India’s Season of Dissent: An Interview with Poet Karthika Naïr

Our Co-Investigator Laetitia Zecchini interviewed the poet Karthika Naïr, discussing free expression, literary activism and the importance of being a political poet.

Born in Kerala, the poet moved to France in 2000, subsequently working for several cultural institutions (Cité de la Musique, Centre national de la danse, Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration…) as a dance producer, dance-writer, or “dance enabler,” as she sometimes likes to define herself. Her closest associations have been with choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Akram Khan.1 She published three collections of poetry; Bearings in 1999; Until the Lions, Echoes from the Mahabharata in 2015, which won the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year 2015 (for fiction), and Over & Underground in Paris and Mumbai, in 2018, co-authored with poet Sampurna Chattarji and the artists Joëlle Jollivet and Roshni Vyam. With Joëlle Jollivet, she also brought out a children’s book, The Honey Hunter/Le Tigre de Miel, first published in 2013 and translated into French, German and Bangla.

Her poignant retelling of the Mahabharata in Until the LionsEchoes from the Mahabharata, is “among other things, a passionate antiwar manifesto,” as David Shulman recently suggested. The epic is recast from the perspective of those who have been promised to erasure and are often the first casualties of war: the faceless, the nameless and unremembered by/of history, many of whom are women (spouses, lovers, mothers, sisters, etc…). The “echoes” of the Mahabharata are not only the echoes of all the other Mahabharatas in whose lineage Karthika Naïr places herself, the ocean of stories and (re)tellings to which the epic continues to give birth. Her poems’ unflinching confrontation with the violence of the world, and of India in particular, are about today. In the powerful, damaged and enraged voices of those who refuse to be muted or unaccounted, we hear echoes of the struggles of Dalits, Adivasis, women, Muslims, but also of all the other (increasingly) threatened minorities whose dissenting views and narratives infuriate the sentinels of cultural and religious majoritarianism: activists, journalists, students, artists, writers…

In her recent introduction to the American edition of Until the Lions, Karthika Naïr writes: 

‘For many Indian writers and cultural practitioners, 2015 seemed to have represented a turning point. By 2015, casualties were not statistics anymore, reported with increasing urgency by PEN or FreeMuse. They were names, faces, voices you knew, had read, watched, heard. Some, those first met when young—in the flesh, or through words, chords, images—and dearly loved. Artists, writers, activists: some whose work, whose life had powered your own, from near or far. People who had merely gone out one day to celebrate art and debate, laughter and sport. Narendra Dabholkar. Ahmed Rajib Haider. Gulnar (Muskan). Bernard Maris. Govind Pansare. Avijit Roy. 21 visitors to Bardo National Museum. H Farook. M Kalburgi. Francisco Hernández. 89 music lovers attending an Eagles of Death Metal gig at Bataclan. The living are targeted in other ways. With book bans. Prison. Exile. Fatwa. Smear campaigns. Accusations of sedition… Kamel Daoud. Oleg Sentsov. Perumal Murugan. Atena Farghadani. Fatima Naoot. The 50-odd Indian writers (followed by film-makers and artists)—who had returned awards and honors as protest against the spate of murders of intellectuals and minorities—hounded as anti-nationals by several media houses and right-wing politicians.’

Karthika Naïr. 2020. Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. Archipelago Books, USA (See Auth (…)

It was perhaps only natural that Karthika Naïr, who considers herself a political poet (or rather: “how can literature not be political?”) would be moved to write on Shaheen Bagh, when in December 2019, a handful of Muslim women came out of their homes in Delhi to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and resolved not to move before they were heard. Shaheen Bagh was also a peaceful resistance to and against violence: the violence to which Muslims and women have been subjected for so long in India; the violence unleashed at the Jamia Millia University campus a few days earlier, and the constant threat of violence (by the police and by right-wing “goons”) to which the protestors were subjected during the one-hundred days during which the sit-in lasted. The “dogs of carnage” summoned by Karthika Naïr in her ghazal, eventually broke loose, unleashing terror in the streets of Delhi. But what happened at Shaheen Bagh is and must be remembered. And the task of the poet is also to make sure that these voices continue to be heard.

In the following interview conducted over Skype, and revised over email in September 2020, we talk of Shaheen Bagh and of her poem “Ghazal: India’s Season of Dissent; of the activism of Indian writers and artists; of the politics of literature; of the relevance of poetry to protest movements and resistance struggles; of how literary texts can “respond” to violence, grief and pain. And since Karthika Naïr’s poetry and biography constantly weave together a multitude of contexts, voices, and cultural backgrounds, she also throws light on the interconnection and intersectionality of these struggles; on the resonances of the anti-CAA protests and of Shaheen Bagh outside India; on how terror and resistance to terror are echoed in different parts of the world.

LZ : From Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, to Turbine Bagh in London, we also witness an internationalization of struggles that are staged or made visible in different parts of the world. And Shaheen Bagh captured worldwide media attention. I was also thinking of a recent appeal by some prominent world intellectuals who have urged the release of writers and activists Varavara Rao and G. N. Saibaba.You yourself have been very much a part of many of these international campaigns to free writers, journalists, activists. But going back to what you were saying about “petition activism,” these campaigns and the media attention can both give incredible visibility, perhaps agency, but can conversely also highlight a form of powerlessness…So, for instance, Varavara Rao who is 80 years old and was diagnosed with Covid, and G.N. Saibaba who is 90 % handicapped, are still in prison and their lives, as we speak, are at risk. That is a question we’ll keep returning to, no doubt. But what can these campaigns and petitions do? How does that kind of activism help? 

KN : I think we need to be very clear about what petitions can do, and what they can’t. The best thing they can do is, indeed, visibilize. It may be never immediate enough, of course. But there is a specific end and one can manage to have a cumulative movement which gathers force from both physical real-life presence and mobilization, and campaigns or petitions that are internationalized. One of the best examples of that I would say is actually Shahidul Alam’s liberation from a Dhaka prison, where people in situ but also people from all around the world put enormous pressure. 

I do think that petitions are useful to that extent, inasmuch as they create awareness, give visibility, disseminate knowledge and information about certain cases, and help people use other platforms as well to protest, or dissent or demand. And in certain happy cases, it is generating enough of a momentum…But there are also worrying aspects as well: one, with the profusion of online appeals, there is the danger of, shall we call it, petition fatigue; the other, of petitions generating the false and easy reassurance that we’ve done our bit with a click on a button, that nothing more is required.

LZ: If we return to your ghazal, you’ve said that poetry has a treasure trove of forms at its disposal, and that these forms have specific functions—that they do different things, and are chosen for what they can do. In the context of Shaheen Bagh and the persecution of Muslim minorities in India, the choice of a ghazal seems both formal and political. Would you like to elaborate a little? 

KN: Of course. Well there are many reasons why I chose this specific form. One of which is also heritage. And the people that I quote or that inspire me here, are people like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Kafi Azmi. The ghazal has an extraordinary history, and an enormous capacity for expansion, it can contain everything from a love song, with which it is (sometimes unfortunately) most famously associated, to an anthem: it has been the instrument of so much reflection, protest, and dissent. I was again inscribing myself in that literary and activist lineage, in that tradition of dissent.

LZ: You’ve also said that forms are your weapons…

KN: Yes, but in this particular context I wanted to inscribe myself in this lineage of the ghazal as an activist writer’s tool, or basically as a writer’s tool. Because like Arundhati Roy says, that’s a bit of a tautology “activist writer.” When you are a writer, you are political. To state the obvious, for a writer to say I am not political, for me, is also extremely political, because it means that you are so privileged that you don’t have to have any politics. So, the ghazal was a great way to inscribe myself in a tradition and say, again, that this kind of literary activism is nothing new. It is part of something that has been going on for ever so long, which is that literature, or poetry, is a way of situating yourself in society, in a nation, on a globe just as much as it is of situating yourself inside a body or a heart. And how you situate yourself in a body is probably the first political thing you do. 

For instance, in the first three couplets, the qafiyais the following pattern of words: “nation,” Going back to the ghazal, it’s a form which really lends itself to sort of hammering the same theme but with variations. You’ve got the radif (refrain word or phrase, which corresponds here to the word “dissent”) and you’ve got the qafiya (the rhyming pattern that must precede the radif). Imagine drawing loops of the same size, in the air, each distinct, but touching the same point on the floor—so the point of landing will be identical each time, though the curve will be different. I also love the fact that the couplets which have the same refrain, and the same meter, are self-contained, but that the change in rhyming words can allow the development of a thought, an idea with each successive couplet.

LZ: I wanted to quote the words of writer Githa Hariharan, who is also the co-founder of this extraordinary platform, The Indian Writers’ Forum, to which you have contributed.14 In a text written for the 3rd anniversary of Gauri Lankesh’s brutal murder, she paints a very dark picture of the situation in India today, with the growing list of political prisoners languishing in prison without trial, the attacks on Muslims, minorities, academics, students; the charges of sedition, conspiracy, contempt of court or “unlawful activities” levelled at many citizens. And yet, she says “we still have voices that speak up”: “If we speak, Gauri will continue to speak…They cannot silence us all.”

KN: I really think The Indian Writers Forum has been doing a wonderful job for so many years as a sentinel. It reminds me of that old saying about those who stay awake, so others can sleep in peace. Now I don’t think anyone of us can sleep in peace right now, but the IWF has been there as the eyes in the dark for so long. And they are putting what they see in the dark out there. And that’s precious. I think we also have to remember that it’s extremely fragile… Remember that whether through fiscal legislation, or through other means, so many NGOs in India are under increasing threat. And for years I was not able to give a donation to IWF because I am a foreign national. The irony of it is that political parties can receive unlimited foreign funding without any examination or questioning, but NGOs are suspect. So even when you are not hounding an organization actively, you are cutting off its blood supply. In other words, supporting something like IWF is more and more vital. 

More generally, I think, yes, we have to resist and speak up a long time before we are on our knees. There is so much that we have to be constantly vigilant about. Here as well (i.e. in France). A few months ago, I heard someone who is a leftist and an activist say that he was going to vote Marine Le Pen in the next election, because he said, “it can’t get much worse.” And I said, it can get much worse. You are a straight, white man in your 70s. Yes, things are going to be ok for you on a quotidian level. But for anybody who is different in any way, in terms of race, in terms of sexuality, in terms of language, in terms of religion, in terms of dissent or mobility, no it is not going to be ok. The alternative cannot be the Marine Le Pens of the world, because India is standing testimony to how little it takes to dismantle a democracy. 5 years! When you had 65 years behind you… What I mean is all you need is the wrong regime in power, in both houses of the Parliament, with enough clout to purchase or threaten free press. No country is invulnerable in its democratic or republican principles. 

LZ: I’d like to raise with you the question of literary texts as responses or reactions to specific events. Of course, you cannot predict from where a poem really springs, and a writer always writes with everything he or she experiences, but you’ve written many poems that seem to articulate a kind of response, like your ghazal around Shaheen Bagh, or your powerful text on the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 attacks in Paris in Over and Underground in Paris & Mumbai. You also wrote a recent poem triggered by a self-portrait of the photographer Khadija Saye, who was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire…And that made me think of a short newspaper column written by Adil Jussawalla called “Poems after Ayodhya,” where he takes issue with the fact that you should expect poets to voice their immediate protest or shock about the riots. And he has this fabulous sentence where he writes that “the state of the country is not a workshop that makes poems happen…” 

KN: Bless him! But, whether we like it or not, poetry is political. Take the Romantic movement, for instance, which all seems very innocuous, but for me was intensely political as well, because you were taking the divine out of the established places and the realm of religion, and placing it in nature for instance, or within the discovery of a wider world. But I agree completely with Adil and do get uncomfortable with poems that are for example titled “Kargil” or “Palestine.” And very conflicted about what one could call a form of disaster porn. But it’s sensitive, isn’t it? And I always think of something Larbi (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) told me: should me no shoulds, in other words, let there be no rules on what can or cannot be tackled by art. So I also think that everyone responds as he or she can, and the poem will speak for itself. Nothing should come between that compulsion to speak and the page, if you see what I mean. My own take is that I try to situate it in the intersection between the personal and the political and that’s the way it’s been for Charlie Hebdo for instance…Even today, I mourn Bernard Maris like somebody I knew. And so I write also from a very personal space, of what I lost in that bloody massacre.

You can read the full interview which is part of a special issue on ‘The Hindutva Turn: Authoritarianism and Resistance in India’ in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.

‘It’s not enough to rely on the principle, we have to think harder’: PEN, Rushdie and free expression thirty years on…

In our latest free expression podcast, Professor Anshuman Mondal of the University of East Anglia talks to Professor Rachel Potter about Salman Rushdie, thirty years after the Satanic Verses affair.

Mondal, who has written extensively on Rushdie and particularly on free expression and Islam, explores the implications of the West-versus-East narrative at the centre of the Rushdie scandal and discusses how anti-censorship discourses work within global politics often to the detriment of non-Western cultures and belief systems.

‘Whereas I have no problem with writers mobilising on behalf of another writer I think that writers just like any other constituency have the political right and the duty to do so, what I would try to do is to just problematize this notion that writing and that writing and especially imaginative writing of a certain kind, it is on a special pedestal.

‘It is something special, something really truly remarkable that is so exceptional that it needs a special provision and special exceptions and so forth and I’m not entirely sure that that’s the case and I think that that’s one of the strands of the discourse established at that time that I am still working on and trying to address.’

He also responded to some of the documents we found in the PEN Archives which relate to the Rushdie case, including letters from PEN Centres lending their support to Rushdie’s cause and an essay written by postcolonial scholar Edward Said and published by the PEN America Center.

‘Edward Said quotes Rushdie’s essay ‘Outside the Whale’ and I think that that is a great reminder to both Rushdie himself and to the rest of us about the way in which writers are invested in these situations, they aren’t neutral players and they can’t be observers.

‘However, I’m constantly struggling always to remind everyone of the complexity of the situation, so I’m going to complicate that position.

‘It emerges most importantly in the trope that Rushdie himself uses in his essays ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ and ‘A Thousand Days in a Balloon’, those essays that were published and were brilliant responses under considerable duress, but he uses this trope of the imagination in a sort of quasi-romantic way and one of the things that I’m really interested in is that this trope of the imagination is quarantined from everything else.

‘It’s a sort of performative contradiction in the essay in that he talks about the imagination or the writer’s imagination being responsible for being able to think differently, for enacting changes in the world and so on and so forth and yet at the same time this faculty of the imagination is free-floating and is quarantined from the messiness of the real world.’

He also traces some of the current narratives around Islam to the Rushdie case: ‘In terms of the Rushdie case, what was problematic was this framing of free speech as part of a civilizational struggle and Rushdie himself does it actually in the novel and in the para-textual interventions that he makes during the controversy.

‘But that discourse set the scene for that civilizational battle that free speech is part of the west and is a civilizational value and I don’t think that’s helpful at all.’

Discussing the changes of recent years, Mondal describes how arguments against censorship must be nuanced and complicated – they are never black and white, right or wrong: ‘Principles are a good starting point but if you are going to end there then you’ve got a problem.

‘I value free expression but I want it to be adequate to the predicament of the world today as a very globalised multiracial, multicultural, multi-religious global society with all of these factors that need to be negotiated. It’s not enough to rely on the principle, we have to think harder.’

For more information on the Rushdie affair, read our case study on PEN’s response.

Writers’ Groups: An interview with J. M. Coetzee

Peter McDonald talks to J.M. Coetzee about free expression, writers’ groups in South Africa and the place of writing and writers in the world…

Peter McDonald: The South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s, the first decades of your career as a published author, was a place of many writers’ groups. The most established—PEN South Africa (1927) and the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (1934)—were still in existence, albeit in variously fragile or altered states. By the time the Afrikaans group severed its ties with PEN International in 1967, for instance, the local, English-language branch was split between two often rivalrous centres, one in Johannesburg, the other in Cape Town. However, the former was more or less defunct when Dusklandsappeared in 1974, leaving only the latter then under Mary Renault’s presidency. From then on, a wide array of younger, more active local groups began to emerge, including the white-led Artists’ and Writers’ Guild (1974), the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde (1975), the Medu Arts Ensemble (1977), a revived, short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN (1978), the African Writers’ Association (1981), the Writers’ Forum (1985), and the Congress of South African Writers (1987). To what extent were you aware of these various groups and their activities? And did you formally join or simply associate with any of them?1

J.M. Coetzee: Of the organizations you mention, (a) I was aware of PEN but never thought of joining, it seemed too Anglo and too tame; (b) I can’t remember whether I was actually a dues-paying member of the Skrywersgilde, but I certainly attended some events and was friendly with André Brink and Elsa Joubert as well as with the secretary of the Gilde, Amanda Botha; (c) I was aware of COSAW but didn’t like its politics.

PMcD:What concerned you about COSAW’s politics?

JMC: COSAW conceived of itself as an arm of the Struggle. I was not part of the Struggle.

 PMcD: What about the later decades from the 1990s onwards?

JMC: I don’t recall relations with any writers’ organizations in the 1990s. At a certain moment I began to be courted by PEN International, but that may have been after the 2003 Nobel Prize.

 PMcD: As a contribution to the vast body of writing about censorship, Giving Offense (1996) stands out in part because you take issue, as a writer, with ‘the craft-solidarity of men and women of letters’ (44).You point, for instance, to the ‘dynamic of escalation in which the rivals, writer and censor, become less and less distinguishable’ and you challenge the commonly-held ‘myth’ among writers—even ‘intellectuals as a class’—that they will ‘outlast their foes and even write their epitaph’ (44, 118). Underlying this self-aggrandizing narrative, you also see a larger story at work, the origins of which you trace to ‘the Judaeo-Christian teaching of the vindication of the truth in the fullness of time’ (44). State censorship was a pressing concern for you more or less from the start of your career, given the circumstances in South Africa at the time. Yet it appears this particular turn in your thinking—your move to a certain style of auto-critique—happened sometime in the late 1980s. Was this a self-generated intellectual shift on your part or were there particular events or experiences that prompted you to start questioning the ethos, perhaps even the ‘groupthink’, of your own profession?

JMC: I believe it was self-generated (to use your term). I don’t remember that there were any events or experiences that prompted the shift. It struck me that the orthodox position taken by the profession—that ‘the word’ would ultimately triumph—failed to take into account those (many?) writers whose word the state had successfully stifled and/or expunged—and who had therefore failed to become part of the historical record—to say nothing of those (many?) projects that had been abandoned or less than wholeheartedly tackled because their authors could foresee no way in which these would see the light of day, by which I mean be published in a normal way.

PMcD: In the introduction to Giving Offense you note—presciently from today’s perspective—that ‘the bans effected by monopolies or near-monopolies can in practice be no less complete than those implemented by bodies of censors with the force of the law behind them’ (x). In the book itself you focused on the latter, that is, on the way state censorship deforms not just public life but the ‘inner drama’ of writing (38). Since the collection appeared, however, the digital revolution has given renewed impetus to the former—I have in mind the rise of private corporations (monopolies?) like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It also created the conditions for a new breed of self-appointed cyber-censor to emerge who sometimes works in concert with the state, sometimes outside it. Do you think these technological developments, all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?

JMC: You ask: “Do you think these technological developments [social media in particular], all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?”

I am not the best person to whom to address this question. I belong to a generation (the last generation?) that can manage to live happily and successfully outside the ambit of social media. From my sketchy knowledge of what pressures social media are capable of exerting, I would guess that these pressures are better considered under the rubric of social conformity or groupthink rather than under the rubric of censorship.

 PMcD: For a writers’ group, the International PEN Club, as it was called at its founding in 1921, is unusual because it was not established to oppose censorship or champion free expression. Those key commitments, which began to take shape in 1933 following the Nazification of German PEN, the book burnings and the persecution of writers in Germany, were formally codified as Article 4 of the PEN Charter only in 1948. At first the organization promoted international solidarity among writers as a counter to the malign nationalism that many felt had led to the First World War. John Galsworthy, the founding President, also believed that as ‘trustees for human nature’ (his phrase) writers had a special calling to act as a counter to politicians. Hence Article 1 of the Charter, which was ratified in 1927: ‘Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.’ The phrase ‘national though it be in origin’ was dropped in 2003. On the same occasion, ‘should’ became ‘must’ and ‘between nations’ was changed to ‘among people’. So Article 1 now reads: ‘Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.’

You never considered joining PEN South Africa, which was regularly criticized at the international level throughout the 1970s and 1980s for its inertia and lack of inclusiveness—it narrowly avoided being expelled on more than one occasion. But you were elected Vice President of what is now called PEN International in 2006, a capacity in which you continue to serve. What value do you see in this association and what good do you think writers can do collectively today?

JMC: As I remember it, the Cape Town PEN of my youth was more or less indistinguishable from the English Association,3culturally conservative, disdainful of Afrikaners and the Afrikaans language, and a bit timid. I never considered joining. PEN International is a different story. It is a big organization whose word carries a certain weight. It speaks up on behalf of persecuted writers—in practice, in our day, mainly persecuted journalists—and does a lot of good work behind the scenes too.

PMcD: In 1986 you attended PEN International’s 48thCongress in New York, together with Sipho Sepamla, Nadine Gordimer and a host of other leading writers, including Joseph Brodsky, Günter Grass, Wole Soyinka, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie. The Congress theme that year was ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.’ Looking back on the occasion in 2011, Rushdie commented: ‘In 1986 it still felt natural for writers to claim to be, as Shelley said, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty, transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow’s great formulation, “open the universe a little more.” Twenty-five years later, it is harder to make such exalted claims for mere wordsmiths. Harder, but no less necessary.’ Do you agree? And, if so, what factors have made it harder in your view?

JMC: I would prefer not to frame the question in Rushdie’s terms, which seem to me extreme. I would prefer to rephrase the question as follows: Is it true that works of literature no longer carry as much weight, in the eyes of the public, as they once did? If it is true, why should it be so?

I am not going to attack the question frontally, but I will make four observations that relate to it.

One. If we are thinking of the effect of books on public opinion, then we must concede that some of the books that have had the greatest effect on public opinion have not been great books. Examples: The Jungle (1904) by Upton Sinclair; Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.

Two. If, on the other hand, we are thinking of the effect books can have on the way we see the world, then we may seriously have to consider that some books can indeed have this shaping power, even on people who do not read them but absorb them from the surrounding discourse. Example: War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy.

Three. There was a time (the time of Dickens, the time of Zola) when the printed novel was as good a medium as any for airing concern over pressing social issues. This is no longer true. The lag time between writing and publication is too long. There are too many competing media, of equal or greater immediate impact. Example: cinema.

Four. Because of the way the publishing industry operates (has been forced to operate) nowadays, the public has unprecedented access to writers in person, and is thus able to confirm quite speedily that there is nothing special about them. This has in fact always been true. There was nothing special about, for example, Leo Tolstoy.

Observations One, Three and Four go some way toward accounting for the declining prestige of the writer. Nevertheless:

Five. While there is nothing special about writers as human beings, there is (sometimes) something special about what they write.

©J. M. Coetzee 2019

(This copyrighted interview forms part of the AHRC-funded ‘Writers and Free Expression’ project—Do not reproduce all or any part of it without permission. If you wish to quote it for academic purposes, please reference the project blog.)


1For more details about these various groups, see Peter D. McDonald, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences(Oxford, 2009), Chapter 3.

2See J. M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship(Chicago, 1996).

3JMC notes: The English Association (Cape Town) saw its task as promoting English literature (understood in a fairly traditional sense) and the values associated therewith among the general educated public.

Linguistic Rights: An interview with Carles Torner

Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International, discusses his history with the organisation and the evolution of PEN’s stance on linguistic rights in this latest fascinating interview with Peter McDonald…

This Declaration considers as a language community any human society established historically in a particular territorial space, whether this space be recognized or not, which identifies itself as a people and has developed a common language as a natural means of communication and cultural cohesion among its members.


Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), the first sentence of which appears above, lays the foundation for its central and most contentious claim: language communities, not just individuals, have rights.

Once this was agreed by all the parties involved in the drafting process, Carles Torner notes in this interview, ‘then everything fell into place’, but, equally, ‘we all knew that by acknowledging collective rights…we were condemning the Declaration‘, ensuring it would be unacceptable to many state authorities and almost impossible to make a text of international law.

This may be frustrating, Torner adds, but, given the inspiration it continues to afford marginalized communities around the world, the Declaration remains not just a landmark document in the history of human rights but a ‘utopian vision into what could be international law’. After all, ‘the issue is not whether or not you reach a utopia. It is all about the process, the pilgrimage you are making toward articulating it.’

Carles Torner, a leading Catalan writer and human rights activist, is currently Executive Director of PEN International. In this extended interview, which addresses a number of themes central to this site and the associated book, he discusses what it is to be a poet and an activist, the background to his involvement with organisations like PEN and UNESCO, the part he played in the formulation of the Universal Declaration in the 1990s, and the role he continues to play in its future.

You can read the full interview Carles Torner Interview 2018

PART TWO: ‘Facebook has an enormous responsibility. They are associated with murder. Let’s not be soft about that’: Free Expression in A Global Era

In the second part of Rachel Potter’s interview with him, former President of International PEN John Ralston Saul talks free expression, the impact of the internet and hate speech.

jrsJohn Ralston Saul suggests that today’s free speech and free expression issues stem from globalisation and cultures which were local coming into closer proximity than ever before.

During his presidency of international PEN a number of free expression issues began to emerge, largely as a result of wide spread internet access and the proliferation of social media as a vehicle for both outrage and defiance.

This, he maintains, is part of the problem with the Charlie Hebdo case.

‘[O]ne of the effects of the internet has been to take this very local phenomenon of humour and make it international. Suddenly something which makes somebody in the sixth arrondissment [of Paris] or East London, or Moscow, laugh, is being seen in Tehran. And that creates a new situation and that’s where we are. We don’t have the answer to that.’

Essentially, he feels, the issue is one not of a global system of censorship or policing of speech or expression, but a sense of shared responsibility and foresight as to the consequences of these kinds of global systems and processes.

‘My own gut feeling is that, and this is in an ideal world; my gut feel is that writers have a job, that editors have a job, that publishers have a job. Let’s call that job ‘responsibility’.

‘You could even call it professionalism. Our job is to write, but to stand as a barrier to hatred.’

There is also a responsibility which lies, for Ralston Saul, with the global media platforms which allow this sort of information to proliferate however:

‘We’re seeing this with Facebook right now.

‘Just because you’re thirty years old and wearing a t-shirt and pretending you’re eighteen and you are the head of Facebook and you talk like somebody who is not very sophisticated and ‘Golly-gee we’re just an organisation that allows people to have communities’…like hell.

‘You have a responsibility. You have a responsibility as an Editor and as a Publisher. You have a responsibility to ensure that your system of distribution is not used to provoke hatred. That is a responsibility.

‘People like Facebook are not doing their job. I’m sorry. These internet organisations are trying to get away with murder.’

‘I do mean murder. The racist Buddhist monk in Myanmar who has led the violent actions against the Rohingya has done this to a great extent through the internet.

‘He sets up accounts on Facebook and says these incredibly untrue and racist things, which cause riots and cause murder.  Eventually Facebook shuts him down and he simply sets up another page.

‘I’m terribly sorry, Facebook has an enormous responsibility. They are associated with murder. So let’s not be soft about this.’

Read the rest of the second part of the interview here.




John Ralston Saul Interview Part One – ‘We can get every Nobel Prize winner in the world to stand up for either Carlos Fuentes or for that part-time journalist. That’s how we work’

John Ralston Saul talks to Rachel Potter about fighting for freedom of expression, internationalism and how to harness the power of an international network of writers.

Ralston Saul sees PEN as chiefly a free expression organisation. He spent much of his time as International President – a post which he vacated in 2015 following a six year term – campaigning internationally on this issue.

Gianluca Battista HIGH RES

John Ralston Saul photographed by Gianluca Battista.


‘We’re fundamentally not an NGO. We’re not at all that sort of thing. We’re a grassroots freedom of expression literary organisation. And in order to do that we have to make sure that the Centres feel they are directly involved in what’s happening.

He highlights the importance of PEN’s work in raising the profile of free expression issues: ‘There are lots of places where no one talks about freedom of expression.  It just doesn’t seem worth it. It’s too difficult. Too dangerous.

‘So you try to create an atmosphere where people start talking about freedom of expression.

‘The newspapers start reporting it, the politicians have to deal with it differently.’

During his tenure he was involved in negotiations with governments all over the world about the rights of writers and on behalf of PEN members in prison. He acknowledges however that these attempts are not always successful.

Yet Ralston Saul remains confident in the power of PEN’s worldwide reach and the solidarity of writers standing together.

At a meeting in Mexico over the fate of imprisoned journalists, he recalls a government official questioning this mission: ‘[H]e said: “I don’t know why you are here to try to stand up for these, unprofessional part-time people who say they’re journalists. They don’t even have a journalist card”.’

‘In other words, “you’re very grand people, what are you doing defending these miserable, unprofessional whatever…”’

‘We expected this and had thought it through, so I said ‘Well Minister, we’re not in the least bit interested in whether you give them an official journalism card or not. If you want to give them a card that’s your business.

‘Literature and journalism is decided by the readers not by governments. Secondly, it’s not your job to tell us who we represent.

‘We represent every writer in Mexico from Carlos Fuentes to these unknown volunteer part-time journalists up on the border. Every one of them equally.

‘And we can ask every Nobel Prize winner in the world to stand up for either Carlos Fuentes or for that part-time journalist. And they will stand up! That’s how we work.’

Read more of the interview here.

INTERVIEW: Adil Jussawalla

In the latest of our candid interviews with PEN members past and present, Adil Jussawalla discusses with Laetitia Zecchini the political and cultural climate of 70s Bombay; the Bombay PEN Center under Nissim Ezekiel’s leadership; his own relationship with the PEN All-India Center and with Nissim; the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Ezekiel’s controversial support of the ban; the Cultural Cold War, the ideological factions in the Bombay of the 60s and 70s and its publishing scene; the Indian Congress for Cultural Freedom (ICCF), The Indian PEN, Quest, Playboy and the “corner-lending libraries” of the city; the particular status and position of Indian poetry / literature in English; the specific predicaments in which free speech, writers and writers’ organisations find themselves in India; the power(lessness) of words and writers’ organizations…

AdilJussawalla was a somewhat reluctant PEN member but one who was present during some of PEN-India’s most important moments: ‘I was never really involved with PEN, except in the ways that I do get involved, by thrusting some advice on Nissim, unwanted advice perhaps, or suggesting some things. But I felt that Nissim was open to suggestions.

‘I must have been visiting Nissim there, in his PEN office, even before the 70s. Quite frankly I must say that I went to the PEN office because of Nissim, to be able to have a conversation with him for a brief while.’

Jussawalla also feels that the history of Indian PEN shows often an organisation reluctant to take a stance on certain key political issues, particularly within India itself:

‘I don’t think there were no statements at all in the history of the PEN All-India Center.  But the people in charge really felt that it’s not their business to talk about these issues.”

Describing himself as a left liberal, Jussawalla describes his own meanderings through the political world of Bombay during the 1970s and 1980s and the ways in which this sometimes brought him into disagreements with key members of All-India PEN.

Speaking of Ezekiel’s support of India’s ban on Rushdie’s novel, Jussawalla points out the extent to which this undermined both his and the organisation’s previous stance on free expression: ‘But I think what distressed and disturbed Nissim’s friends and others is that they felt that at least he should have come out and said that this is his personal opinion and does not reflect the views of PEN.

‘Otherwise, he should have stepped down from PEN. And he didn’t. But you see, such is the climate here, Laetitia, that his sacrifice if he had stepped down from PEN would have meant nothing. Because whoever would have taken his place would have believed in the same thing.’

However, he remains ambivalent about freedom of expression, as a deeply complex idea:

‘I might even say that I sympathize with Nissim’s position or with the dilemma he was in. I would be in a similar dilemma. I do not believe in an absolute right to free speech which would never be relativized. This is a human thing.

‘There are certain unwritten codes of behaviour in a society. See, I would not like to say that I am the kind of person who will tell a woman what to wear or not to wear. But I would say that there are certain occasions in this country that you do not dress as freely as you would like to.’

Interview with Adil Bombay February 2018





‘From a very young age in fact I used to collect books that were banned’: An interview with Salil Tripathi

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.

Read more…

“We are talking of more than writers’ rights; we are talking of letting people live” An interview with Githa Hariharan

Laetitia Zecchini interviews Githa Hariharan.

Githa Hariharan-photo-by-Joseph-Mehling

Githa Hariharan. Photo: Joseph Mehling

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[1] 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[1] 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’. 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” 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,, 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 Namethat it triggered …

GH: Yes, last evening there was a public meeting in Delhi and many other Indian cities. 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.

[1]Words of Justice Kaul in his landmark ruling over the ‘M.F. Husain affair’ in 2008.

Margie Orford Interview: Part Two

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.