by Mukul Kesavan
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.
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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.
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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…”
[. . .]
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.
From: The Telegraph – 27 October 2011