers to someone who makes a stray (but sensible) comment that “Pakistan is not hell”, anyone today can be called seditious, and it goes beyond name-calling. The lawyers who are part of different battles will and must continue to fight and unravel some of the more vexed issues of necessary changes in the law, as well as getting rid of laws that are, clearly, against the rights and interests of citizens in a diverse, secular democracy. But a mob is not going to be stopped by a change of the law. And another thing is the danger of a democracy relying entirely on the court, like a nanny telling us what to do. This is actually what I felt with my guardianship case. Ok, so they said that a mother can also be a guardian of the child she bore! I mean, do I really need the Supreme Court of India to tell me that I am a natural guardian of my children?
LZ: Although of course other people after you will be able to use and seize on that law …
GH: Yes, this is exactly why I went through the whole thing. I have had any number of women writing to me, saying that they are using this judgement as a precedent. Of course, we need to move far ahead on the same progressive road, in terms of the law, even in terms of language. In 2015, for example, the Supreme Court said an “unwed mother” can be the sole natural guardian.
LZ: The difficulty of the situation is also the arbitrariness of it all. The arbitrariness of these laws that can be resurrected, the arbitrariness of those who fall victim to such laws or such groups. And I come back to what you said earlier, which is that every one, today is under threat…
GH: Yes, and as a matter of fact, in those situations, you have to appeal to the State. Actually, you have two situations when state intervention is necessary. One is in instances of ‘hate speech’ which incites violence. I know there are difficulties with defining hate speech, but it’s important to account for it, and to place the onus on the state to react to it. The irony of course is that how do you expect a government that is ideologically in the same camp as many hate-speakers to fulfil this function? You have any number of examples of hate speech in India today, and from all quarters. In fact, hate speech from one “side” helps breed hate speech from the “other side”. I want to single out hate speech from people in positions of authority, or from those with ideological proximity to the powers that be. It has become routine to use hate speech in the run up to an election. The electorate is duly “polarised” – a divisive situation is created when minorities, or people of certain castes, feel threatened. Often this threat can be linked with actual violence – anyone with common sense can see the link between the threats and the incitement to hatred, with actual violence. Gujarat provides examples. So does Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India. There are pending accusations of hate speech – speech that incites violence — involving the powerful in India today, for instance the present Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. In a recent example, a self-sanctioned ‘godwoman’ who had her SUV blessed by cow urine went on stage in Goa and said ‘beef-eaters should be killed’. A month later, that’s exactly the excuse that was used to kill citizens.
LZ: 2015 seems to have been a turning point, a brutal reminder of the extreme vulnerability of cultural practitioners in India. Was the murder of the three influential writers, rationalists and activists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M. M. Kalburgi, the catalyst which led you and others to found the Indian Writers’ Forum? Could you tell us a bit more about that initiative, the history of the forum, your motivations, and its aims?
GH: We have experienced other turning points. But yes, 2015 seems especially sharp, because it harnessed revulsion against a range of developments, from the general suppression of voices, say of students in numerous institutions, to specific incidents which became symbolic of how the rightwing was, to use writer Nayantara Sahgal’s words, “unmaking” India, and at a rapid pace. There have always been cultural groups working hard to keep writers and other cultural practitioners in touch with each other, and in touch with those who partake of our work. At some points in time, we need to re-link or network afresh, so that no writer or artist feels isolated, or intimidated, or is forced into self-censorship. In 2014, some of us, writers, academics, artists and activists, began talking to each other about how to “regroup”. In addition to the murders of Dabholkar, who was fighting against superstition, of Pansare who was also involved in fighting superstition and divisions based on caste, and of the scholar M.M. Kalburgi, there was the horrific lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq for “eating beef”.
We formed a writers’ forum, which grew, as we got a response, not only from writers and academics, but also from artists, filmmakers, musicians. We set up a site as a loosely knit cultural forum, a platform where everyone, the individuals and groups already working on the ground, as well as newer groups, could discuss, debate and understand how we should express our protest against what is being done to our cultural spaces. I use the term cultural spaces in a wide sense here, to include education, daily cultural practice by a variety of people, as well as cultural artefacts. We decided that everyone would be welcome in our forum, except those who kill or threaten people they disagree with, or those who tell people what to eat, how to dress, how certain castes or communities or tribes or women should behave, what to think and feel. In fact, our overall objective is to build as broad a front as possible, from Gandhians to the various shades of the left, so that we can insist on free speech and other rights of Indians, at the very least as defined by the Constitution. To this end, we work with many groups, from small radical publishers in Indian languages, to theatre groups to Dalit/ Adivasi groups.
A week after we launched our two sites, the Indian Cultural Forum and Guftugu, there was an extraordinary moment in the recent cultural history of India. Academics, artists, filmmakers and scientists, all “led” in a sense by writers, returned their state awards as a mark of protest against a citizen being lynched for what he is supposed to have eaten, and against a fatal “censorship” of activists and a scholar. The establishment brought out their big guns: these accused the protesting writers of having been paid to return their awards; or they called it “manufactured dissent”. Two years later, the battle rages on. That 2015 moment is there as a memory to teach us how we, people sitting alone somewhere, writing or painting or whatever, can be a vital part of a public debate or protest.
LZ: 2015 was also the year when the Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, was forced to announce his “literary death” after weeks of harassment and intimidation. And I told you how much I enjoyed the interview you did on ICF where you talk about the case as being a ‘parable of the times’. http://indianculturalforum.in/2016/07/10/perumal-murugan-a-parable-of-our-times/ I was really struck by that case as well because there is this intimate dissociation or splitting up between Perumal Murugan the writer and Perumal Murugan the individual. On Facebook he even calls the two identities differently: “This is P. Murugan writing for the person called Perumal Murugan. Writer Perumal Murugan is dead”. The writer Perumal Murugan has to be killed in order for ‘the lowly teacher P. Murugan” to live. So the writer was killed, but then, as you suggested, he was also resurrected by the law, right, after the July 2016 High court ruling?
GH: We are grateful that Perumal Murugan feels he can write again after the High Court judgement. In fact, he says that in a strange way, the situation has released a poet in him he didn’t know existed. We are given hope by this resilience every writer should search for in dark times; by the tremendous solidarity writers and readers showed Murugan, regardless of whether they had read or admired the novel or not. That is how it should be: a work cannot be censored or its author intimidated because you don’t like it! The High Court judgement uses, correctly, the familiar quotation from Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it.” So, as I said earlier, the court should be a place that one never gives up on. But remember that for every good judgement, there may be ambiguous or bad judgements. I also want to add that the fact that a writer has to be hauled into court to win the right to imagine, speculate and write, is symptomatic of how diseased the situation is…
LZ: Going back to the setting up of the ICF and to the movement of writers returning their Sahitya Akademi awards one after the other. Was the Indian Writers’ Forum also created to fill the void of institutions like the Sahitya Akademi? I mean you couldn’t count on these institutions anymore, either to protect you, represent you or defend your rights. On Guftugu you also write that you, as writers, now had to fight for yourselves…
GH: The return of awards was in response to a range of things, but perhaps the precipitating factor was Kalburgi’s murder. Here was a scholar and a translator, somebody who had been a Sahitya Akademi fellow and winner, being murdered, and the Akademi preferred to pretend it was business as usual. Now these autonomous councils for literature, for the arts, for history or for social sciences, were created for a particular reason. They were part of the vision for an independent nation; you could call it the Nehruvian vision. This vision recognised that institutions need to be built, to thrive, and to be as dynamic as the culture they represent and are part of. They were to be state-funded (because who else should be the patron of knowledge in a newly-independent nation but the state?), but were actually to be run by the practitioners involved and for them.
All these decades later, these institutions are crumbling. The Sahitya Akademi, when asked in 2015 why it wasn’t speaking up about Kalburgi’s murder, actually said they ‘never take a political stand’! There was anger against the Akademi which was not doing what it had been mandated to do. We’ve reached a point where we don’t think much of these institutions as they have evolved — both in terms of their bureaucratic inefficiency or, possibly, corruption; and their servility to the prevailing ideology. But there is no question of our saying ‘wind it up’, because the purpose for which these institutions were set up is still valid, still relevant. These organisations run on our tax payers’ money. They are owned by the citizens, and we can’t give them up. But at the same time, we do have to criticize them. And frankly, I don’t know what the present government is going to do with them, because it has been changing the character of all our Councils and Akademis and such, in culture, education and science, in various ways, including replacing people who are qualified with those whose only qualification is that they are right-wing.
LZ: So what you say is that in the face of the apathy of institutions like the Sahitya Akademi which failed the writers entirely, you had to occupy a space that wasn’t occupied anymore, if ever…
I would go further than apathy. And we didn’t want to replace the Sahitya Akademi, because it’s not that we don’t need the institution. But its mandate has to be updated for the times, implemented in an imaginative way, and not be afraid of each government or the prevailing ideology. I must add that it is not just the Sahitya Akademi. The malaise, which has now become a full blown disease, can be found across the board, from the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) to the IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts). Recently the ICSSR (Indian Council of Social Science Research) got a new director who has come up with various gems in the media: that textbooks need to be “overhauled” because “they are creating activists”; subjects such as caste and communal conflicts should not be part of the curriculum; and that caste exists because of “foreign invasions”. Our concept of free speech has to constantly stretch itself to include the right to knowledge. Suppressing the freedom of writers and other cultural practitioners is one aspect of the problem. Another is the people’s right to knowledge. Misinformation, nonsense parading as a “patriotic” or “nationalist” idea, and clamping down on the freedom to examine any aspect of lived experience in the traditional spaces for knowledge, such as the school or the university, or research and writing: it is this combination that all intellectual enterprise has to fight against, from literature and history to science.
LZ: A connected question… I was struck by the way in which the different statements of Indian writers protesting the “unmaking of India” http://indianculturalforum.in/2017/06/28/writers-protest-the-unmaking-of-india/ following the recent and horrible lynching of a Muslim teenager, Junaid, were phrased on the Indian Cultural Forum, as for example, the responses of “the cultural fraternity” How important is it to foreground that “fraternity’ and to construct a unified community?
GH: Our objectives talk of fraternity and a unified community. It is both reality and ideal. But we are quite aware of how complex it is to live that. For example, in a country as large as India, in a country of such staggering diversity, it is hard for a lot of us writers to speak to each other. Recently I was in Dharwad to inaugurate an activist literary conference called the May festival, and just before I went on stage they asked me if I could speak in Kannada. The only ‘Kannada’ I know is a sort of half-baked ‘survival-Kannada’. I don’t even know how to say ‘nationalist’ or ‘fascist’ in the language, and I had to talk about both terms. I tried very hard to do a combination of Kannada and English in my talk, and people in the audience were generous and helped me out. But the point is that, even face-to-face, it can be hard for us to talk to each other, especially about nuance, or about matters that need debate. So yes, one of the things we were talking about from the beginning was how to bring such an array of languages together.
But it’s not just about languages and the specific cultures that grow around them. You also have the huge and perennial fault-line of caste, and again, it’s very complicated because caste intersects with class or gender. Also, there is a collective history and an individual history we have to acknowledge and get past, almost on a daily basis. Many of us who were born in upper caste or upper class or Hindu families, or indeed many men in general, have made rational choices as adults about equity. But they still have to identify and scoop out any residue of prejudice acquired in childhood. This is an ongoing requisite for all those with some degree of privilege on the basis of birth. And for those who have lived discrimination and violence in some form or the other because of birth in a particular community, they have to first assert their identity as a means to insist on dignity. But they also need to enlarge that somehow as a next step, enlarge narrow identity politics into a collaborative movement that has more power to bring about change.
There’s also the politics of language, especially in a postcolonial situation. Many of us who are middle class and might operate in certain languages seen as languages of power have to be wary of saying ‘let me articulate for you, but it’s really your voice’. But of course you must also speak for other people. So it’s a day-to-day balance for us all as both writers and activists. We have to learn, by trial and error almost, how to ensure that this platform gives voice to people who are not heard in some quarters otherwise. But we also have to learn ways to do that without becoming some kind of patrons or powerful interlocutors. This is an issue that all of us have always faced as writers, academics in the field, or as activists.
LZ: That brings me to a very concrete question, about the Trust. On the opening page of the “Indian Cultural Forum” the following words are written: “The Indian Writers Forum Trust has been set up to allow a range of for a – the Indian Cultural Forum site, public meetings, seminars, facebook feeds, and an e-journal of culture Guftugu – to discuss issues of concern to writers, educators, and cultural practitioners, and offer support to individuals in the cultural and academic fraternities”. I wonder if you could explain how the Trust works and how it’s organized, how these different fora work together, and also the concrete ways by which it offers support?
GH: You have to realize that in the larger scheme of things, this is still a very modest effort. It’s very important not to pretend that it’s bigger than it is. On the other hand, somewhat to our astonishment, we have fresh evidence every day of the value of what we are doing. So you feel a certain responsibility to keep it going, and make it stronger. We’ve got media outlets like The Wire, Scroll.in, Newsclick, Citizen etc, all of which do excellent work; we’ve got more activist media such as Sabrang and Round Table India, which also do excellent activist work, and many others. But clearly there is a need for our particular activist intervention, which looks at cultural politics, but also at artistic, literary and cultural practice, which, in its more elliptical and complicated way, poses questions very similar to what we are doing in the direct interventions in public space.
I would say we are still very much on a learning curve, partly because our resources are extremely limited and they are likely to remain so. We are never going to get funds from elsewhere, and at most we can get a tiny grant or two. But otherwise it’s very small donations from the public. This limits what we can do. But we do get donations in kind from friends who will say, “I’ll give you some hours and help you with your site”, or “I’ll give you some physical work space.”
You wanted some examples of working with other groups, in broader fora. Let me give you one recent example. In May, I went to Dharwad with one of my young colleagues of the Indian Cultural Forum. This was an extraordinary gathering, with everybody from farmers’ groups in Karnataka to young radical singing groups to dalit writers and critics. And of course Dharwad is an extremely interesting location. Other than the fact that Kalburgi was shot there, it’s also a border region, which, like all border regions, has an extremely rich cultural heritage. It’s also the place which has seen the growth of the group called the Sanathan Sanstha, which is allegedly involved in the murder of Dabholkar and Pansare.
In Dharwad, we got the chance to talk to and listen to a range of people, and on a range of subjects we are interested in. We are trying to understand, for example, what is happening to the field of education. You can’t talk about change, about freedom of expression, or freedom to live in dignity, without looking at what’s happening in our universities. So we need to look at what is happening in the field of education and the various levels of censorship going on in there. In Gujarat, for instance, doctoral candidates are being told what kind of thesis topic they should pick. One of our associates, the eminent sociologist Ghanshyam Shah, was not allowed to hold a seminar on caste in a university in Gujarat. Which is ridiculous — it’s like saying that you can’t hold a seminar on India!
Talking to different people and groups in Dharwad, listening to what they had to say, gave us good ideas about how we can set up regular links between what they do and what we do. The colleague with me wandered around with her notebook and her video camera talking to people there, whether they were writers, young activists, students, people from women movements or other groups, finding out what day-to-day work they do, what problems they encounter, what are the burning issues they face locally. There are so many issues or developments we don’t read about or hear about in the media. The media tends to make a rigid division between “regional” news and “national” news. So our going to places and starting a conversation means we get more relevant information, and also build a network, for information, campaign possibilities and strategies. It’s through these small efforts, block by block, that we build a broader alliance.
LZ: Coming back to the lynching of Junain and to the nation-wide protest and campaign “Not in my Name” that it triggered …
GH: Yes, last evening there was a public meeting in Delhi and many other Indian cities. http://indianculturalforum.in/2017/06/29/it-was-loud-and-clear-dont-kill-in-my-name/ It was an interesting lesson for us “oldies” who have been part of movements: here is another way to mobilise people. Using Facebook and Twitter and so forth, getting quite a mix of people in terms of age, political or no apparent political loyalties – just people, citizens, revolted by the fact that this boy Junaid and his brothers were attacked on a train, simply because they could be identified as Muslim because of their skullcaps or whatever. Nothing can be more horrific than this, and nothing can be more horrific than the fact that nobody in the train intervened.
At this juncture, it’s very clear that the ideology which we knew was dangerous even during the BJP’s first stint under Vajpayee, is now in the open. As you saw from the responses of the cultural fraternity, we are not just talking about writers’ rights or readers’ rights; we are talking of letting people live – basics, such as the right to life of an Indian citizen in the midst of what has become a low-grade cultural war.
LZ: I was really struck actually when reading your answers to some of my earlier questions at the extent to which you put this issue of free speech, of the right to write, of the violence inflicted to writers in context and in perspective. You insist that the writers’ struggle cannot be dissociated from other struggles. We are not just talking about the right of writers to speak or publish, but of the right of women to walk alone or go out at night, the right of Dalits to live in decent conditions, the right of Muslims to eat what they like, etc. which also explains why the issues raised on the Indian Cultural Forum are so varied …
GH: The issues seem varied, but you could link it all – using the Constitution; or using the principles of a functioning democracy; or the guidelines to secularism. Most of all, you could link it with equity and freedom as they must be practised in a very diverse setting.
LZ: One last question, as you know, our project focuses on writers’ organisations, most significantly but not exclusively International PEN, and its different national branches. Now, in India, the PEN Centre hasn’t really been at the forefront of free speech issues, but do you have any links with the PEN All-India PEN, or with the Delhi centre that was recently set up? Or are you and the ICF involved in any way with the one that is being founded in Bangalore? And what does the PEN represent for you?
GH: My first knowledge of PEN came from the time when I was very young, and the poet Nissim Ezekiel was part of PEN in what was then Bombay. ICF has not had any links with PEN, though of course individuals who are part of PEN in India, or internationally, are supportive of ICF. And in 2015, we had very good statements from PEN in support of the protesting writers in India. There was, for example, the statement of solidarity from the International PEN which we published on ICF; there was the letter written to the British Prime Minister before Narendra Modi’s visit. I think such solidarity meant a great deal to the writers protesting. Many writers spend their work lives in relative isolation, and every bit of support helps when they make that decision to enter public space and speak up.
Words of Justice Kaul in his landmark ruling over the ‘M.F. Husain affair’ in 2008.
We are currently advertising for two Postdoctoral Research Assistants to come and help us work on this fascinating project.
One will be exploring the workings of the PEN South Africa Centre and free expression in South Africa, working with Professor Peter Mcdonald.
The other post with be exploring the workings of All-India PEN, and other organisations campaigning for free expression in India, working with Dr Laetitia Zecchini.
For more information on the India post based at CNRS Paris see the Job Advert and apply direct to Dr Laetitia Zecchini.
In the second half of her interview with Professor Peter McDonald, PEN South Africa President Margie Orford discusses the limits of free expression, violence against women and why the PEN Charter is largely unchanged to this day…
For Margie Orford freedom of expression can be a very complex balance. Whilst describing the fourth article of the PEN Charter, which defends free expression and the ‘free transmission of ideas’, as the most important to her, Orford is very aware of the exploitation of these ideas in the world outside PEN.
She is very proud of PEN and South African PEN’s record and recent campaigns around free expression in South Africa.
In particular PEN’s activism challenging South Africa’s “Secrecy Bill”:‘[A]t the time I thought what can we do a little organisation of scribblers – that bill has never been passed.
‘It was part of a sustained and collected action of people with a lot of activism, there were people with more specialist organisations like us doing the kind of talking and writing stuff around it.’
‘It’s through that collective action and its through what we did, and it’s a collaboration between PEN America, PEN South Africa and PEN International.’
Yet she knows only too well that with speech comes responsibility.
She said: ‘What is harm? Yes, you have the right to free expression, how does one measure insult and hurt, within that? What is the purpose of it?’
In particular, she sees free speech used as something to attack women, in some circles: ‘The issues were a bit blurred until we have seen what’s happened in the U.S. with people like that Milo Yiannopoulos…these very far right [people]. [This is] what a lot of men on the internet have used to troll women or minorities, you know, they use the claim to free speech for unrestrained insult.’
For Orford: ‘That idea of self-restraint, which is different to self-censorship, that’s a very dangerous and pernicious thing – where you self-censor because of fear of attack or for a number of reasons, fear of ostracism, whatever.
‘But the idea of restraint is what creates what Timothy Garton Ash calls that idea of robust civility, you can behave with good manners.’
She admits that with PEN ‘the criteria that I’ve set for myself is that maximum of free speech is desirable’ but she is only too aware of the limits of this approach.
Recently, her feminism has led her to try – with President Jennifer Clement – to embed some recognition of gender inequality into the PEN Charter.
This was, as she describes, ‘based on the thinking that violence against women is an extreme form of censorship.
‘It’s systemic, it happens, you know, there’s a kind of spectrum of it that happens from trolling on the internet to the murder of Jo Cox the MP, for instance.
‘I would read into that the women who leave their houses and can never go to school’.
For her all of these processes are linked.
‘And Jennifer’s from Mexico I’m from South Africa – and both of us have dealt for years with violence against women and violence against women as a form of censorship.’
Unfortunately, it proved far more complex to get the legislation through but she and Clement will try again, this time with a Women’s Manifesto later this year.
Listen to the second half of our interview to hear Margie discuss PEN South Africa’s successes, the Women’s Manifesto and her desire to create a space where literature can flourish.
Tune in to hear our very own Professor Rachel Potter talking about the history – and contemporary issues around – free speech and free expression in this short video.
It was filmed at an event at the University of East Anglia and also features Dr Alex Brown talking about hate speech and Professor Lee Marsden talking about faith speech – both of which are highly relevant to our project.
We talk to the Turkish author about her own experiences of censorship, her gratitude to the PEN Club and her ongoing commitment to free expression.
Speaking of her own experiences of PEN’s defence of free expression she said: ‘I personally, have experienced the importance of that solidarity when I was put on trial in 2006) [over her novel The Bastard of Instanbul] I will never forget representatives of English PEN had come to Istanbul at the time.
‘They were constantly following the trial, the case, and it felt so important to know that I was not alone.
‘I have huge respect and love for International PEN, English PEN and various PEN organisations across the world because I think that they are all branches of the same tree working together.’
The winners of the 2017 Freedom of Expression Awards, run by Index on Censorship have been announced and include a Chinese cartoonist, a Russian LGBT campaigner and a brave journalistic team from the Maldives.
Red Pepper (AKA Wang Liming) won in the Arts category, in recognition of his struggles as a political, cartoonist, satirising and criticising China’s government.
Liming said: ‘Since 2010, I have been adhering to the use of cartoons as a weapon against the Communist Party of China’s totalitarianism. The CPC’s blockade and crackdown on freedom of expression has never ceased. Their persecution against me has not stopped.’
He has refused to be silenced by the regime and will continue his work as a a fellow of the Index on Censorship Scheme.
Ildar Dadin is a Russian opposition and LGBT campaigner, jailed for staging a number of silent, one-man protests against Putin’s latest election victory.
Unable to attend the awards due to travel restrictions imposed upon him by the security services in Russia, Dadin may have been released from jail but remains imprisoned in his own home and his own country.
He refuses to stop speaking out and hopes that the award and fellowship will allow him to continue and promote his work worldwide.
Anastasia Zotova accepted the 2017 Campaigning Award on behalf of her husband Ildar Dadin. (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)
Turkey Blocks, led by Turkish British Technologist Alp Toker, won the digital activism award for their work monitoring restriction on free expression online in Turkey.
The organisation use software to track black outs and other censorship practices online and have reported 14 instances of online censorship links to Turkish authorities since 2016.
‘Our alerts, issued within minutes of detection, have helped Turkish citizens to stay online when shutdowns get implemented and provided the media with enough confidence to report assertively on digital censorship in Turkey.’ — Alp Toker
Maldives Independent won the Media fellow award, battling an increasingly oppressive regime in the Maldives. Following increasing crackdowns on ‘defamation’, which have allowed the government to heavily fine and even shut down media outlets, Maldives Independent is one of the only remaining independent media outlets.
Editor Zahenna Rasheed, who herself had to flee a violent police raid on the Maldives Independent offices this year said: ‘“Journalists in the Maldives have taken unprecedented risks in reporting on human rights, business corruption and abuse of authority. I believe a free press is crucial, essential in protecting human rights.’
SAGE Publishing’s Ziyad Marar, 2017 Freedom of Expression Award Journalism Fellow Zaheena Rasheed, Maldives Independent’s Ahmed Naish, CNN London bureau chief Tommy Evans (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)
Writers and artists fighting for freedom of expression worldwide have been honoured in the shortlist for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards.
A Zimbabwean pastor who was arrested by authorities for his #ThisFlag campaign, an Iranian Kurdish journalist covering his life as an interned Australian asylum seeker, one of China’s most notorious political cartoonists, and an imprisoned Russian human rights activist are among those shortlisted.
The awards are crucial for drawing attention to the causes of artists, writer, journalists and campaigners facing persecution all over the world for their work.
Sixteen people have been shortlisted, some of whom face violence, imprisonment and even death at the hands of authorities and extremist groups.
Nominees include Pastor Evan Mawarire whose frustration with Zimbabwe’s government led him to the #ThisFlag campaign; Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish journalist who documents the life of indefinitely-interned in Papua New Guinea as they seek asylum in Papua New Guinea; China’s Wang Liming, better known as Rebel Pepper, a political cartoonist who lampoons the country’s leaders; Ildar Dadin, an imprisoned Russian opposition activist, who became the first person convicted under the country’s public assembly law; Daptar, a Dagestani initiative tackling women’s issues like female genital mutilation and domestic violence; and Serbia’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), which was founded by a group of journalists to combat pervasive corruption and organised crime.
Other nominees include Hungary’s Two-tail Dog Party, a group of satirists who parody the country’s political discourse; Honduran LGBT rights organisation Arcoiris, which has had six activists murdered in the past year for providing support to the LGBT community and lobbying the country’s government; Luaty Beirão, a rapper from Angola, who uses his music to unmask the country’s political corruption; and Maldives Independent, a website involved in revealing endemic corruption at the highest levels in the country despite repeated intimidation.
One of last year’s winners Charlie Smith of GreatFire said:’The GreatFire team works anonymously and independently but after we were awarded a fellowship from Index it felt like we had real world colleagues. Index helped us make improvements to our overall operations, consulted with us on strategy and were always there for us, through the good times and the pain.’
“The creativity and bravery of the shortlist nominees in challenging restrictions on freedom of expression reminds us that a small act — from a picture to a poem — can have a big impact. Our nominees have faced severe penalties for standing up for their beliefs. These awards recognise their courage and commitment to free speech,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of campaigning nonprofit Index on Censorship.
Index on Censorship was set up by the poet Stephen Spender in 1972, to help to advocate for writers and free expression.
The winners will be announced at a ceremony on 19th April and will each recieve an Index on Censorship fellowship which provides support and training in areas such as advocacy and communications.
Awards are offered in four categories: arts, campaigning, digital activism and journalism.
Judges for this year’s awards, now in its 17th year, are Harry Potter actor Noma Dumezweni, Hillsborough lawyer Caiolfhionn Gallagher, former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, designer Anab Jain and music producer Stephen Budd.
Winners, who will be announced at a gala ceremony in London tomorrow.
In Part One of our interview, Peter McDonald talks to Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa, talks about why she is sensitive about the topic of banned books, why she joined PEN and why freedom of expression is a global concern…
Inspired in her politics and in her writing by her experiences growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, Orford first came to PEN as an activist:
‘I was educated in South Africa in the eighties and all the books were banned.’
‘I did economic history, half the books were banned – my shaping of the world was having restricted access to books.’
‘Most of the African writers and the criticism I wanted to read, were banned.’
As a result, she has a real resistance to the censorship of books and the curtailment of freedom of expression for writers more generally: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t.’
She describes how, later, with the new South African constitution in 1994 it seemed that ‘the right to free expression is constitutionally protected’.
‘There was such a sense of liberation and opening that sort of space that had been closed off so completely under Apartheid – no light, no oxygen – it really opened and expanded and into that came so much publishing and writing.’
She describes how, despite its difficult history in terms of free expression she has always found South Africa ‘an extremely outspoken country even under the worst of Apartheid people might be banned or detained but there was a determination that the truth would be told.’
It was later, under the Zuma government, that she realised she needed to join PEN: ‘My interest with PEN was very specifically around the Secrecy Bill, this was legislation that could put people I know and know well into prison.’
Since then she’s never looked back: ‘I like international work, I think that freedom of expression issues are global.’
Echoing the words of the PEN Charter itself, she adds: ‘If you’ve grown up as a reader, national borders are irrelevant.’
Listen to the first part of Margie’s interview with Peter McDonald, to hear her discuss Danish cartoonists, absolutes in free expression and why speech is always political.