ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND A WRITER’S PREDICAMENT

ASHOK KUMAR SARKAR MEMORIAL LECTURE

KEYNOTE ADDRESS, KOLKATA BOOK FAIR, JANUARY 29, 2015

following an introduction by the British Deputy High Commissioner to India

(Corrected text)
© Zia Haider Rahman

 

Since Great Britain is the focal theme country of the Book Fair, and since the British Council have some association with the proceedings, it should come as no surprise that I’ve been invited to deliver this lecture.

A writer with manifestly British roots, I was an obvious choice. As you can tell at first sight, I’m an Englishman, or a Welshman, or an Irishman, or maybe a Scot. I’m quite clearly the face of Britain, of modern Britain. Or at least the face of Britain that the British establishment would like to project here at the Kolkata Book Fair.

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But there are other faces of modern Britain. For example, there is one Nigel Farage, the latest and most handsome face of a very British bigotry. Mr Farage heads the UK Independence party, which can now proudly show off, like new parents, its two MPs in that rickety cradle of democracy by the Thames, a cradle some would say of hypocrisy.

There’s no reason you should know this but his is the party of exclusionary politics. He would exclude the likes of you from his Britain and, given half the chance, I reckon, the likes of me.

According to his lot, it’s apparently high time Britain had a sensible conversation about immigration, as if the British people have idiotically hitherto had no capacity for sensible conversation. This new Right along with some of the post-Tony Blair disfigured left, such as David Goodhart, Editor-at-Large of Prospect Magazine, are conveners of that sensible conversation.

My first thought was that I might discuss this Britain. But whatever I would say about that place could only make the atmosphere here awkward.

We might talk about a not so great Britain that persists in its denial of the evils of its colonialist past. Knowledge, runs the book fair’s motto, is great. Britain. But what do you call a text written by the colonialists? Propaganda?

What might Caroline Elikins say? Elkins is the Harvard history professor whose efforts brought to light the cover-up of atrocities perpetrated by the British in Kenya, atrocities that were finally acknowledged by William Hague on the floor of the Commons. The acknowledgement came only after much prevarication and after masses of documents went mysteriously astray.

The Mau Mau rebellion is a synonym in the UK for the wanton violence of those darkies in the colonies and postcolonies. Yet the destruction wrought by the Mau Mau, we now know, pales against the ruthless efficiencies of the British.

All the same, the British did leave behind excellent railways and Brutus is an honorable man.

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But wait. Today is Bangladesh Day, when the book fair honors the literary endeavors of the other half of Bengal, your young neighbor and the land of my birth. This fact too must have figured in the book fair’s thinking when the invitation came my way.

Perhaps I could talk then about events in Bangladesh. Shall we discuss the utter shambles that is Bangladeshi politics? Enough said.

Perhaps I’m free to speak about a recent decision of the Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal, a decision to hold a journalist in contempt of court for asking questions—and let’s be precise—questions concerning the numbers of dead in 71 which the court insisted it could assume as given, and required others outside the courtroom (!) to do the same.

This is the court that held an award-winning journalist in contempt for citing published research! One would imagine such a court attracting ridicule now were it not for the fear that pervades Bangladeshi society.

I gave a talk at Dhaka University last month, the day after the court’s decision. The next day’s newspaper report made no mention of the talk’s most important element, my criticism of the tribunal’s decision, presumably for fear of repercussions; the news media there are nowhere nearly as free as the media here.

We might talk about a New York Times editorial condemning the court’s decision; we might talk about PEN international’s publication of a statement by journalists and writers from across South Asia deprecating the specific contempt laws; and we might discuss the court’s risible response to such criticism.

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But why stop at Bangladesh? Why not widen things a little and talk about the venality of the political classes and the establishment here? India should be included in our conversation for I am all about inclusiveness.

We could talk about how power, real, gun-toting, democratically-elected, finger-wagging power launders even the nastiest ideas; how all it takes are a few hugs with world leaders, cups of tea, and first name terms, my dear Barack.

We could talk about the corruption that has long beset West Bengal, and there’s the Saradha Group scandal. Surely the question is whether the federal investigators will throw the net over many more corrupt politicians and public servants—there are always more.

Indeed, whenever I speak at an august setting, such as this one, I cast my eye over the front row—there is always a front row—and I ask myself “How many of them have sold off the family silver, sold off the birthright of a people in exchange for a Mercedes, a holiday, or a light snack? How many have slipped a brown envelope or two to a politician in order to smooth their way in business?”

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Now, what about the banning of books? We must mention that. Or the craven withdrawals of publishing houses from publishing them? We’re at a book fair, after all. Perhaps we ought to observe a minute’s silence for all those books that didn’t survive the onslaught of lawyers and threats.

We needn’t mention THE SATANIC VERSES because there are plenty of others. There’s Wendy Doniger’s, THE HINDUS, a victim of a criminal statute. Ladies and Gentleman, THE POLYESTER PRINCE—that’s the original polyester prince—is unable to join us today because of Ambani lawyers.

And a work of fiction loosely based on the life of Sonia Gandhi has, after long wranglings, only this month made it bookstore shelves. If an avowedly fictional work—an avowedly not true work—was so objectionable, one can only imagine how a biography would be received.

Don’t forget Rohinton Mistry’s novel SUCH A LONG JOURNEY, a great work of literature, celebrated the world over, which was removed from Mumbai University’s undergraduate English program, following protests by Shiv Sena’s student wing.

Having let students determine the syllabus, Mumbai University is apparently now thinking of letting students grade their own exams, hire and fire professors, and peer-review all faculty research.

In modern India, money and political power decide what’s fit to print. A writer is free to express only that which doesn’t upset the establishment. India bans books when others burn them; it’s cheaper to ban them and better for the environment.

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Why do you forget America, I hear you ask. So let me add a few more words, even if there are likely few Americans here in whose face I may wave this freedom of expression of mine. PEN American Center has published reports concerning the US government’s mass surveillance of internet messages, and the effects of such surveillance on what a writer writes and says. The latest report was published this month.

The results were clear, the chilling effect of surveillance undeniable. The prospect of being caught in a national security nightmare has meant that writers in the US and around the world have limited what they write and say in communications and what they research.

Let me tell you: It feels good to exercise this freedom of expression of mine.

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But all this is politics and some might say that politics is best avoided, particularly by a newbie like me, perhaps a little upstart, a little uppity. After all, when you’re invited to give a lecture, isn’t there an assumption that you won’t embarrass the hosts? There is an expectation—don’t you know?—that your talk will stay within certain bounds, the bounds of propriety. Talk, by all means, but stay within the bounds.

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Which brings me right away to my aims here in this lecture, to the matter I was billed to discuss, as if anyone thought that I hadn’t been discussing it all along.

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We face threats to freedom of expression if we are unable or unwilling to rise to the challenge of freedom of expression, when that freedom is exercised. We are all of us—especially those who gather at a book fair—quick to announce to the world that we’re champions of freedom of expression. But when we regard someone’s expression as offensive, why do we seek to silence them? Why is it not enough simply to condemn what they say as offensive and leave untouched their right to say it?

How many of you thought it inappropriate of me to make such comments as I did, attacking the establishment or the government or judiciary in Britain, Bangladesh, India and the US, poking them in the eye—how many of you objected to my sarcasm in present august company? You might have disagreed with me but let me ask you this: did you take it a step further and think that perhaps it was a little unseemly? Did any of you think that I should have stopped?

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The simple fact is that there is only one test of whether you believe in freedom of expression and it is a simple one: Do you believe in freedom of expression for those you detest and for those whose views or whose expression you detest.

If not, then you do not believe in freedom of expression at all. If you do not uphold the right of such expression, then you believe in the right only to agree with you. That is not freedom but the beginnings of fundamentalism.

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On January 7, two masked men entered the Paris offices of a French satirical magazine. The newspapers and media have told us what happened next.

To political pundits and newspaper columnists who make their living venting shrill opinions, some perceptive but mostly stupid, this was another occasion on which to reprise their platitudes and rehearse their homilies. I do not think I can add anything to that cacophony. Can I?

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I have a cherished friend, an author with Pakistani roots through his parents, as well as a cultivated British tap root, a former principal private secretary in HM Service, no less, a man whose few words have day by day raised the heavy machinery of modern government. I asked my friend what after Paris was there left to say about freedom of expression that hasn’t been said already and a thousand times? I asked him, moreover: who was there left to say it to? He is a francophone by learning, my friend; he and his French-Lebanese wife have raised their children solely in the French language in their home in London. Words define my friend’s being; he reads more voraciously than anyone I know. His answer was that perhaps the silent vigil is the only appropriate response. The idealist in me hears this as political defeatism. The poet hears it as tragedy; what does the world look like when words comprehensively fail or a writer cannot write?

So what is a writer to do?

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Silence, perhaps inevitably, returns you to the words of others, to words that have drawn me and—I must believe—drawn other writers over the years. It is in the words of William Faulkner that I find my peace, words which also frame the remaining matter I want to address, which is the predicament of a certain kind of writer in a climate of fear.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, William Faulkner said this:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

As always, I find myself stumbling over one line.

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever…

It is that subordinate phrase—and teaching himself that, forget it forever—that has me baulking. The sentiment is the right one, of course, the words a rallying cry for writers. But that line comes close to striking a false note.

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Our bodies cannot forget their fears. Biology simply won’t let us. But this is just as well for there can be no courage without fear. Courage comes when we are honest. We need not concern ourselves with proving to others that we’re honest; our mission is to be honest with ourselves for in that quiet honesty art is born, made aware, shaped. Courage is earned. Our fears are there for reasons and in those fears lie materials to be used by a certain kind of writer.

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Writers are as varied as non-writers. They are called to different vocations, some, for instance, to entertain, some to send us news, and others to make us laugh. That is fine; that is wonderful. But there is a certain kind of writer who hears a different call, a writer regrettably rarer and rarer in the West, where the political threats to the art of the written word, though present and effective, draw less attention than commercial threats.

Yet such writers are known in countries where those who wield power still imprison authors or censor the press or ban books. Such writers heed the call to critique society and take it to task for its injustices. Such a writer is not concerned with making friends, not concerned with winning over the establishment, but bears only the thought of being honest and true to herself and to go wherever her true heart leads her. She will need courage and I pray she receives it. She may not seek them but she will need friends. And when she exercises that freedom of expression that is hers, and the rabble or the rich or the powerful seek to silence her, who among us will stand with her and say “Stop. Let her speak.”?

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