#100PENMembers No. 98: Salil Tripathi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#100PENMembers No. 43: Rosamund Lehmann

Rosamund Lehmann, novelist, journalist and English PEN President was a keen supporter of writers in prison and of refugee writers during her years of activism.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

She joined PEN in 1942, in order to become involved with the Refugee Fund set up by English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould. As well as donating generously to the fund she also sponsored individual writers to help find asylum in England and ran events to help refugees to socialise with each other and with the wider literary community.

A regular attendee of PEN Committees, in November 1954 she went on a tour of Switzerland for English PEN and the British Council, doing readings from her books and lecturing on ‘The Theme of Innocence in English Fiction.’

Finally, and under some duress, in 1962, she became President of the English Centre, which she led until 1966. She describes telling her brother, the writer and editor, John Lehmann, also an active PEN member, about her new position and he ‘rocked and swayed with laughter like a poplar in a roaring gale, and tried to make my flesh creep by grisly descriptions of what the job would entail – but I believe I can do it, and feel it will be very good for me, and therefore I HOPE for PEN.’

The issue was not that Lehmann was in some way incapable but that John Lehmann was only too aware of the shark-infested waters which his sister entered as President of English PEN at a moment when the organisation was reshaping itself for the aggressive Cold War climate of the 1960s. At this time, infighting within PEN was rife and times were changing from the more genteel politics of the 1950s to a more hands-on approach to East-West relations, to issues of racial persecution and colonialism, and to state terror. 

During a speech to the English Centre about her experiences at the International Congress at Bled in Yugoslavia in 1965 Lehmann said: ‘It was memorable first for the election of Arthur Miller as the International President; and the rapid realisation on the part of all of us there that here was the only man to swing PEN into a New Age era of activity and influence.’…‘Dr Victor von Vriesland [the previous President] was, to my mind, in his inimitable way, an ideal President. Arthur Miller will not imitate him – or anybody else; and he will be, I believe, another kind of ideal President. We are very lucky.’

What Lehmann alludes to – very diplomatically – is the fact that Miller would and did take a much more definitive stance on many aspects of PEN’s work and, in particular, on its work with the Soviet Union and Communist countries. This was a far cry from the more conciliatory stance of Presidents such as Von Vriesland.

Lehmann’s chief occupation and interest during her tenure as President and as a PEN member of many year’s standing, was the plight of writers in prison. Alongside Storm Jameson, Arthur Miller and Victor von Vriesland, she was a founding member of the Writers in Prison Committee, formed in 1960, following a resolution at the PEN Congress in Rio de Janiero of that year.

While previously the International Secretary would oversee pleas and campaigns involving imprisoned writers across the world, the role had become increasingly unmanageable in the postwar era as the organisation grew to take in more countries and more members.

The Writers in Prison Committee would take responsibility for overseeing campaigns to free writers in prison around the world, writing to governments, liaising with local PEN Centres and even personally visiting countries as Miller and Harold Pinter did in the 1980s.

They would report on their activities to PEN Congress meetings, with lists of their charges arranged by country over pages and pages at the back of each Congress agenda from 1960 onward.

They were, by their own admission ‘rarely out of business’ in a postwar world in which governments, both left and right, sought to silence and persecute writers who sought to question their ideas or their methods. The Committee rarely spoke of its work beyond this forum and rarely claimed victory, aside from raising awareness when writers were suffering, as they operated, and continue to operate, largely in secret. They have worked to help writers from Wole Soyinka to Liu Xiaobo, Elif Shafak to Ken Saro Wiwa.

Lehmann’s work – both on this Committee – and before its founding helped to establish PEN’s commitment to writers in prison.

#100PENMembers No. 33: Arthur Koestler

PEN’s campaign to get Arthur Koestler freed from prison in 1937 was its first real writers in prison success story.  

Rene Saint Paul/RDA/Everett Collection

Koestler, who was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous ex-Communist anti-Communists, was a member of the Communist Party from 1931. He went to Spain in 1936, and 1937 on the direct instructions of Willi Münzenberg, head of Soviet covert operations in Europe, to report on Franco’s activities. He revealed that Franco was receiving direct assistance from both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Koestler was arrested and thrown in prison in Seville from February to May, 1937, under sentence of death.

Lobbied by a group including Koestler’s wife, PEN joined both the British government, a number of establishment figures such as Lady Astor and the Archbishop of Westminster, and other organisations, in campaigning for Koestler’s release. Disingenuously claiming he was a ‘liberal’ journalist whose free speech rights should be respected, they wrote high-profile letters to the press, and also directly to Franco himself, stipulating their apolitical stance as an organisation, and mentioning the ‘immemorial rights of press correspondents’. Koestler’s release was widely publicised in the British press, under headings such as ‘Imprisonment of Journalist: P.E.N. Cable to Franco’, and the organisation thereby received a welcome burst of publicity. 

Koestler was incredibly grateful. After his release he arrived in London and immediately wrote to PEN. Their actions on his behalf, and in defence of free expression of ‘opinion’, were what he called the ‘life-blood of democracy and humanity’. 

Koestler did not forget his debt to PEN. He became a lifelong member of the organisation from 1937, and also established a PEN ‘Koestler Fund’, which was used to support exiled writers. 

He was, however, to be one of the organisation’s most controversial and critical figures. A year after his imprisonment, Koestler left the Communist Party, and became one of its most high-profile critics, particularly of their suppression of free speech and literary expression. 

While he continued to acknowledge his debts to PEN, writing, for instance, in 1941, to E.M. Forster about his ‘repeated thanks to Mr Ould […] for all of his kind actions in the past, in connection with my unpleasant adventures in various countries of the Continent’, he was also critical of what he saw as PEN’s lacklustre approach to the suppression of free speech in Communist countries, particularly among those with PEN Centres. He wrote to International Secretary Hermon Ould in 1950, for instance, stating that the reason for his estrangement from PEN ‘is to be found in this kind of neutrality towards the most grotesque and dreadful persecution of art, science and literature, from geneticists and musicians to circus clowns [in Communist countries]’.

In 1958, Koestler’s forthright anti-Communist stance caused a highly publicised rift in PEN. He pulled out of a planned address to the Japanese PEN Club stating publicly that this was because of their refusal to condemn the treatment of Boris Pasternak by the Soviet authorities. 

Pasternak had been awarded that year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, partly because of his novel, Doctor Zhivago, which had been banned by the Russian Authorities but smuggled out of the country and published to wide acclaim elsewhere. Pasternak had been forced to refuse to accept the award, causing widespread condemnation among PEN members and letters and petitions of support. 

Alongside this support, however, the organisation often stopped short of criticising Soviet policy and alienating its Eastern bloc members in an attempt to be politically neutral. The Japanese PEN, in this instance, released a statement stating that they had no definite opinion on the Pasternak case, having not read Doctor Zhivago as it had not yet been published in Japan,  but that they thought the incident ‘regrettable’.

The enraged Koestler protested that Japanese PEN seemed more willing to condemn the Swedish Academy for awarding Pasternak the prize than the Russian authorities for censoring him. 

He spelled out the situation in very direct terms: ‘when one of the prominent members of their “international fraternity” had been deprived of the right of freedom of expression, and hounded and besmirched in a manner rarely paralleled in history, his colleagues in Japan had issued a statement which, when read carefully, put more blame on the defenders of the victim than on his persecutors.’

Japanese PEN rejected Koestler’s charges as ‘ill-considered.’ As the case exploded across the world media with camera crews encamped outside Japanese PEN’s headquarters, the PEN International office in London, then staffed by International Secretary David Carver and his team, were forced to intervene. The incident became the subject of numerous meetings of the PEN Executive, almost overshadowing the high-profile Pasternak case itself. 

The divisions exposed, once again, the faultlines in PEN during the Cold War. 

Five years before his death in 1978, Koestler was invited to become a Vice President of English PEN. He remains one of the organisation’s most famous but perhaps most controversial members.