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University Culture and The Three Hundred Ramayanas controversy

by Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, 14 January 2012

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Biblio: A Review of Books, November - December 2011

On vice chancellors and scholars

Questions of Rule, Authority and Freedom

by Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar

Delhi University has a Vice Chancellor who does not believe in the rights, abilities and the moral authority of teachers and scholars to do their job as they see fit. What has made this crystal clear to the world – and we do mean the world literally – is his most recent decision. With the support of a largely quiescent Academic Council (though elected teachers’ representatives did object strongly) he chose to drop an essay by AK Ramanujan, one of the most respected scholars of Indian cultural traditions, from an undergraduate course. The essay was selected for the concurrent course syllabus by postgraduate teachers of History in the University. They thought it was especially suitable for students of this course who, otherwise, do not study History. The essay, "Three Hundred Ramayanas : Five Examples and Three thoughts on Translation", takes up a universally known Hindu epic, surveys its immensely varied representations over time in India and abroad. It is written in a mode that is at once scholarly and imaginative, admirably accessible and captivating for students at this level.

This expectedly provoked, in 2008, some Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) clamour against a department that is known for its liberal and secular values. When the controversy first flared up, the department was chaired by a Muslim faculty member who received thousands of abusive text messages. Students and teachers of the Department, on the other hand, protested against the ABVP in peaceful and democratic ways, but in huge numbers and with a most impressive demonstration of student-teacher solidarity. The ABVP took matters to the High Court which dismissed their case. It then appealed to the Supreme Court which asked the University to report on its decision. The Vice Chancellor could have decided to end the matter there, following the High Court example, but he chose to attend to the ABVP respectfully. The essay was sent for review to a committee of experts. One would have thought that the Department of History constituted a committee of experts in itself but that was not so according to the Vice Chancellor. The committee sent an overwhelming endorsement for retaining the essay on the syllabus. Of the three appointed members of the committee, two sent resounding yeas while the third vacillated and raised mild objections without, however, suggesting an outright rejection. Again, without any consultation with the History Department – the only relevant authority on the matter within the university – the Vice Chancellor decided to ignore the second rung of expert opinion. In a recent Academic Committee meeting which did not include subject experts, the essay was dropped unceremoniously from the syllabus by the VC-in –Academic Council. It seems that the Vice Chancellor – a non historian himself – has unilaterally decided to replace it with two other essays on ancient India, again without referring them to the History faculty. We all know that interdisciplinarity is the buzz word these days. Does that mean non disciplinarity altogether, the entitlement of a mathematician like the Vice Chancellor to waive the opinion of historians on history ?

The implications of his decision are momentous for all universities of the country. It is a part of an ongoing process of broad and violent changes in university culture and values which, together with the immediate issue, belong to a larger and urgent narrative about freedom of thinking.

It would be presumptuous for us to write a testimonial to the abilities and competences of AK Ramanujan. Scholars more closely connected to his field all over the world are doing so with deepest outrage and indignation. Nor do we want to argue too strenuously about the cultural diversity and openness of Indian traditions that the essay reveals. In a country as vast as ours, a plurality of interpretations of major texts as they circulate and travel across times and spaces, is only to be expected. Internal diversities characterise other cultures and faiths as well. Nor do we subscribe to a certain order of secular argument which insists that authentic Hindu traditions were infinitely open, liberal and accommodative, as the stories in the essay may indicate. Imaginings of alternative marital arrangements of Ram and Sita, as depicted in Jain and Buddhist versions of the epic and as reproduced in the essay, or playful stories about the sexual peccadilloes of Hindu divinities in mythology do not necessarily indicate any element of libertarianism in actual lives of Hindus in the ancient past. One only has to think of untouchability and sexual double standards that sacred scriptures made mandatory at the same time. Moreover, lives of gods and sacred heroes were not meant to be exemplars for humans; it was rather the obverse. What gods could enjoy was sternly withheld from mortals. In that gap between what is permissible in divines and in humans lay the roots of divine power.

What we want to touch on here are two different points. One is about the implications of the Vice Chancellor’s decision for universities in general. Second, the argument that the ABVP used which the Vice Chancellor took seriously: that the article would send wrong signals about Hindu traditions to young students.

The Vice Chancellor has forced through a number of drastic overhauls in the university functioning and modes of teaching and examining in recent months. All this was done in the name of updating teaching processes so that we conform to global, i.e. western standards. For a man who is sensitive to western receptions and responses to the university, he now faces universal ridicule from a global community of scholars, largely western. Neeladri Bhattacharya and Tanika Sarkar have recently collected about 3,000 signatures on a protest letter, which includes the names of almost everyone who is anyone in South Asian Studies the world over. Professors from the University of Columbia and teachers and students of the Universities of London and Oxford have started campaigns on their own which, too, have been joined by a vast number of scholars from western universities. So, a man, concerned above all, to project a with-it image to the West, has made himself unacceptable in precisely that part of the world. He has acquired international infamy.

In the same measure, the Department of History, a disobedient department that defied his arbitrary decisions regarding the new modes of teaching, has earned international acclaim for its condemnation of the fiat of the authorities, for its defence of academic freedom.

Let us consider the people whose voices did not count in the process of deleting the essay from the syllabus. First and foremost, a scholar whose work has so far been non controversial and admired and is taught in a very large number of universities and departments the world over. That goes also for the essay in question which, too, is on the syllabi of several departments in India and abroad. Second, the unanimous opinion of teachers of History in a premier university in our country, a community of scholars whose works are well known internationally. Third, a body of experts chosen by the Academic Council itself. Fourth, opinions of thousands of students and teachers in the university who have protested against the deletion. Finally, the unequivocal rage that is expressed in a flood of protest letters issued by academics and scholars all over the world. In other words, the Vice Chancellor denies the rights and entitlements of scholarship, of intellectual and pedagogical expertise.

Who does the Vice Chancellor listen to? He has waived scholarship and learning to accede to the threats held out by a notorious band of Right wing students whose counterparts in other places have forced bans,
closures and destruction of books, works of art and places of learning and worship. Not a single word of reprimand has come from him about this unwarranted interference and attack on departmental autonomy and decision making rights. Why would, one wonders, the head of an institution tolerate vandalism and arguments by force? While he is free to believe in any kind of politics as a person, does he have, in his professional capacity, the power to override expert opinion and stifle knowledge of the most profound and fine variety without a shred of justification or argument?

The violation of academic norms and freedom is all the more dangerous as it is a part of a chain of other such arbitrary impositions on the decisions of teachers and students—such as the semester system. Many departments and a large body of teachers argued that for a university dealing with a huge body of students from diverse backgrounds, this would impose a grueling and impossible schedule of work on teachers, students and the examination branch. This would stifle independent readings and browsing in the library, the stimulation of critical thinking, based on a free flow of intellectual discussions and debates
on the campus.

There was no debate on such momentous changes where the teachers could join in on equal terms. The university possessed a democratic tradition of general body meetings of undergraduate and postgraduate teachers to decide on syllabus changes in earlier times. Now, syllabi in several cases have been formed without the consent of undergraduate teachers who are supposed to teach them. In short, these teachers were regarded – in a university which has the finest record of undergraduate teaching in many subjects in the country – as rogue elements who must be coerced. At no point did the Vice Chancellor want to know why they objected and all dissident resolutions sent to him were consigned to the waste paper basket. A new order came to pass: a purely administrative will would dictate academic matters. Freedom of teaching and of teachers lay in tatters.

The identical logic dictates the decision to eliminate the History Department’s unanimous selection of a renowned essay and its near unanimous endorsement by a committee of experts that the Academic Council had itself appointed. What we need to ponder on from this entire experience of the new order is the relative place of the status of experts and of administrators: who should decide how to teach – teachers or the VC who does not teach? Why should the opinion of some departments prevail over that of others? Why should undergraduate teachers’ understanding of the needs of undergraduate teaching be crushed under the weight of postgraduate teachers’ decision when it is a question of undergraduate teaching? And, more recently, should historians decide which would be a relevant text to teach ancient History from or a Vice Chancellor and his Council members who clearly had not heard of one of the most celebrated names of Indian scholarship ?

The questions are integrally interlinked and the fate of academic freedom in this university and in many others depends on the outcome.

Oxford University Press, Delhi, obliged the Vice Chancellor and Hindu Right activists by stopping their own publication of Ramanujan’s collected essays since they worried that this would hurt Hindu sentiments, as claimed by the ABVP (though news is just coming in that OUP has ceded to publish Ramanujan’s essays in the face of international academic pressure). This brings us to the now famous question of Hindu Hurt, an “argument” that has led to bans and ransackings of books and paintings that were invaluable, led to the death in exile of our best known artist, the annihilation of a mosque and to numerous pogroms in our times. What is it that the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University and a famous transnational publishing house have chosen to honour? And what will be the consequences of their personal inclinations that flout all publishing and university norms?

True though it is, we will not elaborate on the argument that Ramanujan did not insult Hindu culture; he sought to establish its infinite cultural plurality. Because the question, really, is wider. Can we introduce knowledge in a university – an association, by definition, of mature, adult intellectual minds, young and old – which can embarrass or hurt some or even many? In this particular case, the answer is only too easy. That certain Jain or Buddhist versions of the epic portray an incestuous marriage between Ram and Sita or the licentiousness of the king of the heavens in some Hindu myths in incontrovertible. In fact, the ABVP should forthwith demand a ban and a burning of all Hindu sacred scripture as they contain matter that will definitely offend taboos and domestic arrangements of our day. Above all, they should ban pilgrimages to Vrindaban, the site of divine adultery. Nor can the presumed tender age of students reading this essay constitute a plausible consideration. These same students make or break governments, train themselves to be budding politicians. If they are medical students, they learn about sexual organs in great detail, if they are students of psychology, matters of libido would be their everyday concern.

Nor can the sentiments of an entire community be a consideration as Hindu scripture, composed by venerable sages, contain much stronger matter as well as the material that Ramanujan included in this essay. How can religious sentiment be hurt by its own scripture ? Moreover, if the Vice Chancellor identifies the entire Hindu community with the voice of the ABVP then he has a shockingly , low opinion of Hindus and all Hindus should feel hurt by this.

More seriously, our contention is that knowledge can only be knowledge when it hurts, looks strange, disconfirms and disturbs. We do not come to the university to know what we already know, for what we like to hear, for a feel good feeling. It is precisely a place where our established opinions and certainties are called into question, are debated furiously, are laid open for reappraisal. Otherwise we learn nothing. The basis for this necessary destablisation, this agonising over- throw of easy certainties is an intense and purely intellectual and scholarly investigation into the nature of the evidence on the basis of which we form our arguments and we debate, the procedures of scholarly enquiry that we learn to apply. This may sound like an elitist pride that ignores popular sentiments. But let us not infer what popular sentiment is because a political group claims to represent it. Moreover, much deeply entrenched intellectual opinion – especially in the various sciences – has been overturned in the face of new evidence or new procedure. So, established scholarship is routinely overturned as well. Intellectual leaps and advances, paradigm shifts, proceed through arguments with the greats. Let us think back on the Enlightenment, in Europe and elsewhere, to the young Hegelians’ criticism of religion which led on to young Marx’s criticism of the earth, our 19th century defiance of prescribed authorities by Rammohun Roy and Jyotirao Phule among others.

This is the only way of trying to acquire a critical apparatus for future educators and thinkers whom universities train to teach in school, college and postgraduate levels, to be scientists, administrators, philosophers and social theorists and to be thinking, independent citizens. The fear of offending someone will always be there. Dalits are justifiably hurt by the Rg Vedas or the epics and the Puranas as they endorse caste and untouchability. The way we teach the history of the colonial period is meant to offend pro-imperial sentiments in Britain. Such examples are legion and tedious. The point is whether we should make texts disappear from syllabi or whether we open up as much as we can and teach students to study them as responsible and interested future scholars who learn to interpret, endorse, agree or disagree through informed reading? What would show a greater respect for students?


The above article from Biblio is reproduced here on in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use only.