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The closing of our minds

by Apoorvanand, 15 October 2011

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Indian Express, 13 October 2011

The Delhi University academic council’s decision to drop A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, from the prescribed readings for BA (honours) history and BA (programme) students, brings back memories of Bombay University’s move to remove Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey from the syllabus. The victimisation of art-historian Shivaji Pannikkar by Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University is another long and painful story. The many, many cases of books and plays being proscribed by various governments form the general climate in which our universities operate.

It is yet another instance of retreat by the intellectual community before the forces that do not believe in the fundamental principle behind the idea of a university. “Controvert and not conform” is what universities tell their members. Think of the Nobel-winning discovery of non-replicable quasicrystals by Daniel Shechtman, which challenged established notions about matter. Shechtman was even asked to leave his research group for suggesting the existence of quasicrystals, but persevered, and this award is rightly seen as a celebration of fundamental research. Has not all knowledge progressed only because of this unique human habit, of doubting everything ? Is this not what we, as teachers, do in our classrooms, encourage our students to think and imagine autonomously? We try to instill in them the courage of intellect. And we gain this courage by the strength of independent research.

The withdrawal of the Ramanujan essay is a rejection of the spirit of research, which is the driving force behind knowledge creation. It was his rigorous research that led him to the conclusion that the cultural area where the Ramayanas are endemic has a pool of signifiers, (like a gene-pool) that include “plots, characters, names, geographies, incidents and relationships.” This essay is, in a way, about the universality of the Ram-Katha in an area that far exceeds the political boundaries of India. It is about diversity, as well as continuity. And on the basis of this, Ramanujan enunciates a principle which helps us understand the working of creative processes. He says that the various texts of the Ramayana relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author dips into it and brings out a unique crystallisation, a new text with a unique texture and fresh context. He concludes that no text is original, yet no telling is mere retelling — and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in a text. You do not read anything for the first time. It is already there. Ramanujan does not seek to question the originality of a creation, he merely lights up the web of a universe that is its breeding ground.

It would have been useful if the academic council, composed of scholars from across disciplines, had asked their colleagues from the history department about the logic behind including this text by a poet, translator and folklorist. How do the principles of creation, telling and retelling impact historiography? These would have been academic enquiries. Sadly, as we are told, this was not done. A debate that lasted more than two hours did not ask questions about the tools that such texts fashion, which can help interdisciplinary pedagogy . It was also not realised that replacing the Ramanujan essay with two essays by Ram Sharan Sharma and Romila Thapar militates against the interdisciplinary principle that university authorities have been asking the departments to adopt.

Authorities tell us that this reading was part of a study-scheme that expired in 2009, and the question of dropping it was only a technicality, since the university was to report to the Supreme Court its approach towards this particular text. In 2008, the history department was attacked by some people, who claimed that this essay was sacrilegious. The matter went up to the Supreme Court and it felt that it was for the university to decide what was good for its students. It asked the University of Delhi to seek expert judgment on the suitability of this essay for undergraduate students of history. The essay was referred to four experts, three of whom said that its academic merit was unexceptionable. One expert differed. What would have been the normal course of action? To go by the opinion of the majority, one would assume. The council, however, thought otherwise.

One shudders to think that there were only nine voices to defend Ramanujan, and the history department’s decision to include this essay in their readings. The majority kept mum, claiming that this was a fight between two ideological groups that they did not want to be part of, and so they ended up silently voting out the essay. It is an ominous sign for the future of academic autonomy in Indian universities. It is also a signal for us teachers — play it safe, because you will not be defended by your own peers.

Our students have been reading and enjoying this essay since 2008, even after the violence around it. That we have not been equal to their intellectual maturity is what saddens me, as well as that we thought it better to buy peace from a bunch of people who have been rebuffed by less autonomous institutions like NCERT (which stood its ground against their threat). I feel diminished as a teacher and complicit in this act of academic compromise.

The writer is teaches Hindi at Delhi University

P.S.

The above article from Indian Express is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use