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India: Three hundred Ramayanas - Delhi University and the purging of Ramanujan

by Mukul Kesavan, 27 October 2011

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The Telegraph, 27 October 2011

When I studied history as an undergraduate in Delhi University in the mid-1970s, A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, hadn’t been written and therefore couldn’t be read. The current vice-chancellor of Delhi University, on whose watch this essay has been purged from the university’s syllabus, was a student of mathematics in the same college at the time, a contemporary of men like the writer and member of parliament, Shashi Tharoor, the writer and publisher, Rukun Advani, and the broadcaster and civil servant, Ramu Damodaran.

I mention these seemingly irrelevant details because I’ve been trying to work out why the vice-chancellor and the academic council of Delhi University chose to delete Ramanujan’s essay from the BA history course. The essay is a marvellous account of the hundreds of ways in which the Ramayana has been told, complete with examples of this narrative diversity. I can’t imagine that the vice-chancellor, a member of that urbane cohort, the Class of ’75, wanted the essay removed because he agreed with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad goons who first agitated on the issue three years ago. They did this by trashing the department of history and physically assaulting the head of the department. This happened during the tenure of the previous vice-chancellor, but no holder of this office could possibly wish to further the work of thugs who seek to violently limit the intellectual freedom of a university. So that couldn’t be the reason.

Nor could it be expert opinion. The expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the matter had four members, three of whom endorsed Ramanujan’s essay without reservation. The fourth, while praising the essay’s scholarship, came to the conclusion that it would be difficult for college lecturers to teach with sufficient context, especially those who weren’t Hindu.

Now, one of the assumptions behind the idea of a university education is that people learn about things they didn’t know before. Then, if they so choose, they become teachers themselves and pass that knowledge on to others. If our fitness to teach a subject was predicated on the cultural context into which we were born, we wouldn’t have universities as we know them today. I teach history at Jamia Millia Islamia. For years, I taught a course called ‘The History of Islam in India’. My department had many distinguished historians who happened to be Muslim, but not one of them was crass enough to suggest that my being non-Muslim rendered me unfit to teach that course.

This is, in essence, the objection of the solitary dissenting expert to Ramanujan’s essay being a part of the BA syllabus: it can’t be properly taught by college teachers who aren’t Hindu. I can’t bring myself to believe that university teachers (and the vice-chancellor and the members of the academic council are, first and last, academics) voted to banish “Three Hundred Ramayanas” on grounds that would effectively destroy the rationale and foundation of university education. There’s a reason why this is described as “higher” education: it is, quite literally, meant to elevate your mind, to free it of ascriptive prejudice and ignorance. So this can’t be the reason either.

Besides, why would they attend to the views of one expert and ignore three others? This leaves just the one reasonable possibility: the vice-chancellor and the academic council read Ramanujan’s essay and individually came to the conclusion that it couldn’t be taught to undergraduates. Why would they conclude that? We can rule out one possibility: the essay wasn’t struck off the syllabus because it was academically unsound. Ramanujan was the greatest scholar/translator India has produced in half-a-century, besides being one of our best poets. His translations of Tamil poetry from the Sangam period set new critical standards in the field of literary translation. So it wasn’t as if the academic council peer reviewed Ramanujan and found him wanting.

In case anyone has missed the point, the essay in question is not a pamphlet written by a provocateur: it is a scholarly essay published by a university press and aimed principally at an academic readership. Which makes it even harder to understand why the highest academic body of India’s most important liberal arts university, the University of Delhi, would choose to override expert opinion and remove it from an undergraduate syllabus. Especially when doing so would suggest, whether the academic council intended this or not, that the university had caved in to violent intimidation.

To return to our original question: if the vote to remove the essay was based upon the council members’ reading of the essay, and if their objections weren’t academic, what did they find in the essay that was unsuitable?

We know what the people who moved the court against Ramanujan’s article found objectionable. In April 2009, the court of the sub-divisional magistrate of Dera Bassi received a complaint which said, “The complainant was aggrieved and his conscience is hurt after going through the malicious, fictitious, mutilated comments added by altering the original contents of the religious book. It contains abusive and libelous language used for Divine Hindu deities. It contains false stories quoted under one pretext or oral and other (sic) without any authenticity. That it is a matter of concern that popular beliefs and prevailing traditions of Hindu Culture are projected in distorted manner. An attempt is made to create differences in communities.”

Almost every sentence of this complaint is objectively, as old-school lefties used to say, untrue. Ramanujan, far from being malicious about the texts he discusses, obviously loves them. His language is neither abusive nor libellous. He does not distort, by scholarly consensus, the texts that he translates and the charge that in writing this essay he is trying to create communal differences is, in fact, the only part of this story that is truly libellous.

The reason Hindutva militants attacked this essay is not difficult to understand. Hindutva seeks to re-make the diversity of Hindu narratives and practices into a uniform faith based on standardized texts. When Ramanujan tells, in scrupulous translation, Valmiki’s version of Ahalya’s unfaithfulness, where Indra is emasculated by the sage Gautama for cuckolding him, the Hindutva right is embarrassed and appalled because it likes its epics sanitized.

If the members of the academic council and the vice-chancellor are appalled by the Ahalya story, they should know that their objection is to Valmiki’s Ramayana, not Ramanujan’s essay. They should also reflect on the implications of a decision that suggests that the academic guardians of the University of Delhi believe that their Honours students shouldn’t be introduced to an unexpurgated version of Valmiki’s Ramayana, that even references to the original of this epic text, should be bowdlerized or purged on the surreal ground that they distort the “…traditions of Hindu Culture…”

But they can’t, of course, be objecting to Valmiki or Kamban or any of the Ramayana narratives that Ramanujan refers to in his remarkable essay. They are academics, after all, aware of the significance of primary texts. Nor can the vice-chancellor be trying to turn the clock back to his time in college when the essay was blissfully unwritten: nostalgia has its uses but no one, surely, would want to airbrush Ramanujan and his oeuvre out of the world of scholarship.

A part of Ramanujan’s oeuvre is a sharp poem called “Some Indian Uses of History on a Rainy Day”. The poem tells the story of an Indian professor of Sanskrit making his way around Berlin in 1935, unable to make sense of the city or its German signs till familiar symbols, a “gothic lotus on an iron gate” and “the swastika on the neighbour’s arm” give him a fleeting, spurious sense of home. A university’s academic guardians must know that there have been attempts in other times and places to fabricate an authorized past, to speak for an authentically Indo-European people, to concoct an ‘Aryan’ canon. Ramanujan’s essay is an intellectual antidote to projects such as these, it is a text that revels in the incredible diversity of our epic narratives.

I can only imagine that the vice-chancellor and the academic council made an honest mistake, that, prompted by a misplaced sense of prudence or superabundant caution, they offered “Three Hundred Ramayanas” at the altar of a lumpen god, hoping to appease it. It won’t, of course: this god is insatiable. Instead of pandering to unreason, the university should be true to itself, stand its ground and reinstate Ramanujan.


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