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.
On 5th October 1921 a group of writers gathered at the Florence Restaurant in London.
Some were big names in the literary world, such as John Galsworthy, Viola Hunt, May Sinclair and Rebecca West, others were lesser known but extremely well-connected.
They were gathered at the behest of Amy Dawson Scott, a playwright and well-known figure in the London literary scene.
The aim of the meeting was to bring together writers working in London for regular dinners and meetings to discuss their work and build their professional networks.
It was also – in the wake of the devastation in Europe after World War One – to help to promote friendship and understanding between writers of different nations, through their shared interest in literature.
It was to be resolutely unpolitical – politics only led to war – and must promote literary art and freedom as the pinnacle of civilised life.
The choice of restaurant was very much a testament to their love of continental culture, as shown by the picture of Florence on the front of the menu (below).
The 42 guests enjoyed the finest French cuisine – Turbot Mornay, Beef Bordelaise and a Bombe Pralinée.
This modest start grew throughout the following decades, spreading from Prague and Berlin to New York, Buenos Aires and Bombay and becoming what we now know as PEN International. See the spread of PEN Centres throughout the world on our interactive map.
Margaret Storm Jameson was President of the English Centre during the war years 1938-1944.
During this relatively short stint she became a hugely influential figure within both English and International PEN going on to serve on committees such as the Writers in Exile Committee and the Writers in Prison Committee and as an International Vice President well into the 1970s.
Herself a novelist, hailing from Whitby in North Yorkshire, Jameson was hugely prolific and very well respected during her lifetime but has since been neglected by critics and scholars alike.
During her lifetime Jameson published more than 48 novels, as well as plays and countless polemics detailing everything from her views on marriage to her hopes for Europe after the war.
Towards the end of her life she became very disillusioned with her own literary career, describing her presidency of PEN as ‘the only act of a dull life’.
Her impact on the organisation was tangible.
It was she and International Secretary Hermon Ould who set up the PEN Refugee Fund in 1938, and they both worked tirelessly during this period to support writers escaping from Nazi Europe.
In 1941 it was she and Ould who organised the famous London Congress, which brought refugee writers from Europe together with influential literary figures from all over the world, at the height of the Blitz.
Food for the Congress was tricky to come by but Ould and Jameson pulled out all the stops and managed to arrange an lavish dinner at the Ritz to reward their long-suffering guests.
Despite wartime conditions and the difficulty of traveling to England, more than 800 guests attended from more than 30 countries including India, China and Mexico.
They even had to hold dinner across two rooms, with a host in each!
Another PEN figure motivated by the organisation’s original tenets of internationalism and friendship, Jameson continued her work following the war. She was invited to serve as a Honorary President of the Writers in Exile Center in 1952, served on the Writers in Prison Committee and worked throughout her life to help and support writers from all over the world.
Even in her eighties there are still letters from Jameson recommending writers for membership of PEN or asking about publishing opportunities for young writers who had asked for her help.
Last year PEN launched its Make Space campaign, to help to support and advocate for refugees, Senior Research Associate Katherine Cooper explains why this is a natural choice for an organisation which has always advocated for refugee rights…
In October 1938 following the Munich Pact in which Chamberlain and the allies gave away large amounts of the Czech Sudetenland to Germany, English PEN President Storm Jameson wrote to English and International Secretary Hermon Ould.
She noted her own shame at her government’s complicity in a deal which she felt let down Czechoslovakia, abandoning it to the Nazis and wondered what PEN might do to help the inevitable flow of refugee writers fleeing Nazi censorship and persecution.
‘It is money that the Czechs want’ she noted, and with that she and Ould began the Refugee Writers Fund.
Since Hitler came to power in 1933, Ould had been receiving letters from beleaguered writers enquiring about passage to England and assistance that PEN could provide once there.
At the Dubrovnik conference of that year, International President H.G. Wells had kicked out the German PEN for their lack of action to defend these writers, many of whom were Jews.
But by 1938 things were intensifying and the PEN offices were struggling to process requests for help to escape the continent and letters asking for references and employment ideas from writers who had made the journey to the UK already.
Ould, Jameson and others from the Executive Committee of English PEN began to write to members asking for contributions to the Fund, which would help to pay for visas, for travel and for staff at PEN to process the paperwork.
They also wrote to publishers and newspapers. One of their appeals in 1940 was entitled, ‘To the Conscience of the World’ foregrounding the importance that they attributed to the fates of these refugee writers.
Janet Chance and Doreen Marsden were taken on to work solely on the fund as PEN began to advise the British government on refugee writers.
By 1940 the Fund began to focus on providing weekly maintenance payments or one-off payment to help writers to buy paper, typewriter ribbons and to pay translators in order to continue their work in the UK.
The fund helped hundreds – even thousands – of writers to escape Europe and to make a living in the UK and led directly to the foundation of the Writers in Exile Centre after the war.
It began a long history of helping refugees, which PEN continued throughout the Cold War and wars of independence throughout Africa and Asia.
The Make Space Campaign is a clear continuation of PEN’s work to recognise the needs of refugees but also its belief that literature represents not only an opportunity for catharsis and coming-to-terms for individual refugees but also a point of collective and regeneration for society as a whole.
We are really pleased to welcome two new Research Associates to the project, each of whom will be bringing their own particular expertise to our work on writers’ organisations and free expression.
Dr Kate Highman is an expert in South African literature, whose own work considers debates around plagiarism and cultural ownership in South African literature and the history of English Literature as a discipline in South Africa.She will be bringing her existing expertise on PEN South Africa and on other writers organisations to her research in the PEN Archives in Cape Town.
She will also be contributing blogs and interviews to this website, while she completes her research.
Dr Chinmay Sharma is an expert in Indian literature, particularly after Independence and has worked extensively on Mahabharata re-telling in English and Hindi, exploring through this issues around free speech, internationalisation, modernity and nation-building.
He will be working on the PEN Archives in Thesophy House in Bombay, as well as exploring other organisations campaigning for free expression in India.
Chinmay will also be contributing to this blog and hopes to secure some exciting interviews with key figures in Indian literature and free expression campaigning.
We are really looking forward to seeing what we can unearth as we move, this year, into the Indian and South African archives and will be sharing all of our most exciting discoveries here.
On behalf of the rest of the team – welcome Chinmay and Kate!
Read more about the project and our plans for it.
Hermon Ould served as Secretary of English and International P.E.N. from the beginnings of the organisation until his death in 1951.
The poet and dramatist gave up his own promising career as a writer to guide and fashion the fledgling organisation through its early years.
During Ould’s time P.E.N. grew from a dining club for writers to an influential international organisation.
He served as Secretary to the English Centre from its inception in 1921 and became International Secretary at the Berlin Congress in 1926– a role which he made his own and which ideally suited his personality.
His friend Beatrice Webb said that Hermon’s greatest gift was for friendship and his ability to befriend but also to bring together writers from across the world was transformative for PEN.
It was Ould, working under various English and International Presidents, who spearheaded campaigns, such as the Refugee Fund which he and Storm Jameson launched in the 1930s.
At the end of that decade he helped to calm the waters between the pacifist sections of PEN and those who saw another war as essential in ridding Europe of the scourge of Nazism.
It was Ould who helped organise one hugely successful Congress and two conferences in war-torn London – the 1941 International Congress, the Coming of Age Conference celebrating PEN’s 21st birthday in 1942 and the Milton Tercentenary Conference in 1944.
His wartime work was such that members fundraised in 1945 to hold a dinner in his honour and even raised money to give Ould a small bonus, a generous cheque to thank him for the countless extra hours he put in for the organisation during the war.
Writing to encourage members to donate and to attend, writer and PEN member L. Steni describes Ould as serving PEN with ‘single hearted devotion’ often to the detriment of his own literary career.
He goes on to point out that ‘that we have emerged from the years of conflict with increased prestige (and also augmented responsibilities) is due, for the most part to Hermon Ould.’
Ould’s letters show him as gatekeeper, organiser, friend, literary agent, confidant and much more to PEN’s many English members and to others across the world.
Ould served as Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary until his death in 1951, which left the organisation reeling.
It was Ould’s close friend David Carver who stepped into his role, himself convinced that Ould was irreplaceable.
A true internationalist, it is no overestimation to say that Ould’s influence on PEN – due to his longstanding role and his unique personality – made him as influential a force in shaping the organisation as Galsworthy, Wells and Dawson-Scott herself.
Rachel Potter looks at the important implications around PEN’s new Women’s Manifesto and its place in the organisation’s history…
At the end of last year, for the first time in its history, PEN International issued a Women’s Manifesto. Listing six key principles, and with signatures from 22 global PEN centres, the Manifesto is partly the result of 25 years work by the PEN international Women Writers Committee, as well as the more recent efforts of its first ever woman International PEN President, Jennifer Clement. It calls on PEN centres to endorse non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity.
That Jennifer is the first woman President of International PEN is, in many ways, surprising. From 1923, the organisation began to host annual Congresses in various cities around the world and as the organisation expanded, its rules and regulations became more structured. Dawson Scott was consistently vigilant in ensuring that PEN uphold her
feminist principles. In 1928, at the Oslo PEN congress, she noted that it had come to her attention that one of the PEN centres did not admit women. Declaring that this was ‘contrary to the spirit of the PEN’, she insisted that the principle of equality be enshrined in PEN principles.
It was not only London PEN that included prominent Women in its early days. They were key to its global network of centres as well. The vocal cosmopolitan writer and theosophist Sophia Wadia energetically headed up the Bombay PEN centre that was established in 1933. Turkish writer, women’s rights activist and exile, Halide Edip Adivar was a central figure in PEN circles throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was a key figure in the discussions after the Second World War about the rights of writers. When Adivar and another famous writer gave a speech to the London PEN centre in 1927, the Times wrote enthusiastically about her spellbinding performance. The other writer got barely a mention. He was James Joyce.
There were many other women writers who were active in PEN in the period before the Second World War, including Victoria Ocampo, on-off friend of Virginia Woolf and editor of surrealist magazine Sur who was involved in Buenos Aires PEN, and was important in running the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress.
When Dawson Scott died in 1934, the organisation continued to have strong female and feminist members, including Storm Jameson, who ran the London centre in the late 1930s, and, after the Second World War a host of prominent global women writers, including Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
It is not the case that women writers have never been asked to take on the role of International PEN president in the past. At times they simply haven’t wanted to. Perhaps most amusingly, when Virginia Woolf was approached in the mid-1930s she recoiled violently, writing to her sister that she had ‘never been so insulted’ in all her life.
It is nevertheless interesting that the creation of the organisation’s first women’s manifesto should coincide with the fact that it has its first woman president, and that the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely has been addressed as an issue distinct from broader rights to freedom of expression. One of the key differences here is that while the founding feminist PEN members tended to focus on equality of rights to membership, access and opportunity, the principles announced today see equality as both ‘equality with men before the law’, and as something that requires taking ‘steps to eliminate discrimination’ as well as the ‘advancement of women writers’. Despite the different understandings of what equality for women writers might entail, I have no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto, and the spirit that lies behind it, would have been enthusiastically endorsed by the organisation’s founder.
With research at the Harry Ransom Centre finished and with me and Professor Rachel Potter at work on a report outlining our findings so far, it was time to head off for another slice of PEN’s archives, this time at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Before taking up the position of Director of the Harry Ransom Centre, Thomas F. Staley served as Chair of Modern Literature and Provost at the University of Tulsa and it was here that he first began acquiring parts of the PEN Archive.
He continued collecting in his new role at the HRC, which is why the other parts of the archive are in Texas.
The collection of materials at Tulsa is the first part of its archive that PEN sold, and was acquired by the library in 1984.
It consists of 28,300 letters by writers in correspondence with English PEN, including Arthur Koestler, T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, Sam Selvon, Rebecca West and Kingsley Amis.
Covering the period from 1932 to 1983, the letters offer unique insights into these writers works and their lives, as they discuss everything from wartime paper shortages to the challenges of seeing the organisation through the perils of the Cold War.
In many ways they complement and expand the findings from the Ransom Centre offering behind-the-scenes insights and off-the-cuff remarks pertaining to the big literary and political scandals of the day, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to T.V. censorship, the actions of the Soviet Writers Union to discussions of the organisation’s core aims and ideas.
Most excitingly, they offer a great insight into the everyday workings of PEN through the decades, providing a full record of events, who attended, what hospitality was on offer and even what writers thought of one another!
We see the personalities of PEN’s hardworking International Secretaries come to the fore in their letters and responses to even the most menial of requests. We will be publishing some blogs on these unsung heroes – Hermon Ould, David Carver and Josephine Pullein Thompson based on our findings.
We even learned that there was an informal expectation that members contribute to the “PEN Cellar” – the communal bar at their one-time headquarters in Glebe House – a bottle of spirits for every book published in a given year! While we see contributions from such as Cynthia Asquith and Vera Brittain, Enid Blyton wins the day after publishing 12 books in one year and contributing no less than 12 bottles (6 vermouth and 6 gin)!
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.