By Prakash A.Raj:
The annual congress of International PEN, a worldwide organization of writers was held in India for the first time in its century-old-history. It was held in the city of Pune, formerly known as Poona in the state of Maharastra. The motto of congress was “Freedom, Truth and Diversity”.
The main theme of PEN is freedom of expression and literature. It has chapters in more than 100 countries of the world. Several countries have more than one branch (called chapter). The multilingual country of Switzerland has four such chapters for German, French, Italian and Reto-Romansh speakers. India having a second largest population in the world and being the biggest democracy only had one chapter called “All India PEN” till few years back when Delhi PEN was formed. It was decided to form a third chapter called “PEN South India” in 2017 after the meeting of Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, one of the four main committees of PEN in Bangalore. International PEN decided to let PEN South India organize PEN Congress in 2018. It decided to let a Gandhian activist named Ganesh Devy who had conducted a linguistic survey of India organize PEN Congress in Pune as it coincided with 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. It was in the city of Pune that Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned by the British. Gandhi’s wife Kasturba and his biographer Mahadev Desai were both imprisoned in Agha Khan Palace where both of them died in captivity.
As this scribe had participated in PEN Congresses in ten countries: Norway, Slovenia, Germany, Colombia, Serbia, Korea, Canada, Kyrgistan and Ukraine in four continents the Congress organized in Pune was found to be somewhat different. India was censured in the previous Congress held in Ukraine in 2017. During this process a resolution is presented to the Assembly where it is voted by the delegates present there. The Indian writer Gauri Lankesh was murdered in the city of Bangalore and the resolution was critical of Modi’s government in India. I questioned that India being a federal country, law and order is the responsibility of state government of Karnataka. This state was governed by Indian National Congress. The resolution criticizing state and central governments in India was approved unanimously.
When I arrived in Pune to participate in Congress on September 25th, I was surprised to find a letter in my room from PEN International as advised by PEN South India to refrain from criticizing the Government of India publically or their current Indian and international political issues during PEN Congress. India is the largest democratic country in the world where freedom of speech is enjoyed by its people. Besides, the motto of PEN Congress was Freedom and Truth. Gandhi’s autobiography “My experiments with truth” and Kasturba’s biography were both distributed to all the delegates of the Congress. One of the most important principles believed by PEN is freedom of expression. PEN Nepal has organized two seminars in Kathmandu about “Freedom of artistic expression “ and “Freedom of Digital Expression” that were supported by UNESCO/Nepal.
There were no resolutions on India that were discussed in PEN Congress assembly. However, a report was presented to the delegates on the last day. It was entitled “India:Pursuing truith in the face of intolerance”. Executive Director of PEN International wrote in the Report “Spaces for free expression are shrinking:dissenting voices- be they journalists, academics, writers or students – face intimidation,harassement, online abuse,, violence”. Salil Tripathi, chair, Writers in Prison Committee wrote in the report “ The state has done little to rein in its own supporters from using the technology platforms to spread lies and hatred. As diligent journalists in India have shown , many state supporters have persistently attacked women journalists, journalists with whose vviews they disagree and others on the opposite side of the political debate”. Tripathi is from the state of Gujrat in India and is now living in England.
The Report contains three articles by a female Indian journalist Raksha Kumar, and one article each by journalist Gautam Bhatia and Apoorvanand. All of these issues could have been discussed in the assembly of International PEN.. This is in spite of Gandhi’s message of fearlessness. The city of Pune having a mayor belonging to BJP, the state of Maharastra having a BJP chief Minister and India having Narendra Modi as Prime Minister should have made no difference in a federal country . There were no government ministers present to inaugurate or give keynote speech. One of the PEN congresses I attended was held in Bogota, Colombia when an insurgency of FARC was affecting the country. India in 2018 is a federal democratic country enjoying freedom of expression.
Ganesh N.Devy , President of PEN South India has written and published a booklet entltled “ “The birth of Daksinayan” which was distributed in the last day of PEN Congress. He has written that 39 writers from 14 states of India returned their awards received from the Sahitya Akademi to express their concern over the atmosphere and intimidation prevailing in the country”. He adds that Dakshinayan is an anti-fascistic movement primarily focused on the question of freedom of speech, thought and expression. He quotes Tagore when he wrote “where the mind is without fear” and Gandhi’s message of fearlessness constitute Dakshinayan’s core values.
Dr Ganesh Devy organized a successful PEN Congress in Pune in which writers from all over the world and many parts of India assembled to participate in its many activities. He didn’t ask Pen International for any grants to organize the Congress.It was organized by using funds generated by registration fees from participants. On the other hand, the warning given by PEN South India and International PEN not to be critical of the Indian government is not indicative of “fearlessness” as described by Rabindranath Tagore or Mahatma Gandhi.