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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

Let a Thousand Ramayanas Bloom

Sunday 27 November 2011, by Bharati Jaganathan

The arbitrary deletion of A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’ from the syllabus of a concurrent course taught by the History Department by the Academic Council of the University of Delhi has understandably sparked off a major debate. The prehistory of this step is to be traced to early 2008 when ABVP activists attacked and vandalised the office of the History Department in the presence of (invited) media- persons. An independent panel of four experts was appointed by the University a little later, in compliance with a Supreme Court directive, after a PIL was filed by the Sangh-backed “Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti”. Three of these unnamed experts declared this essay unexcep-tionable while the fourth one, while acknow-ledging that it was well-researched, seems to have had doubts about the advisability of exposing undergraduates to its contents, adding that college teachers may not be well-equipped to handle it and that non-Hindu teachers may be particularly ill-suited to the purpose! No doubt following some complex mathematical logic whereby one is greater than three, the Vice-Chancellor chose to go along with the recommendations of this last expert and, in the last meeting of the Academic Council, proposed that the said essay should be removed. Ten members of approximately sixty present dissented; in this case, more mundane arithmetic where fifty is greater than ten seems to have prevailed, and the motion was passed.

Two equally disturbing issues have been raised by this episode, one of which, Hindutva fundamentalism, by being both widespread and familiar, has been the focus of attention in the media coverage as well as the online petition for the restoration of the essay. The other, no less important despite being of less immediate import to most people, is perhaps far more insidious in its implications for the future of Delhi University and for the very character of universities per se.

Having taught this essay since its introduction in the syllabus, I can say with some confidence that my students have almost invariably found this the most fascinating text in the entire course. As in most classrooms, the majority of my students come from Hindu backgrounds, though like young people everywhere, some might be deeply involved in the faith of their families, others might be sceptic or indifferent and a handful actively rebellious. Disturbed by the Right-wing attack on the History Depart-ment and also rather taken aback that anyone could have found this essay offensive, I took the question back to my own students—whose political affiliations, if any, are only occasionally known to me. And it is with the confidence gathered from the responses of undergraduates who had studied Ramanujan’s essay that I mean to respond to the Right-wing charges voiced against it on a Facebook group for Delhi University teachers.

The introduction of Ramanujan’s article in the first instance and the recent campaign for its reinstatement are believed to be a conspiracy by ‘secularists’ and ‘Communists’ to denigrate the faith of the Hindus, as there apparently are derogatory references to revered figures of Hindu mythology. While I could find no reference that might be construed as even remotely denigrating Rama or Lakshmana, I suppose the reference to Hanuman as quite a ladies’ man in South-East Asian traditions or the passing mention of the Santal conception of Sita as unfaithful might be misunderstood. But Ramanujan’s language is unambiguous—these are not his own opinions but merely a recording of different traditions. And one only needs to contrast these with his elaboration, in fair detail, of the deep bhakti that informs Kampan’s telling of the tale, or the empathy with which he recounts the delightful folk tales with which he opens and closes his piece. In fact, throughout the text, Ramanujan is essentially reflective, trying to understand connections, analyse the reasons for differences, and sensitise his readers to the contexts. An eighteen-year-old student is certainly capable of appreciating this.

The charge of pornography levelled at Ramanujan’s essay is simply laughable. Failing to find any juicy bits, it must be, I decided, the episode of Indra seducing Ahalya, which had bothered the moralists. But any number of Sanskrit religious texts speak of Indra as Sahasrayoni, the one covered with a 1000 vaginas (as a result of the curse of Gautama, the husband of Ahalya). The quarrel of the purists must, unfortunately, be with their scriptures, not with A.K. Ramanujan. And India should perhaps, for good measure, summarily ban the Mahabharata which is replete with illegitimate sex, sex-change and transvestism.

“Why don’t we teach them the Valmiki Rama-yana?” asks another critic who needs to be reminded that Ramanujan’s essay is neither a religious nor an irreligious tract; it is simply an excellent—and perhaps the finest—way to introduce students to critically analysing texts. On a tangent, it would be interesting to see these proponents of Valmiki and Tulsidas defend, among other things, Rama’s killing the Sudra ascetic Shambuka.

The fact that this essay first appeared in Paula Richman’s edited volume, Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, combined with Richman’s claim to have been influenced by E.V. Ramasami’s telling, seems to appear to some to certify to the seditious agenda of the essay. The simple answer to this is that editors and contributors of an edited volume need not mirror each other’s politics. Secondly, E.V. Ramasami is a revered icon who brought self-respect and dignity into the lives of innumerable Tamils, and it is impossible to see how their sentiments may be disregarded while those of upper-caste northern Indians must be cherished. In fact, as several of my students have pointed out, would not the eclipsing of Jaina or Buddhist tellings of the tale hurt their sentiments? Do they count for less than Hindus? Do South Indians in general matter less than North Indians?

What seems to emerge is that we are not even dealing with majoritarianism, but an assumption that the majority is simply those who are visible and powerful near the echelons of power, that is, the national Capital and the Hindi belt, and the claim by this vocal minority to speak for others who they routinely marginalise or even revile.

COMING to issues specifically relevant to what transpired in DU, one wonders if the specialist who raised objections to the teaching of ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ believes that teachers in universities are appointed on the basis of their religion. Should only Muslims be allowed to teach the Delhi Sultanate or Mughal history? Should we have battles in the classroom between teachers of different religious persuasions when we discuss the confrontations between bhakti saints on the one hand and Jaina and Buddhist monks on the other? If this sounds patently absurd, the other, more general, contention that college teachers may not be capable of handling this essay is no less so. While individuals of varying merit may be found in every profession, including teaching, surely college lecturers are collectively the most highly educated group in the country. If they are not equipped to under-stand and teach this essay, who is?

The most worrying aspect remains, however, the way in which this exercise of deletion was carried out. In the increasingly Kafkaesque world that we are beginning to inhabit in Delhi University, where an omnipotent bureaucracy petitions the law courts to disallow protest when it does not simply behave as though dissenting voices did not exist, bringing up issues of the legitimacy of the Academic Council taking decisions on syllabi in violation of those passed by the relevant departmental council, or the logic of acting on the recommendations of the minority in the panel of experts is probably naive in the extreme. Over the last year, teachers have not only been barred from striking to protest the arbitrary and thoughtless imposition of the semester system, but even from an alternative mode of expressing their anguish by conducting classes in pandals in the open near the VC’s office.

The proposal in the Academic Council to delete the essay is of a piece with the high-handed actions of the university administration in the last couple of years, and shows the complete contempt in which serious academics are held. Nothing could be more ominous for a university than the fact that the least valued members of its community are its teachers. The implications of this particular move go further still. If a text, which had been included in the syllabus according to the due processes of deliberation that go into syllabi formation, and the retention of which the History departmental council had reiterated in 2009, can be removed on the judgement of non-historians, then no syllabus of any subject has any validity what-soever. I would have liked to illustrate my point with similar examples from other disciplines, but I find that I do not know very much of Physics or Commerce or any other subject beyond what we all study up to classes X or XII. Don’t Deans and Vice-Chancellors need the same humility to acknowledge that their areas of competence are equally limited to their specific disciplines?

Can the Academic Council be held blameless in this exercise? While the assenting or abstaining fifty odd members of the Council may have been entirely unaware of the contents of the essay or the reasons behind the proposed motion (we are not aware if any reasons were offered), it is still not easy to defend their collusion in what is patently outside the jurisdiction of the AC. What they have colluded in is in fact the erosion of the sanctity of trained and dedicated experts designing courses that they believe will give students the best grounding in their respective disciplines. What we now face is the danger of disciplines being tampered with by entirely unauthorised persons, and the reduction of institutions of higher learning to elaborate artifice. This is the real Gotterdam-merung, and it seems entirely appropriate to our times that Vice-Chancellors should preside over the collapse of universities.

The author teaches History at Miranda House, University of Delhi, and has taught A.K. Ramanujan’s essay (that is currently at the centre of a raging controversy) for five years.

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