Pursuing Truth in Pune

By | October 18, 2018 at 10:31 am | No comments | Blog, News | Tags: , ,

The 84th PEN International Congress

While praising India’s secular constitution, Amartya Sen once observed that “while we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either.” Sen warned that although Indian secularism has “strong influences of Indian intellectual history, including the championing of intellectual pluralism” it also faces serious threats. The Hindutva movement, for example, insists on a “narrowly Hindu view of Indian civilization” and invokes the Vedas to define the country’s “real heritage” and the Ramayana to justify demolishing a mosque.

PEN’s latest findings suggest that the fault-lines of Indian history remain as dangerous as ever. Released on the final day of PEN’s 84th annual congress in Pune – in order to minimize possible violence against local activists –  India: Pursuing truth in the face of intolerance  describes “a rising tide of violence, impunity, extended pre-trial detentions, and surveillance” under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi;  “punitive defamation laws [that] mute criticism”; nervous publishers who “have asked journalists to be less critical of authorities”, and universities where a “climate of fear” has curbed student activism, rescinded invitations to controversial professors, and suppressed textbooks that are deemed offensive.

In a preface to the report, PEN International’s Executive Director, Carles Torner concludes that: “Spaces for free expression are shrinking, dissenting voices – be they journalists, academics, writers or students – face intimidation, harassment, online abuse, violence. Some of our friends have paid the ultimate price for expressing their views.”

Where better, then, to assemble writers from 87 countries and consider their experiences of censorship? The geographical breadth of country-specific resolutions (Australia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Guatemala, Hungary, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Turkey, Venezuela and Vietnam) showcased PEN’s global reach while its thematic resolutions on apostasy and criminal defamation were reminders of how hard it remains to consolidate progress on several of PEN’s core issues.

Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, offered Rabindranath Tagore as a corrective to the current climate. “Tagore yearned for a dawn where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls – [but] rising majoritarian nationalism does just that and takes India further away from what it was meant to be.” This comment touched on one of the most ambitious goals in PEN International’s Charter: resisting such Balkanisation with words. The Charter urges PEN members to foster “good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people… to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.”

An ecumenical spirit was evident throughout the Congress. PEN International President Jennifer Clement and Executive Director Carles Torner joined local celebrations of Ganesh at the Balgandharva Rangmandir Art Gallery. There were tributes to Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba in several languages. Delegates visited the Aga Khan’s palace for prayer and flower laying and planted trees at Savitribai Phule Pune University. There were talks by former political prisoners like the Burmese writer and editor Ma Thida, and the Turkish novelist Burhan Sönmez, and the election of three new new vice-presidents chosen for their literary merit. The first of these, Kenyan novelist, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, was scheduled to lecture on “Decolonizing the Mind” but could not get a visa in time. The other writers honoured were Perumal Murugan, whose controversial novel provoked such a furore that he publicly declared his creative self “dead”, and the nonagenarian Nayantara Sahgal – a scion of the Nehru–Gandhi family – whose courageous decision to return a prestigious award in order to call attention to government inaction on a “vicious assault” on  India’s “culture of diversity and debate” sparked a national protest movement. Oleg Sentsov’s documentary film The Trial was shown on the second day of the conference as PEN continued to call for his release as his hunger strike continues after more than 140 days.

The Congress also welcomed five new PEN centres into its ranks (Iraq, Perth, Moscow, Cape Verde and Guineau-Bisseau) and closed with a call for India to do more to protect the freedom of expression and bring its legislation in line with international law. Director of the Congress, Ganesh Devy, also announced plans to translate 100 Indian books into the languages of the world and vice versa.

Photo credit:  Indian activists take part in a protest rally against the killing of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh at the India Gate memorial in New Delhi on September 6, 2017. Indian activists, politicians and journalists demanded a full investigation on September 6 into the murder of Gauri Lankesh, a newspaper editor and outspoken critic of the ruling Hindu nationalist party whose death has sent shockwaves across the country. SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

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