Editor's letter: Festival celebrates literature, but also freedom itself

We are extremely lucky to have free expression in Britain

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The Independent Online

Morning all. Perhaps if you’re one of our readers in the South-west, or even if you’re not, we’ll meet in Bath over the coming days. The Independent Bath Literary Festival gets in full swing today, and lasts until 9 March. The line-up of novelists, children’s authors, comedians and journalists is better than ever, and there are still tickets left for some events. 

Literary festivals are nearly as old as literature, of course; and each one is given its unique flavour by the city playing host. Bath needs no introduction, and has managed over the years to make this festival both beautiful and boisterous.

In my limited experience, literary festivals don’t usually set out to be explicitly political events, but they are of their very nature a political gesture. And to the extent that The Independent is honoured to play the role of sponsor, we’re proud that Bath is championing a political agenda which has always been close to our heart, and one which – like this newspaper – goes beyond right and left: namely, the right to free expression. Around the world, this right is under attack, and needs defending.

Just a fortnight ago, a major Indian publisher withdrew copies of a book by the American academic Wendy Doniger, in response to pressure from a Hindu nationalist group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti – ironically, the “Movement to Save Education”. This, as Sunny Hundal wrote in our Big Read on Thursday, is part of a growing climate of fear among India’s intellectual elites in the face of extremists.

Just over the border in Pakistan, a British citizen named Muhammad Asghar languishes in a Rawalpindi prison, sentenced to death for that most vacuous of crimes, blasphemy. As we have been reporting, Mr Asghar is 70, suffering from schizophrenic episodes, and has been found guilty because he depicted the Prophet in a private note to another man with whom he was in a dispute. His case is a reminder, if one were needed, of the high price paid in many parts of the world by those who say what officialdom and theocrats would rather not be said.

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that these two stories are linked; nor that they have something to do with what’s happening in Bath this week. We are extremely lucky to have free expression in Britain, and ought not to take it for granted. The Independent has always had something approaching a militant view on defending this right, and to attacking censorship and the debased view of humanity it implies.

The celebration of ideas in Bath this week is in its own humble way a rebuke to those who would silence the likes of Mr Asghar or Ms Doniger. It will also be huge fun. I hope to see you there. Have a great weekend.