As PEN Centres we wish to highlight the case of renowned Indian poet, Varavara Rao, to all those who care about the defense of freedom of expression for writers. We call for all charges to be dropped against Rao, and hope that you will join our campaign to ensure his freedom.
Varavara Rao is an 82-year-old poet and activist who was arrested in 2018 along with several other activists in India on charges of inciting violence under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The charges relate to Elgaar Parishad, a non-profit event held on 31 December 2017 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima. The controversial Bhima Koregaon case, and the arrests and incarcerations associated with it, shocked us and many other human rights organisations around the world.
Since his 2018 arrest, Rao has been held in appalling conditions. The notorious Taloja Central Prison where he has been held took no account of his age and fragility. In July 2020, he tested positive for Covid-19 and was moved to JJ Hospital in Mumbai. Here, his visiting relatives reportedly found him unattended and delirious on a urine-soaked bed.
On 22 February 2021, Rao was released from custody on an interim bail agreement, after the Bombay High Court conceded that ‘…the hospital at the Taloja Central Prison is not adequately equipped to take care of the undertrial, given his advanced age and various health conditions. Sending the undertrial back to Taloja Central Prison would certainly endanger his life.’
Our relief when this decision was reached by the Bombay High Court is now tempered with grave fears that he will be returned to jail when this six-month bail period ends. We also remain deeply concerned over the bail conditions imposed on Rao, which include prohibiting him from speaking with media and restricting his movements to the Mumbai area, hundreds of kilometres from his hometown of Telangana.
Sharing her fears for Rao’s future, Scottish PEN Trustee and Writers at Risk Committee member Bashabi Fraser said:
‘We do not want Varavara Rao to be returned to jail to meet the same fate as the humanitarian social worker, 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, an innocent man who was incarcerated as a political prisoner and died in jail in early July 2021. Father Swamy had been held without trial charged on the same Elgaar Parishad case as the much respected 82-year-old poet activist, Varavara Rao. Varavara Rao has been wrongly accused. We demand that all fabricated charges are dropped against Rao and he is allowed to live as a free man with dignity’.
A Marxist poet and activist, Rao is an important figure in Telugu literature, and has published over 15 poetry collections since the 1960s. He is a founder of the Virasam – the Revolutionary Writers Association, and ran Srujana (Creation), a monthly journal focusing on modern Telugu literature, for over 25 years. His prison diary – Captive Imagination – was published in English in 2010. Rao is well known for his campaigning work to secure land and labour rights for Indian workers, and PEN Centres have been advocating for his freedom since his arrest in 2018. A poetry anthology dedicated to Rao, entitled Freedom Raga, was published last year and an anthology of his work in English is forthcoming from Penguin India this autumn.
June Considine, co-founder of the Freedom to Write Campaign (Ireland) and Board member of Irish PEN, made the following call to Indian authorities:
‘Now in his eighty-second year, Rao’s reputation as a poet has garnered him an international audience. He is widely respected for his principles and defense of human rights. We hope that the Indian authorities will afford him those same democratic liberties and take account of his distinguished career, his great age and declining health. This humanitarian gesture will reflect the true value of a functioning democracy’
We, the undersigned PEN Centres, call for the immediate release of Varavara Rao and fellow Elgaar Parishad activists and for the release of all prisoners being held for exercising their right to peaceful freedom of expression.
- Scottish PEN
- Irish PEN
- PEN International
- English PEN
- PEN Delhi
To support our call to action please consider the following:
- Write to representatives of the government of India in your country expressing your concern.
- Write to the Honorable Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
- Write to your country’s Foreign Ministry about the case.
- Inform local and online news and media outlets about the case.
- Read Varavara Rao’s work and share it with your friends. Consider holding an event in support of Varavara Rao around the time of his bail hearing.
- Join your local PEN Centre, inform yourself about this and other cases, get involved.
The aims of Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann are: to promote literature in and about Ireland both nationally and internationally; to defend worldwide the right of writers to responsible freedom of expression as defined in the PEN Charter; and to foster international understanding through the appreciation of literature.
In 2019, the Freedom to Write Campaign was asked to take over running Irish PEN by the outgoing committee. We agreed to set up a steering committee to set up a new organization, Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann, with new structures but still adhering to the principles of PEN International and the PEN Charter, on which the Freedom to Write Campaign was based.
Over the intervening months we have set up a Company Limited by Guarantee, a prerequisite for applying for Charitable Status. We have continued to be active in support of writers who are at risk or in prison because of their writing and we have fostered links with other writers’ associations in Ireland such as the Irish Writers’ Union, Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge and the Letters With Wings project. We are also in close and continuing contact with our colleagues in PEN Centres in England, Scotland and Wales. A Newsletter will go out to current Members in November with more details.
(The new Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann was launched at an online Zoom event to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer: Sunday, 15th November at 7:00 pm)
As we announced in our last newsletter to members, we have had a dedicated but diminishing committee running Irish PEN for some time. As Chair I’ve been in situ on committee for much longer than is healthy in any organisation and have been looking at ways to move Irish PEN forwards.
As a committee, we agreed that the events aspect of Irish PEN’s activities, which has been so valuable in the past, has been superseded by the vast numbers of festivals and other author events now running. Our feeling was, that in the current political climate, Irish PEN needed to become involved much more with PEN International’s activities, focusing on free speech and using our status as a PEN centre in a neutral country to PEN’s advantage.
We were not alone in this, and Freedom to Write, a subgroup of dedicated writers (whom you will all be familiar with) from the Word group at the Irish Writers Centre, also felt the need for action and began to do exactly this.
Many of the Freedom to Write group are PEN members. And Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Catherine Dunne are past Award winners. So they all understand Irish PEN. We are delighted to announce that Freedom to Write have agreed to merge with Irish PEN to produce a new organisation with a new constitution in line with our shared goals.
Freedom to Write group have agreed to act as a steering committee while guiding the transition to a completely new Irish PEN. The new Irish PEN will be launched in November. An AGM will follow in the New Year when a new committee will be formed, as elected by Irish PEN members. In the meantime, the Freedom to Write Campaign will continue its support of the PEN charter through various actions, carried out in the name of Irish PEN/The Freedom to Write Campaign. Those who have paid their membership for 2020 will automatically move across to the re-energised organisation, although those on subscriptions may have to set up new ones to the new organisation in 2021.
We want to build PEN into a real voice for writers and will be asking you to sign up to a new mailing list (GDPR compliant) in order to keep you informed of actions and events.
On a personal note, I will be retiring as chair, and news of your new committee will be communicated in the autumn. Until then, Freedom to Write will become custodians of our vital tradition, ensuring the new organisation is built on firm ground.
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin
Freedom to Write and Irish PEN by Lia Mills
Who we are: The Freedom to Write Campaign (Ireland) is an informal, independent group of writers that has emerged from WORD, a professional writers’ network associated with the Irish Writers Centre.
We work to promote Freedom of Expression by raising public awareness about writers who are at risk, or in prison, or who have been murdered because of their writing. During the last two years, our members have worked with, among others, Irish PEN, PEN International, the Irish Writers Centre, Poetry Ireland, Fighting Words and Front Line Defenders, on events and campaigns to promote the work of writers who are at risk or in prison.
We have taken part in various festivals, such as Listowel Writers’ Week, the Red Line Festival and the Belfast Book Festival. Some of us have contributed to the recent anthology of essays Yes, We Still Drink Coffee!, by and about women Human Rights Defenders at risk (published by Front line Defenders and Fighting Words).
- June Considine
- Catherine Dunne
- Kate Ennals
- Sophia Hillan
- Liz McManus
- Maria McManus
- Lia Mills
- Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
When the current committee invited us to consider stepping up to devise and manage a reorganisation and revitalisation of Irish PEN, the idea made a lot of sense to us; the work we already do is based on the PEN charter and we have had consistent support and encouragement from PEN International from the start.
We are looking forward to this challenge and the adventure of changing our existing structure to conform to PEN conventions, while redesigning a constitution for a new and invigorated Irish PEN to move into the decade ahead. We’re excited to meet and work with both existing and new members.
There will be a period of transition this summer while we manage administrative changes, to be followed
by a complete relaunch in November and a subsequent AGM early in 2021 – the centenary year of PEN International.
Irish PEN was delighted to host a reading by Hugo Hamilton last month. The renowned author read from his new book Hand in the Fire. He spoke of the challenges of fictionalising and noted the theme of the outsider and acceptance within a culture recurs in his work. We learned too that the wonderful photo of the little boy concentrating with great determination, finger pointing at the text, on the cover of The Speckled People is none other than himself as a youngster.
Speech by Chairperson Anne Le Marquand Hartigan at AGM Irish PEN 13th May 2010.
Good evening everyone, you are all very welcome. We have had a good year in Pen with many enjoyable and unique evenings with contributions from wonderful writers, but first, I must thank those who helped so much to make this possible. We are very fortunate to receive a small number of grants and are very grateful to the Arts Council who have given us a grant and will continue to do so this year which in the financial circumstance we are all the more grateful, although they have reduced the amount slightly. We thank Dublin City Arts for their continuing support which also means a lot to us. And may I thank the committee of the Arts Club here who allow us the use of this room and the bar, they are always helpful and we appreciate this comfortable and convenient venue. Our highlight of the year was of course the giving of the Irish Pen award for contribution to Irish Literature. This year the winner was the distinguished poet and lecturer Brendan Kennelly, and we presented this to him at our annual dinner. This was a sparkling evening. Brendan’s former TCD colleague Senator David Norris made the presentation for us with his usual brilliance, Brendan then most movingly showed his deep appreciation in receiving the award then gave us a magical recitation of poetry, interspersed with his great Kerry wit. All this happened despite the snow and cold in the hospitable Royal St George Yacht Club, and we thank them again for this wonderful facility. All of these things combined to make this a more than delightful evening. This leads me to mention that for the last two years we have not had a sponsor for our award, and we need one, Cross Pen generously supported this award for some years, this generosity we warmly appreciated. Now, however, we are looking for and needing a new sponsor, as our funds are small and limited, we would appeal to any member who might know a possible sponsor to let us know as we will be making an extra effort this year to find a new one. During the year we have had many distinguished and delightful writers reading from their work and discussing it, also panel discussions, and workshops dealing with all the various forms of writing from fiction,non fiction, humour, how to get published all beginning last May with Gerry Stembridge and Chris Binchy, in November we had a workshop on writing a successful novel with Patricia O’Reilly, also that month we had the pleasure and fun of having a conversation with Frank McGuinness who delighted us with his candour, his answers to questions were like his name frank and full of his unique creative energy. We also hosted Patricia Scanlon and Aidan Story, had a night for the Associate Members. We came towards the close of this year with the Great Debate, on the Arts and the Economy, the panellist included, Declan Kiberd, Arthur Lappin, Aidan Burke, Claire Doody, and Gerry Godley. It was a lively night with heated contributions from the floor. This just a taste of the many events that took place during the last year. Thank you so much to all these generous contributors. I would also add that we are in need of members subscriptions, we realise that hard times are upon us, but we do need your support to keep all these good functions going, thank you so much. Now I want to thank this wonderful committee, it is they who with great generosity do all the work, Dee Cunningham who acts as secretary taking all the minutes, Joe Armstrong who took great trouble setting up our web-site, Fr Tony Gaughan who is a long time member over the years and always helping on the committee, Catherine Daly who was such a dedicated Chairperson for the last few years. Caroline Brady thank you for all you have done, Fedelma Kelly who puts in such hard work and was such a help and support to me at the annual dinner, Mary Rose Callaghan who was there to help too, finally Marita Conlon-Mc Kenna, our present treasurer, who to our great regret is going off the committee this year. Marita is so knowable about PEN, has been Chairperson four times, and always full of energy and ideas. She sadly is retiring this year and personally I do not know what we will do without her, thank you Marita and all of the committee, you are all wonderful, generous and fun to be with. Thank you
The Big Debate
The Arts and the Economy
When? Thursday 15th April 2010 at 8pm.
Where? United Arts Club, 3 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2.
Irish PEN, in association with Dublin City Arts 0ffice, is delighted to announce its forthcoming debate on the Arts and the Economy.
Aidan Burke, Operations Director with the Arts Council.
Claire Doody, Project Manager for the Cultural Odyssey Project, set up by Dermot Desmond following the Irish Economic Forum in Farmleigh.
Gerry Godley, Director of the Improvised Jazz Company, broadcaster and spokesperson for the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA)
Declan Kiberd, literary critic and Chair of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin.
Arthur Lappin, Film and Television Producer, In America, My Left Foot, The Field and Some Mother’s Son
The debate will explore the role, and vital contribution, of the Irish arts for the national economy, adds to the current public deliberations on the value of the arts to Ireland’s economic and social recovery.
Ticket prices are €3 Irish PEN members, €5 non-members.
All are welcome. Early booking advisable as places are limited.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 087 966 0770.