January & February 2014 Letter from PEN International President John Ralston Saul
10 Mar 2014
Dear PEN members, Dear friends,
As many of you know, Haroon Siddiqui (former International Board member) and I were in India for three weeks in January, for the launch of the new Delhi PEN Centre and to visit the older All-India PEN Centre in Mumbai. I will come back to the situation in India, but first let me add that Hori Takeaki has just been in Addis Ababa to spend time with Ethiopian PEN; and then in Athens to work on the creation of a new Greek PEN Centre. Three officers from our International office – Sarah Clarke, James Tennant and Paul Finegan, have just been at UNESCO headquarters to set up our new collaborative program working with PEN Centres in Kenya, Serbia, Haiti and Nigeria to strengthen the minority language creative publishing industries in these countries.
And our Out in the Cold campaign in Russia, calling for the withdrawal of three new laws limiting free expression, has drawn a lot of support. The re-criminalization of libel. A religious insult law. A law which could be summarized as anti-gay because it penalizes any communication of being gay. These are all fundamental steps against free expression in Russia.
But, of course, with the crisis in Ukraine, all eyes turned away from such precise questions. War has always had this mesmerizing property of distracting people for a time from their devotion to the public good.
Faced with the Ukrainian crisis, both Russian PEN and Ukrainian PEN have been steadfast in reminding people of the basics of a fair and open society; and that violence is not a viable way forward for anyone.
Given the crisis, especially in Crimea, it is important to turn our attention to the weakest part of this complex equation – the Crimean Tatars. 21 months ago I was there with Hori Takeaki, Jarkko Tontti, Kaiser Abdurusul and our Ural-Altay Network. I described in an earlier letter these three hundred thousand people who had been ripped out of their homes in forty-eight hours in 1944 and exiled to eastern Russia. In 1989 they found their way back to Crimea and have been rebuilding their language and culture. The measure of all of us in such confrontations as today’s is our capacity to ensure that such peoples are not crushed once again.
In other words the solutions lie in negotiations and discussion; both of which require free expression or they are no more than back-room deals.
Let me go to the situation in India. This is still a vibrant democracy with remarkable creativity. But the most common phrase we I heard from writers and publishers is “self-censorship”. There is a constant uncertainty that, if you were to write or say this or that, the attention of a rich man or a corporation or a religious ideological movement might settle upon you. And then you as a writer or a publisher might be ruined in the courts; what’s more, a dangerous mob might appear outside your office or home.
And the possibility of a national government led by Narendra Modi, with his populist, religious and violent background has added to this air of foreboding. Haroon Siddiqui has described all of this in his report of our visit. We listened and spoke continually in public and private; at the launch of the New Delhi PEN Centre organized by Nilanjana Roy and Rachna Davidar; with the leaders of the All-India PEN Centre in Mumbai – Ranjit Hoskote, Naresh Fernandes and Jerry Pinto; with Bollywood leaders thanks to Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar; at roundtables in Delhi and Bombay; on stage at the Jaipur Festival with Jerry Pinto of All-India PEN and Peter Godwin, President of American PEN.
While we were there Bloomsbury ceded to corporate pressures and withdrew Jitender Bhargava’s book on Air India. A few weeks later ideologues taking advantage of arcane laws and Penguin withdrew Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism. We have all spoken out on these events. But we can also see that they are part of a growing trend of money and populist religiosity using bad laws, weak courts and even weaker governments, to create this atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.
One thing is clear. The publishing and writing community needs to sit down together as a community to organize itself; to stiffen its resolve as a community, to put a strategy in place. These pressures are on the rise. They have to be dealt with in a conscious organized manner or free expression will be undermined as books, writers and corporations are picked off one by one. PEN has an important leadership role to play in such a community-wide approach. The sense of a community working together can change the dynamic. And that has always been the role of PEN – a unifying force for the creating community.
What is already clear is that specific laws need to be reformed and that is going to require a
sustained campaign. We need to focus attention on the damage such laws do to democratic
India’s reputation. Finally, there needs to be a coordinated approach to the failure of police,
courts and governments to do their job or to do it fast and energetically enough to remove the
atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.
Best wishes to you all,
John Ralston Saul