Our Indian Research Associate Chinmay Sharma attended International PEN’s Congress in Pune and reports back on his experience here, reflecting on the importance of such an event at a time of increased danger not only for Indian writers, but for writers and journalists all over the world…
Travelling from permanently-humid Mumbai to balmy Pune to attend the first PEN Congress to be held in India held between 25th and 29th September, 2018, I couldn’t help but think about the apposite timing as free speech issues had come to occupy front page headlines in India in the preceding months. The main organiser of the conference, Prof. Ganesh Devy, had been on the forefront in the battle of free speech in India in recent years. Following the assassinations of three rationalists— Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare— by suspected associates of Hindu right groups, Devy joined a host of writers like Nayantara Sahgal and Ashok Vajpeyi in returning their Sahitya Akademi awards protesting the central government’s silence and complicity in the murders. To further underline the urgent threats to free speech, a month before the Congress, five civil rights activists— Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Pereira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha— were arrested by the Pune police on trumped up charges, while three more— Kranti, Stan Swami, and Anand Teltumbde— had their homes raided.
Holding the Congress in Pune in this context was significant because Pune is seen as a stronghold of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent body of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress theme—Experiments with Truth— alluded not just to Mahatma Gandhi, who had spent some time in Pune under house arrest at the Aga Khan Palace, but also, perhaps obliquely, to the rise of ‘fake news’.
Also, hot on the heels of PEN International releasing their Women’s Manifesto in March, 2018, the Congress would focus on four themes— Gandhi, women writers and free speech, the rise of fake news, and the threats to free speech in India—with a fifth, underlying theme— the global rise of the far right and its consequences.
The first day of the Congress was dominated by welcome events. Post-lunch, Jennifer Clement, PEN International President, and Carles Tormer, PEN International Secretary delivered their welcome address. Jennifer spoke about violence against women as a way of silencing women, while Carles invoked the myth of the Hindu god Ganesha, the reputed scribe for the Mahabharata, light-heartedly remarking that Ganesha was the first member of PEN. Following this we were taken to visit the Aga Khan Palace to pay our respects at the memorial built to commemorate Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, and his private secretary, Mahadev Desai. From the Palace we were transported to Symbiosis University where Devy made a speech explaining his rationale behind choosing Pune as the host city. He argued that Pune had been a crucial city in pre-historic and historic migratory routes, and that people travelling those routes came up with stories that became both the Mahabharata and the waritradition (a devotional procession in honour of the local deity Vithoba). Devy ended by talking about the multilingualism of Pune, and stressed the need to keep the multiplicity of culture, by preserving Truth, and thus preserving Democracy.
The first two mornings of the Congress were assigned to committee meetings of the PEN International—Women Writers (WW), Writers for Peace (WfP), Writers in Prison (WiP), and Translation & Linguistic Rights (TLR)—which hosted panel discussions and where delegates would debate committee resolutions before bringing it on to the floor of the General Assembly. The panels on women in literature, and on free speech particularly stood out.
Sara Iacovelli from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, gave a presentation on the VIDA count to the WW committee and later to the General Assembly. The count analyzes gender parity in the literary field in the US using different metrics like literary review mentions, literary magazine appearances etc. Over the past few years they have expanded their analysis to include race and sexuality. The hope was that national PEN delegates could use the VIDA methodology or partner with VIDA to carry out similar analyses in their respective countries as a crucial first step towards addressing gender inequality in their respective literary spheres.
The WiP committee session, hosted a panel on Freedom of Expression in India with the journalist Raksha Kumar, academic Apoorvanand Jha, and the famous Telugu author ‘Volga’. Raksha, who had co-authored the PEN report on Freedom of Expression in India, mainly spoke about the threats facing journalists in India today— both legal threats, and threats, often fatal, to their life. Apoorvanand spoke about the increasing curbs on academic freedom of expression through funding decisions, personnel hiring decisions, and fomenting trouble in the university campuses a la JNU. Volga took a different route and spoke about the restrictions on free speech for women, at once individual and systemic, who have to contend with censorship efforts of their family before that of government or ‘activist’ groups.
The General Assembly finally met in the afternoon of the 26th. The main business of the day was outlining the key challenges faced by PEN International and national PEN centres, PEN International’s launch of their Women’s manifesto, and an address to the delegates by Ganesh Devy stressing again the diversity of India. The third and fifth day were devoted to matters of the General Assembly, with the delegates focusing on PEN committee resolutions. Most notably, the new PEN International Vice Presidents were announced— the renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and the Indian authors Nayantara Sehgal and Perumal Murugan. PEN’s report on the dire condition of freedom of speech in Venezuela, Hungary and India were discussed, with PEN Hungary dominating the topic of discussion. The general assembly also hosted panels on defamation laws and how they are used to target free speech; the dilemma of hate speech; and the rise of xenophobia.
Holding the Congress in Pune, with the Gandhian imagery (but Nehruvian ethos of unity in diversity), sent a subtle message of solidarity with Indian writers and resistance against attacks on free speech, as made clear on the last day of the Congress when the senior officials called a press conference to launch their report on the dire condition of Free Speech in India. Writers and journalists from across the world were apprised of the situation directly, which could be helpful in creating an international consensus and solidarity around conserving freedom of speech in the future, not just in India, but in other countries as well. There was an overarching consensus on the urgent need for continuing the work PEN International was doing. Warts and all, it was still a crucial voice that spoke up on behalf of writers in prisons, refugees, and writers under threat.