#100PENMembers No. 98: Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi is an author, award-winning journalist, and a human rights campaigner who currently chairs PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

Tripathi, who was born in Bombay/Mumbai and moved to London in 1999, has also been a board member of English PEN, and previously worked for Amnesty International where he took part in missions to Nigeria and Bosnia, developing policy on complicity, privatisation and corruption.

He credits his interest in human rights and free expression to his years in Bombay and especially to the Indian Emergency(1975–77) which gave Indira Gandhi authority to lead by decree, suspended civil liberties and resulted in widespread censorship of the press. In 2009, he published Offence: The Hindu Case, about the rise of Hindu nationalism and its implications on free expression; in 2015, Detours: Songs of the Open Road, which is a travelogue about places that have been affected by violence, conflict or human rights challenges, and in 2016, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, on the 1971 Bangladesh war of Independence from Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands civilians were killed. 

Despite his years with PEN and as a free expression activist, Tripathi recently became a victim of censorship: On 6 December 2020 his Twitter account was suspended, just hours after he posted a video of himself reading a poem he had  written about his late mother and referencing the anniversary of the controversial demolition of the Babri Masjid in North India by a mob of Hindu nationalists. He had also recently used his Twitter to discuss an article on Indian foreign policy and the erosion of democracy in India. Another Twitter account run by a pro-government group in India claimed responsibility for the suspension. The group operates to de-platform critics of India’s ruling BJP government, often targeting their social media account to shut down debate and censor criticism. The suspension caused widespread condemnation among the free expression community and was condemned by Irene Kahn the current United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and her predecessor David Kaye as well as #100PENMembers, acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie and Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor. Although the account was reinstated, the suspension highlighted the continued curtailments of free expression in India.

Tripathi said: ‘Twitter is a private space which creates the illusion of being a public space, which it clearly is not, and takes decisions on free speech and human rights that it does not have the mandate, expertise, or capacity for. It has the right to do what it wishes and to set its terms. It will be judged by whether it is capable of acting in a fair manner – in my case it hasn’t, but I’m hardly alone to say this.’

He used the suspension, characteristically, to draw attention to the writers and journalists around the world and in India who had been jailed and even murdered for their work. As the Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, Tripathi is only too familiar with these cases. The Committee is responsible for tracking the cases of writers facing prosecution all over the world, an enormous job and one with often little in terms of results. He described this work (also retracing his biographical and intellectual journey; his involvement with PEN and with the Writers in Prison Committee; and his diagnostis on the Indian situation) in a recent interview with Co-Investigator on this project, Laetitia Zecchini in 2018: ‘There are some writers who have been freed from prison and who have expressed their appreciation through letters. We have often received moving letters of thanks from writers once they are free again. Ngugi wa Thiong’ o has recently told us how much our letters meant to him when he was in jail. Ma Thida who is a Burmese writer and has now set up PEN Myanmar, she has always said that she treasured the fact that writers around the world were concerned about her fate. So there is that important part of it.’

Tripathi’s work with the Writers in Prison Committee remains central to PEN’s mission and has been throughout the last century – from the early days lobbying on behalf of writers like Lorca and Koestler during the Spanish Civil War to the tragic death of Liu Xiaobo. With the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe, it looks set to remain so as PEN moves into its second century.

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